Undead: Goth’s Mystery and History Lives On in Jacksonville

A dark saga developed over hundreds of years, creating an expansive cultural network. We spoke with key figures in the local scene on how the goth subculture lives on in Northeast Florida.

It’s Resurgence Goth Night at 1904. Occult symbols project onto dark walls and absinthe drips from cups. A pulse creeps into a creaking bass and a guitar melody, summoning a sea of black cloth to the dance floor. Bodies in intricate layers of corsets and capes, adorned with silver, sway together to the ominous tones. A heavy echo on every note, a voice enters the mix three minutes in: “White on white translucent black capes / Back on the rack / Bela Lugosi’s dead.”

Citing the late star of the 1931 film Dracula, the song carries the elegant morbidity of the film and countless other pieces of its kind.

Bauhaus’s 1979 single Bela Lugosi’s Dead was one of the first songs to be classified as gothic rock, marking the sonic genesis of an ancient paradigm. Its name and distinction of destruction and decay come from the Gothic tribes that conquered Rome in the 5th century AD. The ornate architecture and allegorical art of the European Dark Ages was called gothic. Romance-era art and literature of the 18th and 19th centuries inspired awe and terror. Gothic film captured shadows and horror in motion. Victorian culture was fixated on death, and the black mourning attire of the time certainly carried forward.

Bands like Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees blended punk nonconformism with gothic themes to create a haunting, elegant sound. The label had been tacked onto an array of vaguely interconnected cultural movements and artifacts, but with gothic rock music, those with a taste for dark romanticism, the macabre and the mystical, for history and ritual, had found a signature sound over which to congregate. Goth clubs began to open up in England and around the world. More gothic rock and genre-adjacent bands started popping up. An international subculture was born.

Nearly half a century later, the community is alive and thriving. Here in Jacksonville there are two active goth nights: Sanctuary and Resurgence. Styles are diverse but generally convey dark nonconformism: opulent Victorian garb, fishnets and leather, traditional emo outfits of the 00s. DJs spin goth and industrial music, from Sisters of Mercy and The Cure to Brand New and Crystal Castles. Absinthe drinks, named after songs, are served at the bars. People of all ages and backgrounds are present. The energy of the club nights is rather cheerful for a crowd of people in mourning dress. Perhaps due to the air of ritual, or the free expression of a club full of misfits, Sanctuary was voted the best place to dance in last year’s Best of Jax poll.

Goths’ refined taste and dark disposition could create an expectation of gloomy arrogance – but the scene is actually remarkably friendly. The goth aesthetic projects the image of an outcast, and the scene cures the alienation. A goth will rarely call themselves a goth (even members of the fundamental goth bands won’t), but they are happy to share elements of the subculture to welcome newcomers.

“It’s this weird area of culture where it’s so niche that you want more people, and you’re happy to see them all coming in,” explained Cliff Hensley, a figure in the local community. “I think the group has to be accepting of people within it because they feel more like they have to look out for each other. You’re just excited to see the numbers grow.”

JoHanna Moresco, who hosts both of the active goth nights in the city, said Jacksonville’s goth scene is particularly sweet: “I’ve been to many goth parties in many places; it is a very, very friendly and welcoming scene. Even for the goth scene, which is typically very friendly and welcoming.”

Baby bats enjoy a serving of dark chocolate, a ritual based in vampirism.

Moresco plays violin for the Jacksonville-based darkwave band Crüxshadows. She has spent much of the last fifteen-plus years on international tours, playing clubs and headlining major goth festivals around the world. She takes her know-how from the global scene and brings it back home to help create a vibrant goth community locally — spaces where people can be themselves and be celebrated for it.

Hailing from rural Kansas, where Westboro Baptist picket signs lined a dry, sepia landscape, she entered the scene in the spirit of dissent. She snuck into punk shows as a teenager, used dialup internet to check gothic.net, and soon started playing bass and touring with Apocalypse Theater,  before moving to Florida to play violin for Crüxshadows. Moresco’s heroes have now become her contemporaries.

The international goth community is expansive yet tight-knit. The movement is made up of a lush network of decades-old local scenes and online platforms, so many friendships aren’t based in age or proximity. The gothic subculture came about at the precipice of the information age, giving it a place to grow and maintain.

“Every country has a goth scene and presence,” Moresco said. “There’s this commonality that transcends time and space.”

It was a club scene initially. Goths identified one another with eyeliner, ankhs, and black clothing. They met at goth clubs and venues. Albums were found in stores, with their unmistakably ominous, glamorous covers. Being a visual movement as well as a sonic one, MTV’s debut in the early 80s was essential in exposing young people across the country to the sound and vision of gothic rock.

Max Michaels is frequently cited as the single most important figure in the local goth community. He’s been in the scene for more than 25 years, hosting several club nights over time and featuring artists in Movement magazine. His involvement in the scene started with MTV  – he would sneak it on low volume late at night, with the aim of finding as much new music as possible.

“One night they played a live version of Depeche Mode’s People Are People video,” Michaels recalls. “I watched in slack-jawed wonder. That sound, the lyrics, the look. Everything about them resonated with me. I leapt up to grab paper and pen to write down their info when it appeared at the end because I knew I’d never remember it or even pronounce it. That week I got my parents to take me to the record store and I bought Some Great Reward with my allowance. From there, it naturally led to discovering all the now classic bands.”

From there, at fifteen years old, he began frequenting Einstein A Go-Go, a venue that operated at the beaches until 1997. There, Michaels found a small group of similar misfits who appreciated the music and style as much as he did.

Max Michaels behind the DJ booth.

Cliff Hensley grew up in Atlanta in the 90s, where he attended The Masquerade. The scene at the time used Bulletin Board Systems to exchange information on club nights and goth raves.

Then came the rise of the internet. “That was my resource in the middle-of-nowhere Kansas,” says Moresco. “In a city with a population just under a thousand, something like going to The Castle was a dream to me.” Websites and forums around the subculture quickly started popping up, with discussion boards on music and fashion, features on the Goth Babe of the Week, and countless photos to inform the image. This way, those who weren’t near a major city trickled into the scene, including JoHanna.

Today, goth communities share updates in local Facebook groups. The forums are still up, though r/goth and #gothic on Instagram and Tik Tok have far more traction than gothic.net. There’s as much information on the movement as one could read in a lifetime. Online stores sell goth-inspired clothing. Millions of images key-worded “goth” populate the web.

With this abundance of resources, many zoomers take on the goth aesthetic before hearing the music, when it used to be the other way around. “They see the fashion and they may or may not know the roots of it,” says Moresco. “Some end up finding a connection to the music through the fashion and the social events, and it’s like they’re reverse engineering things. It’s fun to watch them discover it all.”

Before the turn of the century, the fashion was largely secondhand and DIY. Max Michaels shopped at thrift stores and small local boutiques; JoHanna Moresco took to her clothing with dye and scissors. Now she co-manages Subculture, a store in the Avenues Mall that specializes in gothic and pinup clothing, as well as JoHanna’s own cosmetics line and fashion pieces. She has worked with the boutique since moving to Jacksonville, when it was a storefront selling jewelry in Five Points. Here Moresco sells newcomers the outfits they wear out on club nights, assisting them in discovering their own personal styles; and has become something of a mentor to the baby bats (young goths), sharing music and passing down old goth garments. In these ways she helps keep the dark mystery alive for generations to come.

“There’s more than four decades of music to dive into, and plenty of new music being made. They may or may not become fans of the music, but if they’re drawn to any aspect of the culture, we have something in common. And if there’s some kind of commonality there, why not connect on it and bridge the gaps?”

Some goths wear all white to stand out from the sea of black. Classic dissent.

“I think my look would make sense 20, 30, 40 years ago, too. But I think people see it now and they’re also still drawn to it. Maybe it’s because it does kind of hold from a lot of these classic archetypes that goth in general pulls from that humans can’t help but feel intrigued by and drawn to,” said Moresco.

Perhaps when Bauhaus frontman Peter Murphy chanted “UNDEAD, UNDEAD, UNDEAD” at the sonic climax of Bela Lugosi’s Dead, he manifested immortality for the scene he helped to create — a scene that has passed the test of time, transcended the boundaries of space, and maintained the historical roots from which it came.

Sanctuary takes place the second Sunday of every month at Myth, and Resurgence is on every fourth Saturday at 1904 Music Hall.

Listen to JoHanna’s Music That Made Me playlist here.

About Isa Barrientos