An Ode to Mall Goths: 10 Reasons Why it Was Cool

Many of the readers on the Belfry Network have likely been involved in the goth scene for quite some time. I could be wrong, but I would venture to say that the viewership skews toward veteran goth club goers and long-time enthusiasts. Sometimes its hard to imagine life without being involved somehow with goth culture. Personally I can't imagine myself going anywhere near a wardrobe with anything other than black. But I, like everyone else, had to start somewhere. Some trace their origins in the scene back to childhood, but most probably began at some point in their teenage years. I turned 30 last year, and both the scene and the entire culture in general has changed drastically since I was first exposed to Goth. But for the next few paragraphs, I'm going to journey back through time to that often-ignored, commonly-repressed period of pre-Gothdom (or perhaps I should say that of the fledgling goth) known as the “baby bat” stage. And for those who were first introduced to goth in the US at the dawn of the 21st century, you were likely part of the subgroup known today as the “mall goth.”

If you're still reading this article, I applaud you. Many goths feel a cold shiver down their spine at the mention of the mall goth and instantly feel a strong sense of repulsion. For those outside the US or those who have never heard of the mall goth, this was a common trend among teenagers that lasted from maybe the mid/late 90's through the early to mid 2000's. Where I live, mall goths started disappearing around 2006 (around the time that Hot Topic starting moving away from selling goth/punk clothing and more toward emo and hipster styles). Although occasionally one might spot a mall goth still lurking around, this subgroup has all but disappeared completely.

There are several reasons for this. First, as I mentioned, Hot Topic (the common hangout store for the mall goth) moved away from selling goth clothing in 2006 and eventually stopped selling them completely. Another reason is the disappearance of the American mall. Thanks to the wonders of the internet/social media age (sarcasm), mall shopping is being replaced by online shopping. Arcades (another common hangout spot for mall goths) have disappeared due to the prevalence of online gaming. And CD/record stores have all but disappeared due to digital music. On top of these locale-oriented reasons, the music culture as a whole has shifted over the past 10 years. Alternative, punk, and metal music has greatly declined in popularity in leu of hipster music (that's honestly the best way I can define it) and retreated deeper underground. Marilyn Manson hasn't been relevant since 2003. Evanescence hasn't had a hit in 10 years. Other bands commonly listened to by mall goths (such as HIM, Rob Zombie, and others) have also moved back into relative obscurity in the eyes of the mainstream music listener. Certainly the age of shock rock and rap metal has long since passed (many would add “thankfully” to the end of that sentence).

Just so there's no confusion (and so my fellow long-time Goths will continue reading my blog), I will briefly explain why there is/was so much animosity between regular Goths and this now mostly extinct subgroup. I should also mention that for the sake of this article, I will use “babybat” and “mall goth” interchangeably. While it's true that babybats might not have been mall goths at any point (especially now since the mall goth trend has died), it is also very likely that many of us were mall goths in our early days. The first reason for the animosity can more-or-less be summed up with the word “ageism”. Most mall goths were in their teens, and many goths view young babybats with a condescending eye simply because they are young and haven't been in the scene long. I personally believe this is unfair and ultimately detrimental to the goth scene as a whole. When one sees an obvious babybat step into the club for the first time, be their friend! Like it or not, babybats are the future of the scene and should be welcomed with open arms. A second reason Goths tend to dislike babybats is due to their usual taste in “non goth” music. Rarely would you find a mall goth listening to Bauhaus or the Sisters of Mercy. Again, tolerance and inclusivity is key. “Oh, I see you like Evanescence. That's cool. Have you ever heard Siouxsie and the Banshees? Here's a track from them.” A final reason why Goths tended to dislike the mall goths is because sadly for many mall goths, it was simply a “phase.” Many former mall goths might be hipsters now, or they might have simply moved out of any scene in particular as they got older.

The purpose of this blog is not to mock, make fun of, or bash mall goths. You can find that in countless other blogs and forums (many dating back about 10 years to when mall goths were still prevalent). In fact, I'm going to do quite the opposite. Without hopefully becoming too much of a nostalgia piece, I'm going to travel back to that era of baggy Tripp pants, chains going down to the knees, and a countless plethora of Slipknot and “Normal people scare me” t-shirts. The goal is (hopefully) to make you not cringe or vomit. My hope is that you'll laugh, recall a few long-lost memories, and when you're done reading this article, maybe even have an appreciation for this era that many of us once shared in our youth.

So without further adieu, I give you

The Top 10 Reasons Why It Was Cool to be a Mall Goth...

Reason 10: It was considerably more comfortable than normal Goth wear
(This one is mainly for the guys; I am aware that it often wasn't as quick or simple to get “decked out” for females than it was for male mall goths) When we go to our local Goth clubs, we want to look nice. And for many of us, that requires significant work and preparation. Depending on what your particular preference is, this might entail elegant Victorian-style dress or provocative PVC and black leather. Regardless of which style you like, it often takes much longer than 30 seconds to get dressed up. For some it might even take an hour or longer. And once you are dressed up, it isn't always easy to move around comfortably, walk, or drive (those with platforms will agree that it's a learned skill). For males, the mall goth dress code was much simpler. Usually it consisted of black Tripp pants, a black shirt, and black shoes or boots. Often it also involved a few bracelets and other accessories. All things considered, it was much more convenient to dress in this style when going to malls, restaurants, or other places which required standing and walking. It was also great on those mornings when we were sleeping in and had a very limited time to get ready for school. And not to mention on hot days, Tripp pants provided a nice breeze “down there”...          

Reason 9: The mall was a true gathering place.
Remember when malls were a thing? This might seem like a stupid question to some since obviously malls still exist. But the era of the shopping mall is slowly coming to an end (especially in smaller towns) as more and more stores close down due to online shopping and more and more people are strapped for cash thanks to the recession. This wasn't the case 10 to 15 years ago though. Malls were a great place to truly experience the life of a town and the diversity of the people who inhabited it. And more often than not, you would find a group of mall goths slowly making their way through the crowds, standing in front of Hot Topic, or playing each other in a game of DDR at the arcade (which was quite a skill with Tripp pants). In an increasingly isolationist society drowning in social media with eyeballs glued to smartphones, it was a welcome pastime to actually “hang out” in a physical setting with other people. It's truly sad that people don't seem to interact with each other without texting or “liking” a Facebook post, but in the era of the mall goth, there was true interaction in its purest form.

Reason 8: Hot Topic used to NOT suck
Let's be clear...the Hot Topic of 2000 was not the same as the Hot Topic of 2015. In fact, it was a completely different store. Strangely there are stereotypes that still exist in small towns about Hot Topic being a “freak store.” Perhaps this is a testament to how truly different and alternative the store used to be. Everything was seemingly done to differentiate it from the other interchangeable preppy clothing stores. The walls were a dark red, the lighting was dim, the music was loud and certainly wasn't “radio friendly”, and the people who worked there didn't look like they had just come back from an elementary school bake sale. I distinctly remember the first time I walked in after separating from my parents at the mall (there's no chance in HELL they would have let go in if they had been there with me). As cliched and cheesy as it might sound, to a shy 15-year-old kid raised by a conservative family in a small town, it was like walking into another world. It was a true experience of rebellion, non-conformity, and unfiltered self-expression. Even the SMELL was distinct. (To this day, I still don't know the source of the classic “Hot Topic smell”. Maybe it was incense or perhaps it stemmed from the location the clothing shipped there from. It will forever remain a mystery, but those who remember Hot Topic in the very early 2000's know what I'm talking about). The point is that the current pathetic establishment of Beyonce, Miley Cyrus, and other pop culture vomit bears not even the slightest resemblance to the store I experienced all those years ago. And on a side note to those who believe that all Goth clothing should be specially made or DIY, it's a great idea theoretically (especially since I'm not a proponent of capitalist consumerism) but not a real practical option to a teenager at that time with no sewing ability and limited funds (not to say that Hot Topic was cheap...)

Reason 7: People knew where you stood
We live in an age where the Goth scene has become so splintered, it's not only confusing to veteran Goths but also to observers in the mainstream. Nu-Goth, pastel-Goth, health-Goth, cholo-Goth, and the list goes on. At the turn of the century though, things were much more clear cut. If you observed a group of mall goths and asked a passer-by who those people were, said person would likely answer “That's a group of Goths.” All arguments of whether mall Goths were “true” Goths aside, there was no confusion as to the main subculture that these individuals belonged (or tried to belong) to. When I was in high school, there weren't even any emo kids yet. There were the preps and there were the “freaks.” Honestly these days I'd rather be called a “freak” than an emo, hipster, scene kid, or other confusing label that has sprung up in recent years.

Reason 6: There was a sense of solidarity.
People can argue all they want that Goths are loners and don't have or want any friends. I think this is more of a stereotype than anything else. People like to belong to groups, and it feels good to have a strong sense of in-group solidarity. Mall goths were no exception, and I rarely (if at all) observed a lone mall goth without a group of similarly dressed comrades. It's always good to have friends (and I'm saying this as a loner-type individual on the autism spectrum), and it feels nice to know that someone has got your back and can share your thoughts, feelings, and time. This obviously applies to any group or culture, but it was quite evident with mall goths. Regardless of what people thought about them, they were always together like brothers in arms.

Reason 5: High school SUCKED.
People always like to mock and make fun of mall goths, and even people in my age group often look down on teenagers and the younger generations. But there's one inescapable fact that I have not forgotten and neither should anyone else who makes those comments: high school fucking SUCKS and being a teenager fucking SUCKS. Honestly, I don't know how I even made it through. In a seemingly endless routine of being shuffled around from room to room like a herd of cattle, lectured and forced to memorize rote material that ultimately served no practical purpose in the larger scope of things, and faced with the pressures of out-of-control hormones, relationship woes, and parental conflicts, being a mall Goth was a true escape. Going to the mall with other mall Goths was a way to laugh, goof off, and de-stress from the nightmarish hell of the daily grind that was high school. Looking back on the high school experience, it was pretty much the most pointless four years of my life and really didn't matter in the slightest, but tell that to a high schooler with parents and teachers breathing down their necks expecting perfection. To say that high school was stressful is a gross understatement.

Reason 4: Many fashion similarities to regular Goth culture.
Laugh at the silly “sarcastic” slogan shirts all you want, but there are some fashion staples that very much carry over to the regular Goth scene. Say, black lipstick for instance? Black fingernail polish? These items are as native to Goth culture as cowboy hats are to country music fans. It would be foolish to deny that mall Goth attire is similar if not identical in many areas to today's Goth club patrons. In fact, I'm wearing a necklace right now that I bought during that era, and I wouldn't doubt that many readers still own at least a few accessories that carried over from those days.

Reason 3: It was a time of self-discovery.
I'm sure everyone has their own babybat stories, but everyone who has made that transition from mainstream to alternative clothing can recall the reactions from their peers. I've said for years that you truly find out who your friends are when you go Goth. I also remember discovering more about who I was as a person and getting in touch with emotions I had long repressed because that was the cultural norm. Add this to the natural teenage tendency for self-discovery and identity exploration, and there's no doubt that being a teenage Goth was both enlightening and, at times, a bit frightening. Although it was sad to see many of my peers end up abandoning the style and “going mainstream” for whatever reason, it is also very encouraging to see a babybat decide to stick with the culture and become a fully-fledged Goth.

Reason 2: It was a statement.
This is probably the most obvious reason on the list. Even in the early 2000's when it was at its peak, being a mall goth was still NOT a popular thing to do. Especially in small conservative towns, parents would shield their children, police would follow you, and Jehovah's Witnesses would make you priority number one. This is still true for many Goths, and for those that have been in the scene for a long time, this is merely a minor nuisance. In spite of all the taunts, stares, and attempted exorcisms, it's undeniable that being a mall Goth was provocative to people in the same way that being a regular Goth today still provokes people. People are afraid of what they don't understand, but sometimes making people uncomfortable is the best way to make them start asking questions and challenging the norms in their own lives. Even though many Goths don't consider mall Goths to be true Goths, to the casual observer during this time, they were. And they were just as effective at intriguing people as regular Goths still are today.

Reason 1: It was a gateway to becoming a regular Goth.
I mentioned at the beginning of this blog that many babybats did not experience the mall Goth era. Perhaps some first experienced the scene before the mid 90's and the ascension of Marilyn Manson, and maybe others began to explore Goth in more recent years. Still others might have once been a mall Goth but moved on to other trends (such as emo or hipster) after its decline. However, there are many of us (myself included) who were mall Goths but used that stage as a platform for evolving into the lifelong Goths that we are today. We might look back on that stage with embarrassment or disdain, but I honestly don't think that should be the case. We should embrace that era as simply a starting point in the journey that every Goth takes as they mature and discover more and more of the music, fashion, and staples of the current scene. Bands like Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie and others were my first exposure to “dark” music, and that path eventually led me to discovering Bauhaus, The Sisters of Mercy, and countless other Goth bands that I still adore and frequently add to my DJ setlists. Movies such as Tim Burton films and The Crow (which I discovered during my mall Goth days) are still enjoyed by regular Goths today. And, as I mentioned earlier, there are quite a few fashion staples enjoyed by mall Goths that have carried over to the wardrobe of a normal Goth. We may live in an age of trends that come and go and constantly changing fashion staples, but it's important to always remember where we came from and the origins of our Goth experience. For many of us, being a mall Goth was our first exposure to the scene as a whole. Therefore we should view this time not with embarrassment or disdain, but with appreciation...appreciation for what it would lead to and for the good times experienced during this gone-but-never-forgotten era.

Just for are some of the mall Goth shirt slogans that I still remember:

You laugh because I'm different. I laugh because you're all the same
I scare my own parents
Normal people scare me
I bet you were an ugly baby
Chicks dig scrawny pale guys
I'm out of my mind, but feel free to leave a message
5 out of 4 people have a problem with fractions
I have kidnapped myself. Give me 1,000,000 dollars or you'll never see me again
I didn't lose my mind. I sold it on ebay
Don't blame me. Blame video games


-DJ Gomez  has been into Goth culture for 13 years. he started The Catacombs in 2007 and have hosted the show on various radio stations and internet platforms. He DJ's for on The Belfry Network and for Angst Radio out of Brazil. He's also the co-host of Cemetery Confessions.