Tampa, for all of its palm trees and sunshine, has long been a home for the pale and spooky.
A haunted Ybor City kava bar hosts “scaryaoke.” Around the corner at The Castle, a world-famous Gothic nightclub, leather-clad patrons dance under flashing lights like they’re swiping away clusters of cobwebs.
The city is home to annual Goth brunches. Goth theme nights. Goth dance parties. The most devoted can even drive across the state to Cape Canaveral and board a Gothic cruise.
To understand how Tampa became such a hub for this subculture, a glimpse back at local history is needed.
Let’s get dark.
‘Saturday Night Live’ and a big, Gothic Castle
Any effort to write about Tampa’s Goth history inevitably brings you into a collision of subcultures. Goth can describe a genre of music. A fashion aesthetic. A lifestyle. It’s sometimes lumped in with other alternative movements, from industrial music to post-punk.
This month, horror-punk pioneers The Original Misfits are coming to Tampa. So is The Cure, ‘80s alt-rock legends with plenty of emotional lyrics and a lipstick-smeared frontman. Neither band describes itself as strictly Goth. Both played a role in shaping the genre’s culture.
“I think that we’re part of the history of Goth, without question, but like a footnote,” The Cure’s Robert Smith once said.
It’s a big deal that each band chose Tampa for their first tours in a long time, but maybe not surprising for those paying attention.
At one point in the 1990s, the then-St. Petersburg Times reported, four Tampa nightclubs had their own Goth nights. In St. Petersburg, a Bennigan’s restaurant transformed into a Goth nightclub every week.
Then in 1997, a recurring “Saturday Night Live” skit was born: “Goth Talk.”
Soundtracked by Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” the bit revolved around a pair of big-haired, black-clothed teens who hosted a public-access cable broadcast from a Tampa home. The characters — Molly Shannon’s Circe Nightshade and Chris Kattan’s Azrael Abyss — were inspired by real tropical Goths.
“A guy named Todd owned a Gothic record store in downtown St. Petersburg, and he would dress totally Goth all day and night, velvet pants and all,” said Tom Gold, the first resident DJ at The Castle. “Some writer from ‘Saturday Night Live’ visited the record store and came up with the skit.”
“Why Tampa?” asked a 1997 St. Petersburg Times article titled, “Goth: The subculture that will not die.”
“Other Goth hotbeds are easy to rationalize. San Francisco for its cultural tolerance and frequent fog. Chicago for its dreary weather and status as the U.S. capital of industrial music, a cousin of Goth. New Orleans for its rich history and prominence in Anne Rice’s vampire novels.”
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“In Tampa,” the story continued. “There’s an abundance of hot sun and bad football.”
What Tampa Bay lacked in cloudy weather, it made up for with a sense of community. The Bennigan’s nights drew a solid 100 or so patrons on a regular basis, according to the Times archive, most dressed in head-to-toe Goth uniforms. It was so successful that Alan Kahana, founder of The Castle, poached Gold to DJ his events. First came a fashion show at his nightclub. Then Kahana asked: How about a Goth night at The Castle?
The brick building has a medieval look, with arched windows and a tall battlement. Kahana took inspiration from this look when conjuring up a name, the Tampa Bay Times reported in 2017. Settling on the right vibe took some tinkering.
Kahana had opened the nightclub in 1992 as a saloon with a jukebox and scotch menu. He tried a number of different themed nights in the space, from swing dancing to acid jazz.
“Nothing really stuck, but the place had a look,” Christopher Spata wrote in the Times in 2017. “Downstairs was entirely candlelit back then, and Kahana installed the ‘moat bar,’ the little river that still circulates through the surface where people set their drinks.”
Gold wasn’t sure people would come to a Goth night, but his DJ debut was crowded. Tampa Mayor Dick Greco rolled up to party in a Tampa Police Department cruiser. The Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan, who had just played a show with Garbage that night, brought his after-party to the club.
A second Goth night was soon added. It’s been more than two decades, and Gold is still spinning each week.
“If someone doesn’t understand the kind of music I spin...I’ll just say stuff like The Cure or Nine Inch Nails or Siouxsie and the Banshees or Depeche Mode,” Gold said.
Too many guests spilled drinks or vomited into the moat, so that feature was removed, Gold said. Patrons will still find dramatic red lights and fog. An ornate staircase leads up to a second level, home to a cavernous main hall with stained glass windows and disco balls. There are several other spaces to party, including a saloon, a dungeon and an outside courtyard where costumed patrons dance inside a cage. The “most Gothic thing about The Castle,” according to Gold? The ashes of one former regular are part of the back wall downstairs.
Over the years, the club has grown a national reputation, attracting guests from Paul Reubens to Steve Guttenberg. The grand wizard of Florida’s Ku Klux Klan once tried to visit, Gold remembered, although a manager quickly persuaded him to leave.
Some come for the music or the bartenders, many of whom have worked there for decades. Themed vampire gatherings, fetish balls and steampunk nights are also popular. And over the years, some regulars have even become celebrities themselves: Randy Constan, the 6-foot Staten Island native who dresses up as Peter Pan, or “The Senator,” an older gentleman named Mike known for rocking the best lingerie.
As the saying goes: “You can be whatever you want to be at The Castle. Except an a--hole.”
A post-Castle boom
Evan Christopher once led a group of vampires.
Both recreationally and as a nightlife promoter, he wore red-and-black suits and creepy costume contact lenses. He sold lifelike dental cap “fangs” and gathered regularly with like-minded bloodsuckers at The Castle. He credits the Goth club for a lot.
“They’re the OGs — the Original Gothics,” he said. “They opened up an opportunity for people to express themselves so openly and freely. It kind of put out a beacon.”
These days, Christopher co-owns the SpookEasy Lounge in Ybor City with his wife, Kathleen Traver. Upstairs is an alcohol-free kava bar and coffee shop. Downstairs is The Catacombs, an event space and bar. On the menu: freaky fare like the Breakfast Massacre Sandwich and Black Magic Cobb.
Christopher reupholstered plushy chairs, hung velvet curtains and added details like skeleton glasses and antiques he found at estate sales. Many of the items come from his own personal collection.
“I was always interested in the darker side of things,” he said.
Azy Bats, a Clearwater-based DJ, co-founded Obscura Undead to share new Goth rock and darkwave music. The LGBTQ+-owned group hosts inclusive Goth events regularly.
Bats can be found spinning at monthly Gothic nights at New World Tampa, rocking dramatic eye makeup and teased-up hair. There’s enough demand that other events often take place in Dunedin and St. Pete, too.
“There’s just a bunch of spooky kids who listen to spooky music,” Bats said.
Outfitting the Goths
A man on his lunch break browsed leather pants and corsets. Two teen girls tried on buckle-studded, knee-high platform boots. In the front of the store, a group of friends — each with hands and foreheads stained black from hair dye — flipped through racks of swimsuits and T-shirts.
Ravens & Rockers serves the alternative scene in general, which includes Goths as well as punks, emos, metal lovers and anime fans. The clothing shop is nestled in a Tampa strip mall between a barbershop and a liquor store.
“I’ve sold leather trench coats in the middle of summer and I’m like, ‘Hold on. Please wear it in the air conditioning,’” said Sheena Wiley, who co-owns the business with her mom, Shelley.
Wiley’s mom was a NYC punk in the 1970s; her dad was a metalhead. She grew up in Spring Hill, often accompanying her parents to shows in Tampa.
“My brother rebelled by wearing a Hawaiian shirt and khakis,” she said. “He’s the family weirdo.”
In the early 2000s, there were alternative shops lining Ybor City, record stores by University Mall and shows aplenty. Wiley went to fashion school, plus worked at The Castle and sold vintage clothes on eBay. When she and her mom first opened the store around 11 years ago, business was slow. Everything else was closing.
Finally in recent years, there’s been an uptick in business.
“Since the pandemic hit…I guess all the kids shut in their houses just spent all this time searching the internet and digging through their parents’ stuff,” Wiley said. “This was the first time they got to go in a store like this.”
TikTok users started filming and uploading videos of the shop. After a series of viral clips, Ravens & Rockers joined the platform. But they already had plenty of new shoppers coming in.
They wanted chokers and corsets. Band shirts and ‘90s fashions. Outfits for music festivals of all genres, Gasparilla or anime conventions. The shop sells “an insane amount of boots,” Wiley said. “Even though it’s Florida.”
“Everyone’s so much more polite now, and so much more welcoming,” she said. “I’m just sitting here going, ‘The kids are alright. They’re gonna make everything better.’”
Explore Goth and alternative culture in Tampa Bay
The Castle: 2004 N 16th St., Tampa. DJ Tom Gold and DJ Sean spin at the club, which is open from 10:30 p.m. to 3 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. castleybor.com
The SpookEasy Lounge & The Catacombs: 1909 N 15th St., Tampa. Hours vary depending on the location and day of the week. Check spookeasylounge.com.
Ravens & Rockers: Find new and preowned alternative clothing and accessories, including brands like Tripp NYC and Demonia. The shop is open noon to 7 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and noon to 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 14815 N Florida Ave., Tampa. ravensandrockers.com.
The Original Misfits: The horror-punk band plays with Fear and Megadeth at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre in Tampa on Saturday, June 24.
The Cure: The band is coming to the area for the first time since 2008. The band, plus The Twilight Sad, performs at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Thursday, June 29.
VNV Nation: DJ Tom Gold recommends checking out this alt-electronic act at the Orpheum in Ybor City on Friday, Sept. 22.
Movie Mondays at the SpookEasy Lounge: The SpookEasy kicks off each week with a horror movie double feature. Show times are at 8 and 10 p.m. Free.
Scaryaoke at the SpookEasy Lounge: Come sing your spookiest songs. Free. Wednesdays at 8 p.m.
Night Vision music videos: Enjoy darkwave, Goth, industrial, ′80s and synth pop music videos at The Catacombs, located under the SpookEasy Lounge. Free. Fridays and Saturdays from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m.
Obscura Undead presents Katarsis: Goth Night: On the last Thursday of the month, DJ Azy Bats spins at New World Tampa. Free. Music starts at 7 p.m. newworldtampa.com.
Dysfunctional Grace’s Tabernacle of Oddities: This event, showcasing everything from macabre artwork to taxidermy, returns to Tampa on Aug. 12 and 13. The event will be hosted at the Cuban Club, 2010 N Avenida Republica de Cuba, Tampa. Tickets range from $14-$55. dysfunctionalgrace.shop.
Lakeland Punk Rock Flea Market: Over 80 punk rock vendors and food trucks will convene at Swan Brewing (115 W Pine St., Lakeland), including some with Goth vibes. Free. Sunday, Sept. 24, from noon to 6 p.m.