Thursday, March 22, 2007

“Goth Gunman”: Subtle Stereotyping and the Conflations of Goths and Violence in the Dawson College Media Coverage

“His name was Kimveer Gill, alias Trench, and he was a Goth…” So runs the headline of the Montreal Gazette on September 14, 2006, following the shooting at Dawson College. Throughout the print media’s coverage of this horrific event, many of the articles focused unnecessarily on shooter Kimveer Gill’s black trench coat, Mohawk hairstyle, and combat boots as markers of Goth subculture affiliation, though his actual connections to this group are not known. By focusing on his appearance, the coverage served to both directly and indirectly create an association between Goths and violence. The media coverage of this event accessed many pre-existing stereotypes and preconceptions surrounding the “violent and dangerous goth” trope through conflation similar to that noted by Russell and Kelly in their 2003 study of the conflation of homosexuality and child abuse in the Boston media. In addition, Gill’s black-clothed figure was juxtaposed to that of victim Anastasia DeSousa’s “pink princess”, which further conflated the connection of dark colours and a violent personality while bright colours were associated with the cheerful and sociable victim. While it is no longer acceptable to create stereotypes based on race or gender, it appears that harmful stereotypes are now being created on the basis of life choices or subcultural affiliations.

The connection between dark clothing, Goths, and violence in the media has existed for more than a decade. First mentioned in the 1996 Moses Lake, WA shooting coverage, the conflation between the trench coat (a gothic and punk subcultural symbol) and school violence was solidified in the popular imagination after the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, CO, after which several students were suspended for wearing trenches to school (Cooper & Russakoff, quoted in Bonilla, p. 146). However, the conflation grew a great deal more widespread, with the Washington Post finding trench coats as symbols “for things from Hitler and the Nazis to mass murder and suicidal fantasies” (Vest quoted in Bonilla, p. 188).

This conflation spread from a symbol of “goth” identity (the trench) to include the entirety of the Goth subculture, even in the face of disconfirming evidence. “Despite any lack of evidence that the [Columbine] shooters considered themselves Goths and repeated testimony from surviving classmates that the boys were excluded from the school’s reputedly Goth clique, ‘the Trench Coat Mafia’, the mainstream media quickly applied this label to them [the shooters], and a frenzy of anti-Goth sentiment followed,” states Siegel in her ethnography of the Goth movement (Siegel 2005, p. 30). Even further, Siegel believes that “…Since Columbine, non-Goths are likely to suspect anyone under thirty who wears a dark trench coat of being a (potentially murderous) Goth” (p. 14). As this paper will demonstrate, such an attitude is still prevalent in the Dawson College shooting newspaper coverage, and has not changed whatsoever despite all the pervasive data to disprove it.

By adopting Russell and Kelly’s methodology and a Critical Discourse Analysis approach as outlined in their 2003 article on the Boston priest child abuse scandal, we should be able to demonstrate if this particular case follows a similar trajectory in creating subtle stereotypes. The clearest way that stereotypes are created is through direct conflation, in which explicit connotations are made (Russell and Kelly, p. 9). The earliest newspaper coverage of this event, particularly in the Montreal Gazette, has several examples of direct conflation between violence and Goths.

A perfect indicator of this correlation occurs in the major article of the Gazette on the shooting, on the day after the event. The headline for September 14 ran, “‘Life is a video game, you gotta die sometime’: Suspect in Dawson shootings deeply immersed in dark Goth subculture based on horror movies” (Jeff Heinrich, Sept. 14/06). This headline alone manages to hit nearly every fear associated with school violence in one sentence: the influence of violent video games and media; an inability to distinguish fantasy from reality; and the dark, seething Goth. All three fears were merged in this case in order to perfectly access the proto-typical school shooter trope in the minds of the readers. Continuing, the article’s first line stated, “His name was Kimveer Gill, alias Trench, and he was a Goth, part of a subculture that takes its cues from Gothic literature and horror movies.” While it was later revealed that Gill’s connections to the Goth subculture were tenuous at best, this opening headline categorically states that Goths commit violent acts.

The following day, September 15, another article was printed which referred to Gill unhesitatingly as a “goth gunman” (Gazette, Jan Ravensbergen, Sept. 15/06). Both this article and the previous were placed in the opening “A” section of the paper, and prominently featured with bold headlines and large colour photographs of a menacing-look Gill posing in black clothing with a large assault rifle, taken from his website. This website,, was focused on a great deal in the coverage, probably because it was the only evidence that Gill ever participated in the Goth subculture at all.

Russell and Kelly identify the other type of conflation as indirect, which is implicit and caused by linkage by association. Indirect conflation allows two things to be connected unconsciously: “They operate at a kind of stealth level: the conflation is expressed implicitly rather than explicitly. There is scarcely any room for rebuttal when linkages are so implicit. More often, they are more likely to create a visceral response than to signal a need for a rational rebuttal” (Russell and Kelly, p. 15). In the case of the Dawson shooting, a great deal more of the articles never explicitly stated that Gill was a Goth, nor that Goths themselves were violent at all. However, they did focus a great deal on Gill’s clothing: a black trench coat, Mohawk haircut, and large black combat boots. Implicitly, a reader would recognize that such an appearance marks someone as a member of the Goth or punk subcultures (among many others), and would bring them to unconsciously associate such an appearance with violence, as Siegel notes in her above quote on the hysteria surrounding the trench coat after Columbine.

A perfect example of such conflation comes from the front page article of the Montreal Gazette from September 14. The opening lines of this article boldly state: “He wore black, had a mohawk haircut and big boots, and carried a gun. His epitaph was written on a tombstone posted on a Goth subculture website: ‘Kimveer – Lived fast, died young, left a mangled corpse’” (Jeff Heinrich et al). Again on September 16, the Gazette used the same type of indirect conflation, referring to Gill as “…a grim-faced misfit in a black trench coat” who “…showed us anger and hate” (Susan Semenak). In these cases, Gill is never specifically referred to as a Goth. However, he dressed like one, was a social outcast, used a Goth website with an ominous name, and was violent. While the connection is never directly made, the qualifiers are linked by association, and the unconscious statement made is “Goths are violent and dangerous.”

Newspaper around the world adopted a similar type of conflation, with headlines such as “Trench coat gunman in school rampage” and “Mohawk gunman’s college rampage” running in UK-based Advertiser and The Australian. Both articles in these international papers, as well as the Seattle Times and New Zealand Herald, made mention of the 1999 Columbine shootings, pointing out that Harris and Klebold also wore trench coats at that time. This suggests to the reader a historical precedence for the conflation, that the trench-coat clad have been violent on more than one occasion, and are thus more likely to do so again in the future. This unnecessary focus on Gill’s clothing and appearance seem to suggest that the fact that he may have been a Goth is somehow relevant to his violent actions, and continues to conflate the stereotype of the aggressive and homicidal Goth.

The Dawson shooting coverage also had another element of unconscious conflation, one which was not present in the Boston coverage analyzed by Russell and Kelly. This was a form of colour association, which juxtaposed Gill’s black-clothed, dark-skinned and murderous figure against the innocent, pink-clad figure of victim Anastasia DeSousa. The articles examined seemed to focus to a strange degree on the fact that DeSousa loved the colour pink, and it constituted headlines in several different papers. For example, the Canadian Press printed the headline “Eighteen-year-old Dawson student remembered for penchant for pink”, and continued “Anastasia DeSousa looked pretty in pink. The 18-year-old student was caught in a hail of bullets Wednesday when a man dressed in black burst into Dawson College…” The article went on to mention the colour an astounding nine times throughout the short article, and concluded with “Like her darkly clad assailant, she was pronounced dead at the scene” (Jonathan Montpetit, Sept. 15/06). By contrasting killer and victim in such a manner, the association between dark colours and violence was increased, while bright colours remain symbols of happiness and innocence. Following this logic, a dark-clad individual (such as a Goth) would be more like to commit a crime than one wearing pink.

The Canadian Press was not the only newspaper to do associate colours with dangerousness in this way. The Gazette, the Calgary Herald, and the Globe and Mail all seemed to place an unnecessary amount of focus on the colour pink, each mentioning the colour more than five times. The Toronto Star printed two contrasting articles together on the front page of their paper on September 15: the first used words such as “friendly”, “outgoing”, “bubbly personality”, “upbeat”, “dazzling”, and “popular” to describe DeSousa, and the second described Gill as “hate-filled”, “an alcoholic and a killer”, “trouble”, “loner”, and an admirer of Marilyn Manson, “the rock star who portrays himself as the anti-Christ” (Betsy Powell – Gill; Jason Magder – DeSousa). Essentially, all the descriptors of DeSousa are the same as those for Gill, only in reverse.

The aforementioned Calgary Herald article also revealed something quite interesting in the placement of its text, and its quoting of DeSousa’s family members. The article relates that “…DeSousa had no involvement with the ‘Goth’ subculture that Gill apparently favoured”. The next paragraph consists solely of the quote, “‘She was too perfect and beautiful’” (Rene Bruemmer et al, Sept. 15/06). The juxtaposition here seems to suggest that the perfect and the beautiful would never be involved in such with dark and sordid group as the Goths, and that only the not-perfect and not-beautiful would be. By placing the articles comparing Gill and DeSousa in proximity to each other, they heightened the differences between these two individuals, and played on the unconscious colour association of bright colours such as pink with “good” individuals, and dark colours such as black with “bad” individuals.

While not prevalent, and seemingly downplayed in the Canadian papers surveyed, the issue of race did arise on two occasions in the print media. Agence France Presse, unlike any of the Canadian or American papers, carried the headline “Montreal school gunman was 25-year-old Indian-Canadian: police” (no author, Sept. 14/06). Unlike the Gazette, Star, or Globe, which focused on Gill’s subcultural identity, this French paper focused on Gill’s racial identity as an Indian-Canadian, finding it relevant enough to focus on as their headline for that article. As argued earlier, attacking someone on the basis of their race or ethnic group is no longer acceptable in any way in Canada, and instead the focus has been shifted to one’s life choices as a point of attack or stereotyping. Interestingly, the initial information in The Australian reported that witnesses had “described the assailant as a white man in a black trenchcoat with knee-high black boots” (no author, Sept. 15/06). The fact that Gill was of Indian descent was not noted by these witnesses, but his clothing, marking him as a Goth, certainly was. This is perhaps attributable to the fact that the trope of the “school shooter” is inevitably a white, suburban, middle-class male dressed in black – these witnesses reported not what they had actually seen, but rather that of the stereotypical Goth school shooter, which indicates just how pervasive this stereotype has become in the minds of the public.

In their review of the Boston media, Russell and Kelly point out that stereotypes are quite resistant to change: “they persist even in the absence of confirming information or in the presence of disconfirming information” (p. 11). Once the stereotype has been naturalized, the reader will ignore any information that challenges it (as is most likely the reason for the incorrect information reported by witnesses). The most effective method to counter these stereotypes is through a clear rebuttal of the conflation, but Russell and Kelly noted that only direct conflations usually have rebuttals, and indirect conflations are commonly left unchallenged, due to the fact that they operate on a stealth level (ibid). Of the thirty articles which were reviewed for the purposes of this paper, only two clear and unmistakable rebuttals were found. Both of these were in the Montreal Gazette. One must ask about the dozens of other papers in which the conflation was made, which ran no refutation whatsoever.

More common than any direct rebuttal were articles which focused on Gill’s dangerousness, the warning signs, and his subcultural “affiliation” and contained a one- or two-line caveat cautioning readers to avoid seeing all Goths as violent. These statements, however, were usually counter-intuitive in some way and did not prevent the stealthy, indirect conflation between trench coats, Mohawks, black clothes, and violence. On the front page of the Ottawa Citizen, for instance, an article detailing Gill as a “poster boy for school shooters” stated that, “Clad in a dark trench coat and sporting a mohawk… Mr. Gill… unmistakably fit the profile of a potential killer” (Chris Lackner , Sept. 15/06). Near the end of the piece, though, a psychologist was suggested that not all “Goths or counter-culture youths” should be seen as dangerous. This is highly self-contradictory: the author tells us that those with trench coats and Mohawks are potential killers, but then states that not all Goths and counter-culture youths are dangerous. However, Goths and counter-culture youths are more likely to wear trench coats and Mohawks, and are therefore potential killers. Following this logic, this reporter’s attempt to state that these youths are not dangerous really has no affect on changing the stereotype at all.

Other articles, such as the Hamilton Spectator’s front page “Murderer embraced goth culture”, are similarly counter-intuitive. Firstly, the article begins as follows: “We know they’re morbid, but just how deadly are goths? Writing in his profile on, one goth’s self-description is chilling and disturbingly distant: ‘His name is Trench. You will come to know him as the Angel of Death’” (Bill Dunphy, Sept. 15/06). About three-quarters of the way through the work, it becomes apparent that the actual purpose of the article is to discount the belief that Goths are dangerous. The headline clearly does not reflect the supposed purpose of the article, but rather conflates the relationship between Goths and violence even more by expounding the killer Gill’s connection to “Gothic” attitudes and dress. This supposed rebuttal is greatly weakened by this, and it must be noted that anyone simply scanning the headlines would never realize it was a rebuttal at all.

Both direct and indirect conflation and the sparse and limited attempts to rebut the stereotypes have a concrete impact on the public’s everyday perceptions. This would be the “visceral response” noted by Russell and Kelly in action: it is not logical or consciously done, but rather implicit and unconsciously replicated. The misinformation caused by conflation “…may foster material reactions…ranging from disliking them or distancing from them, to denying them access to civil rights protections and blocking their entrance to certain occupations”, as well as leading to unnecessary harassment (p. 19-20). We have already noted how students were suspended from school for wearing trenches after Columbine and this fear continues (and perhaps is amplified) after the events at Dawson College as well. Montreal Gazette writer Bill Brownstein related the story of a friend who was stricken by a panic attack when a trench-coated man entered the laundromat she was in, and she had to be assisted out of the facility because she was too frightened to stay. Brownstein himself wondered if “dress profiling” would be the next stage in discrimination (Sept. 20/06). This paper purports that such a reaction would not have occurred if there had not been such an absolutely unnecessary amount of attention focused on Gill’s clothing and subcultural affiliations.

When called to testify before the United States Senate Commerce Committee on youths and media violence, communications scholar Henry Jenkins quoted in disgust Time Magazine writer Mike Murphy’s belief that the U.S. should focus on “goth control, not gun control” (2006, p. 193). He was deeply disturbed by the post-Columbine backlash of violence against Goths, and recommended that the Senate Committee should focus on tolerance and acceptance in American schools, rather than persecution. “Banning black trench coats or abolishing violent video games doesn’t get us anywhere,” he stated, “These are the symbols of youth alienation and rage – not the causes” (p. 197). While Jenkins urged parents to listen to their children to prevent school shootings, this paper suggests that the cause of the deep-rooted fear of darkly-clad individuals arises from a much more systemic problem, and unfortunately one that is a great deal more difficult to correct. However, by advising the media to be more aware of the physical impact of direct and indirect conflation, we might hope that continued “dress profiling” and dislike of strangely dressed might not lead to discrimination and fear.



Bonilla, Denise M. School Violence. The Reference Shelf, Vol. 72, No. 1. New York: H. W. Wilson Company, 2000.

Hine, Thomas. The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager. New York: Avon Books, 1999.

Hodkinson, Paul. Goth: Identity, Style, and Subculture. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2002.

Jenkins, Henry. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

Milner, Murray Jr. Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids: American Teenagers, Schools, and the Culture of Consumption. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Newman, Katherine S. et al. Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings. New York: Basic Books, 2004.

Russell, Glenda M. and Nancy H. Kelly. Subtle Stereotyping: The Media, Homosexuality, and the Priest Sexual Abuse Scandal. Amherst: Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies, 2003.

Siegel, Carol. Goth’s Dark Empire. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.

Newspaper Articles

Montreal Gazette
Belanger, Michelle. “Shooter gives goths a bad name: Don’t Blame Goths and vampires for the actions of a troubled young man who grievously misunderstood the culture.” 17 Sept. 2006: A21.

Brownstein, Bill. “Just what we need: another category to the profiling list for the paranoid.” 20 Sept. 2006: A3.

Bruemmer, Rene and Brenda Branswell. “The girl who loved pink: ‘A bright and beautiful young lade’: In June, Anastasia DeSousa celebrated her 18th birthday and prepared to being her studies at Dawson College. On the cusp of adulthood, she was entering a new phase in life and, by all accounts, revelling in it.” 15 Sept. 2006: A1/FRONT.

Heinrich, Jeff. “‘Life is a video game, you gotta die sometime’: Suspect in Dawson shootings deeply immersed in Goth subculture based on horror movies”. 14 Sept. 2006: A3.

Heinrich, Jeff et al. “Bloody Wednesday: College Rampage: Gunman leaves one woman dead and 19 people wounded”. 14 Sept. 2006: A1/FRONT.

Lampert, Allison. “Fear and coping: students stand together: Student fears people wearing black: ‘All I was thing when I heard the shots is I want to grow older. I don’t want to die.’” 16 Sept. 2006: A8.

Ravensbergen, Jan. “Terrified victim looked only at gunman’s boots.” 15 Sept. 2006: A5.

Semenak, Susan. “Ordinary heroes on an extraordinary day: From first-aid to fast food, Montrealers rushed to assist students caught in the maelstrom.” 16 Sept. 2006: A10.

Solyom, Catherine. “Don’t blame goth culture: Alienated youth. Acts as a support group for many, study suggests.” 15 Sept. 2006: A6.

Toronto Star

“Kimveer Gill is no victim.” 15 Sept. 2006: A06.

Magder, Jason. “Anastasia DeSousa ‘brought love to everything she touched.’” 15 Sept. 2006: A01.

Powell, Betsy. “Kimveer Gill revelled in death and guns, a fantasy that became reality.” 15 Sept. 2006: A01.

Teotonio, Isabel. “Attention focuses on Goth subculture; Website linked to string of violence VampireFreaks has 606,000 members.” 15 Sept. 2006: A10.

Other Canadian Newspapers

“Goths in Edmonton joins others across Canada in march for children.” The Canadian Press. 14 Oct. 2006.

Bruemmer, Rene et al. “Slain teen remembered as bubbly ‘princess’.” Calgary Herald. 15 Sept. 2006: A5.

Dimmick, Gary and Neco Cockburn. “‘Angel of death’: From cleancut high school graduate to goth-inspired killer.” Ottawa Citizen. 15 Sept. 2006: A1/FRONT.

Dobrota, Alex. “Family, friends mourn ‘the perfect little girl’.” Globe and Mail. 15 Sept. 2006: A1.

Dunphy, Bill. “Murderer embraced goth culture.” Hamilton Spectator. 15 Sept. 2006: A01.

Hansen, Dallas. “Vampire freak hits close to home.” Winnipeg Free Press. 16 Sept. 2006: A19.

Lackner, Chris. “Blog reveals ‘poster boy’ for school shooters.” Ottawa Citizen. 15 Sept. 2006: A1/FRONT.

Montpetit, Jonathan. “Eighteen-year-old Dawson student remembered for penchant for pink.” The Canadian Press. 15 Sept. 2006.

Peritz, Ingrid et al. “Seething misfit was obsessed with guns.” Globe and Mail. 15 Sept. 2006: A1.

International Newspapers

“Mohawk gunman’s college rampage.” The Australian. 15 Sept. 2006: 7.

“Montreal school gunman was 25-year-old Indian-Canadian: police.” Agence France Presse. 14 Sept. 2006.

Bone, James. “‘I just want to die like Romeo… or in a hail of gunfire’; Factbox.” Times (London). 15 Sept. 2006: 37.

Buncombe, Andrew. “‘Angel of Death’ true to his word.” New Zealand Herald. 16 Sept. 2006.

Chad, Sheldon and Maggie Farley. “Accused shooter had chilling blog; Goth web site | Man expressed desire to ‘die in a hail of gunfire’.” Seattle Times. 15 Sept. 2006: A11.

Couvrette, Paul. “College killer’s crazed website.” The Advertiser. 16 Sept. 2006: 1.

Couvrette, Phil. “Trench coat gunman in school rampage.” The Advertiser. 15 Sept. 2006: 1.

Lithwick, Dahlia. “Blog of a Death Foretold.” Washington Post. 24 Sept. 2006: B02.

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