A Match Made in Hell: How Metal and Horror Have (and Haven’t) Worked Together

Heavy Blog calls these Deep Dives, but it would be more accurate to call this a Rabbit Hole. This article will be the first of a two-part series in which we will examine the close association between horror and metal. Then, we’ll delve into the world of cinema to see how metal and horror have historically interacted. In the next installment of this series, we’ll study how Ragnar Bragason’s film Metalhead (2013) uses its genuine understanding of metal to subvert the tired, cliched ways that metal is normally used in film.  

The discussion of how heavy metal music functions in Metalhead is best framed by the relevant scholarship concerning metal and movies. The principal link between metal and film is via horror films, an association so fitting as to be “a match made in hell” [1]. Metal and horror are brothers in the macabre; the visual aspects of metal (corpsepaint, band names, stage costumes and personas) closely align with horror tropes and symbolism. In turn, the auditory aspect of horror often borrows from the shocking and atonal aesthetic of metal, or even directly appropriates metal music in a soundtrack. Band names, in particular, are one of the clearest indicators of the bond shared by horror and metal. In the 1980’s, when metal was closest to mainstream audiences, nearly every well-known metal band had a name that recalls horror themes ranging from death (Death) anti-Christianity (Black Sabbath, Morbid Angel), war (Artillery, Anthrax) or even a literal instrument of medieval torture (Iron Maiden). Even for those who never listened to metal, a mere mention of Slayer on the radio or a glimpse of a tour poster would have made it impossible to miss the grim aesthetic metal proudly exudes. As a result, metal and horror are inextricably linked in the Western cultural consciousness.

The similarities between horror and metal descend far beneath the surface level revulsion with which polite society has often regarded them. Both were the sites of moral panic in the 1980’s; Britain waged war against the “video nasties” imported into the country, while Tipper Gore led the assault on metal music in the United States.[2] In both cases, these moral panics were a response to growing unrest. An unsettling rise of “teen suicide rates and youth violence” in the U.S. was met by the self-righteous fist of Tipper Gore and the Washington Wives, whose censorship campaign sensationalized and pilloried the wave of extreme metal as the source of all the trouble thrashing the nation. In Britain, dismal economic times prompted politicians to “stave off economic pressure from without by shoring up a national culture within.”[3] The almost exuberant violence of horror films flooding into the country, like the “number one video nasty”, the infamous Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981), was repugnant to the British national myth as a polite and proper people, and was opposed vigorously as a result.

Exiting the world of film, metal and real-life horror are also linked. A common technique used to interrogate Iraqi combatants during the U.S. invasion in Iraq was to play loud music with lyrical themes abhorrent to Iraqi culture and Islam, a so-called form of “civilized torture”[4]. Unsurprisingly, the loudest and most abhorrent music that torturers could think of was heavy metal. Bands like Metallica, Nine Inch Nails, and Deicide (particularly their song “Fuck Your God”) were played at high volume to assail captured Iraqis. This appropriation of metal as real-life torture further embeds it within the sphere of horror. And it also lends a sort of twisted legitimacy to the link between metal and horror: If metal can be used to literally torture someone, what better music to score a horror film intended to shock, scare, and terrorize moviegoers than heavy metal?

Metal and horror also share a fascination with death. One of the most common horror tropes, stretching back into myths and legends before recorded history, is the specter of the undead. Zombies, or other undead beings in a similar vein, strike at a primitive part of the human psyche that revolts against what it perceives to be utterly unnatural. The zombie is terrifying because it is almost us; it is nearly human, and yet “the zombie is incapable of examining self. It is emptied of being, a receptacle of nothingness, wholly other”[5]. A psychological study carried out by Open University’s Stephanie Lay found “a particular fear of “near-human” faces”. Near-human faces, with their blanks stares and machine-like anatomy, dwell firmly in what psychologists call “the uncanny valley”, or the creeping sense of dread and unease that accompanies “the sight of something almost, but not quite, human”. The research confirms that these zombie-like faces, then, aren’t simply horrifying in a cognitive sense because they are “incapable of examining self”; they make us shudder from our brain stem to our frontal cortex.

Extreme metal, in particular, benefits from the fruits of the uncanny valley. Take, for example, death metal. To an outsider, the distorted electric guitars, the drumming, the tempos, and the song structures of death metal are all familiar enough to be called music, but the resulting death metal sound lies so far outside the traditional Western musical canon that it elicits a knee-jerk revulsion from most people. Harsh vocals, in particular, weaponize the uncanny valley as a sonic dagger. Growls, screams, shrieks, and wails often sound bestial, demonic, unholy — and yet we know they are human. In this way, harsh vocals are terrifying and fascinating for the same reason the zombie is — terrifying for their soulless mimicry of the humanity we hold sacred, fascinating for the ways we can experiment with these conduits of the Other to discover more about ourselves.

No surprise, then, that zombies have come to dominate the horror mainstream. Beginning with Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968), zombies have become one of the premier monsters, not only in movies, but in other media, like books (World War Z, by Max Brooks), TV shows (The Walking Dead, 2010), and video games (the Resident Evil series, the Call of Duty “Nazi Zombies” minigame).  Metal shares a captivation with zombies as well, although not quite to the same extent. The death metal band Engorged, for example, writes music almost entirely about the undead; their 2002 self-titled album is essentially a concept album surveying the history of horror cinema, sampling clips in their songs from They Live (John Carpenter, 1988), Day of the Dead (George Romero, 1985) and many more.

The most prevalent and interesting locus where zombies and metal intersect is in the use of corpsepaint. Although it was simply called “makeup” at the time, corpsepaint was first popularized by artists like Alice Cooper and KISS, the glam rock supergroup of the 70’s and 80’s. Bedecked in stark black and white makeup stylized with sharp hooks, crescents, and spikes, the visual aspect of KISS’s makeup is almost entirely identical to the corpsepaint that would later emerge. In Didrik Soderlind and Michael Moynihan’s comprehensive book about the early years of the Norwegian black metal scene, Lords of Chaos, the Norwegian black metal folks themselves tell a different origin story. Metalion, who helped publicize much of the early Norwegian black metal scene, reckons that the practice originated in the groundbreaking Brazilian band Sarcófago. Metalion reverently describes them as “[a] very extreme Metal band…they wore lots of spikes and corpsepaint”[6]. It’s not surprising that Metalion, and other members of the nascent black metal scene, would be reticent to give popular and mainstream bands like KISS credit for the defining feature of their aesthetic; KISS could hardly be farther from the black metal ethos of the early 1990’s. Other popular theories for the origin of corpsepaint, like King Diamond, are significantly more palatable than KISS, but Metalion’s attempt to reimagine the creation myth of corpsepaint in Sarcófago, an underground extreme metal band from a faraway land, is certainly understandable, and fits the second wave black metal aesthetic perfectly. 

Whatever its origin, corpsepaint soon took on a more nuanced role that recalls the horror of the zombie. The most important band of the second wave of black metal, Mayhem, codified and enforced the new rules and culture of black metal. Their singer, in particular, helped achieve this work. His stage name was Dead, but it was hardly an act; Stian “Occultus” says that “Dead didn’t see himself as human; he saw himself as a creature from another world…He said that he had many visions that his blood had frozen in his veins, that he was dead”[7]. For Dead, this may not have been merely an aesthetic. Some speculate that he may have suffered from Cotard’s syndrome, a rare disorder in which someone believes that they are dead. In any case, Dead drove the emerging black metal performative culture to its limits. He sliced himself with broken glass; drove stakes though pig heads during concerts[8]; buried his clothes days before a show to give them the smell of rot; and huffed from a plastic bag entombing a dead crow to keep the stench of decay and death fresh in his nostrils before a performance. As the progenitors of the second wave black metal scene, Mayhem’s antics codified a black metal culture of death, gore, and horror. To fit in and prove they were trve kvlt, other bands followed suit and one-upped, creating a shocking and idiosyncratic aesthetic that continues to this day. Everywhere, the aesthetic of black metal prizes and semiotically bashes audiences with the horrific thrill of death, its smell, its sound, its sight.

Dead wasn’t content to look like any ol’ dead guy, though; he had his heart set on looking “like a victim of the medieval plague.” In this way, Dead, perhaps unwittingly, connected corpsepaint to a “historical reality”[9]. More than shallow aesthetic, Dead was tapping into the romanticized allure of a particular time period. Dead was dead-set on displaying “stage equipment at our shows of Translyvania landscapes, instruments of torture that are from the 12th century, real trees from a dead forest…animal heads and human craniums hanging in meat hooks by chains from the dead trees…that’s what I think would make the perfect mood”[10]. The perfect mood, indeed. Easy to miss in the overwhelming revulsion of the scene which Dead describes is the way in which his performances are a form of prosopopoeia, “a narrative practice wherein a speaker gives voice to the dead”. Taken with the “consistent use of prosopopoeia and apostrophe within the lyrics to De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas”, one can see how Dead becomes a conduit for a long-dead medieval past. But it’s not the traditional view of the medieval, which is often romanticized by way of knights in shining armor and virtuous princesses, wiped clean of the harsh and dreary realities of medieval life; instead, Dead and Mayhem beatify the filth and sickness and death of the distant medieval past.[11]

In this way, metal and horror thrive in the antisocial. They deliberately operate as the Other, relishing in their roles as outcasts, taking agency in their status as misfits. As a result, the two genres thrive best when disenfranchisement and turmoil marks the social landscape. In Robert Walser’s excellent book chronicling heavy metal, he notes that “horror films have tended to resurge in popularity in cycles…coinciding with periods of social strain or disorder”. (Recall Tipper Gore and the “number one video nasty” mentioned earlier.) Unsurprisingly, then, heavy metal surged forward at precisely the same time as horror did. Sitting in a stew of “economic crises; corrupt leadership; [and] powerful social movements challenging dominant policies on race, gender, ecology, and consumer’s rights”, metal and horror formed the twin cultural spearhead helping regular folks make sense of the chaos all around them[12].

Birmingham, England offers evidence for the ability of hardship to beget heavy metal. A geo-musicological study by Leigh Michael Harrison examines how the infrastructure of Birmingham led to the birth of two of metal’s first and brightest stars: Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. After World War II, Birmingham was crumbling. Tens of thousands of houses were declared unfit and demolished; many lacked proper plumbing. Youth participation in church plummeted. Heavily targeted by the Germans because it produced ammunition, Birmingham still reeled from the devastation of the war, with bombed-out buildings scattering the industrial landscape that Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler called home. Ozzy Osbourne made do with “one pair of shoes, one pair of trousers, one shirt and jacket and no underclothing”. So Osbourne and Co set out to challenge the dominant narrative of England as a place of love and happiness with their distorted, tritonal music. From the mouth of Ozzy Osbourne himself: “You gotta remember the time, 1968 was still that flower power. To us that was bullshit, living in the dreary, dismal, polluted town of Birmingham. We were very angry about it. We thought, let’s scare people.”[13]

With this cultural and historical framework, the birth of metal begins to make sense. Metal is not antisocial without aim, or rebellious without spirit; rather, at its heart, metal is about enfranchisement to the disenfranchised, power to the powerless. As Walser succinctly puts it, “musical articulation of power is the most important single factor in the experience of heavy metal”[14]. For this reason, metal thrives as the Other; “[h]eavy metal explores the other, everything that hegemonic society does not want to acknowledge, the dark side of the daylight, enlightened adult world”[15]. Ozzy and Geezer weren’t buying the “flower power” narrative, and so they created their own dark, powerful tool to explore the bleak reality they lived in, the relic of a city that could not forget its gunpowdered past, whose gray walls looming to gray skies spoke of no future. Flower power was a hegemonic fantasy of no use to them; heavy, distorted tritone riffs and the ominous sounds of church bells ringing out on their debut recast their experiences in a venue where they had agency and power and experience.

This is why heavy metal and horror emerge to “address the insecurities of [a] tumultuous era”. Critically, they both “provide ways of producing meaning in an irrational society”, and attempt to “explore explanations for seemingly incomprehensible phenomena”[16]. Metal and horror provide answers, or at least respite, to those whom the dominant narrative fails or rejects. Metal and horror, then, have long been odd bedfellows, cast out and melded together in their outsider status. But despite their complementary profiles, the world of cinema almost invariably utilizes metal music as little more than a gimmick or a referential tool to quickly establish character or setting.

A quick survey of the use of metal in film reveals how shallowly metal is often portrayed. A fairly recent trend is the inception of the horror film metal soundtrack: from 1999 – 2009, twenty five horror metal soundtrack albums were released[17]. These are largely featured on slasher horror films like Freddy vs. Jason (Ronny Yu, 2003), and usually feature nu-metal and alternative metal artists like Machine Head, Type O Negative, and Killswitch Engage. Unfortunately, these inclusions often do little for the story, and were pushed onto soundtrack albums as a way to help sell artists. From the words of Lyor Cohen, the CEO of the Warner Music Group himself, soundtracks are “meant to realign an artist, to bridge albums, to introduce new artists, and to go into the third or fourth single of an album”[18]. Rather than an overriding artistic tool, metal has been used more recently in horror film as a commercial tool to popularize artists and boost record sales, which is somewhat antithetical to the original metal ethos of empowerment against hegemonic power.

Our own Kieran Fisher ran a series detailing the use of metal music in movies. The trend, while certainly not without exceptions, is clear. There are two main categories: metal as evil and chaotic, and metal to characterize the slacker or loser archetype. Movies like This Is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984), Wayne’s World (Penelope Spheeris, 1992), and DEATHGASM (Jason Lei Howden, 2015) all feature protagonists who, to varying degrees, celebrate their status as dorks (Wayne’s World) and outsiders (DEATHGASM), or serve as a reflection of the stereotype of the metalhead as a brainless bum (This Is Spinal Tap). Conversely, films like Hard Rock Zombies (Krishna Shah, 1984), Trick or Treat (Charles Martin Smith 1986), The Gate (Tibor Takacs, 1987), and Black Roses (John Fasano 1988), Fisher admits, essentially use metal as “a way to tap into a real fear within some parts of hysterically religious Western culture and use it for their own commercial gain”.

In the world of film, metal could be an incisive tool to pose questions about the Other, or serve as the soundtrack in a battle against the establishment. But all too often, metal is instead reduced to a cheap cultural touchstone to efficiently characterize settings and characters. And this, finally, brings us back to Metalhead. Ragnar Bragason’s film is the rare movie that doesn’t just use metal to elicit a predictable response from moviegoers. Instead, from the diegetic score to the wardrobes to the plot arc, Metalhead understands metal. With a small Icelandic town as the canvass and a perfectly tailored heavy metal soundtrack as the paintbrush, Metalhead portrays the misanthropy of the Other and the suffocation of well-intended hegemony with a balanced, well-informed perspective. It’s a fantastic film, and one worth diving into in next week’s installment of this two-part series. Stay tuned!

Endnotes:

[6][7][8][10] Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind, Lords of Chaos (Port Townsend, WA: Feral House, 2003), pg. 36, 54, 59, 61.

[12][14][15][16] Walser, Robert. Running with the Devil: power, gender, and madness in heavy metal music (Middletown, CT : Wesleyan University Press, c1993), pg. 2, 161.

Andrew Hatch is from a place that isn't interesting enough to bother mentioning. His hobbies are diverse and unrelentingly avant-garde, ranging from such arcane activities as rock climbing, reading books, and listening to music(!!) Additionally, he is of the firm belief that the great superhero Guitar Solo and his sidekick, Tremolo Riff, have the mettle to cure all that ails the world.