Why are horror and fantasy themes so influential and powerful in rock and metal music? Why do fans love performers who act like zombies, vampires and witches? I went to the traveling metal roadshow known the as the Mayhem Festival to find out.
Horror has been a part of rock music since the earliest days — even in the 1950s there were plenty of songs about murder and tragedy, plus the odd novelty hit about a space alien or Dracula. The first performer who really devoted himself entirely to horror themes, both lyrically and aesthetically, was Screaming Lord Sutch, who went on to a long and strange political career and, eventually, suicide.
Bands didn’t regularly weave fantasy themes into their music and lyrics until a bit later, but by the early 1970s, Led Zeppelin was writing songs about Gollum, Black Sabbath was singing about “The Wizard,” and Marc Bolan suggested that listeners, “Wear a tall hat like a druid in the old days.”
Those influences have persisted right through the decades, and metal has come to exercise near complete dominion over the realms of horror and fantasy in music. There are certainly exceptions (there’s plenty of horror punk and a few sci-fi themed pop songs), but it’s a lot harder to find a fantasy song that sounds as folky as “Ramble On” than to find some power metal that shreds its way through a tale of battle and glory.
I wasn’t really sure why metal goes together so well with darkness and demons, but it seemed like an interesting thing to talk to some bands about, so I headed to the Mayhem Festival at the Darien Lake Performing Arts Center on July 14. Watching the bands perform and interviewing several of them gave me two working theories.
Theory 1 — The theatricality of stage performance.
When in you’re in a club playing for a few hundred people, maybe you can get by on raw charisma and talent. Once a band is playing outdoor amphitheaters and hockey arenas, the people in the back row need something a bit more spectacular. There’s a Mick Jagger quote I can’t seem to find any more, but essentially he said once you’re playing stadiums you can’t turn up in blue jeans and think that’s going to be a good show. So one tends to wind up riding around the stage on a giant inflatable penis.
If the stage show is going to be larger than life, it seems natural that the songs would become that way too. Instead of small confessions, songs turn into cosmic metaphors. The darkness gets darker. Personal demons become actual demons. If a band’s entire artistic output revolves around Norse mythology (as Amon Amarth’s does), the logical next step is to take the stage with a giant Viking longship prow/drum riser snorting smoke (as Amon Amarth does).
I spoke with Thrown into Exile, an unsigned band playing an early slot on one of the secondary stages. Singer Evan Seidlitz seems to have given a lot of thought to the nature of rock performance — the band gives off an intense, post-apocalyptic vibe, although their music isn’t necessarily horror themed. “It started for me when I was real young, listening to my parents’ records and stuff. It wasn’t about just playing in a band, but it was about being a performer, being a singer, being an entertainer, a frontman, a real showman on stage,” Seidlitz told me. Asked why those themes resonate so strongly with fans, he returned to the idea of performance and entertainment. “I think it goes hand in hand with having really good songs. If you can really hook a new fan by a killer song, man, you probably have that fan for life times ten if you can play a live show and have it be really entertaining to watch. It really makes the music come to life, have some imagination to it. Don’t be afraid to put a little makeup on if you want, it’s rock and roll, it’s metal. It’s not supposed to have any guidelines or boundaries or rules.”
The first band I watched was Huntress. Singer Jill Janus identifies herself as a pagan, and I’d really wanted to talk to her about the intersection of her faith and the occult topics that fuel her lyrics. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to connect with the band at the festival, and they didn’t respond to an email interview request.
Still, their performance gave me a good look at some of the things Seidlitz was talking about. Janus’ stage presence is extremely theatrical — in the searing July sun she sported all black, including a cape, and her dagger nails and piercing eyes were used to excellent effect. She has a ridiculously powerful voice with an operatic range that ascends quickly into a Nazgul-like scream, even when she’s addressing the crowd. She periodically tucked her microphone into her belt so she could drape the cape around her and pose more dramatically. In the band’s videos, Janus indulges in a sort of heavy metal cosplay that’s a lot of fun to watch.
The Butcher Babies approach horror from a different angle. Singer Heidi Shepherd told me, “It’s more of like a blood and guts thing, I think. We’re very influenced by things that scare us.” If Huntress is classic Hammer horror, Butcher Babies is an 80s slasher flick.
I was skeptical at first, because from a distance they seem a bit contrived — a metal band with two attractive female singers who used to perform mostly topless. But Shepherd’s dog-whistle shriek and Carla Harvey’s death growl are as genuine as they come, mixing in weird ways and sometimes sounding oddly sweet during catchy choruses. There’s nothing dour about them, though — as the singers danced across the stage screaming and chanting in unison, I couldn’t help feeling somewhat like I was being berated by particularly angry cheerleaders. Our interview revealed that they have a great sense of humor about themselves, a crucial ingredient if a band is going to survive those inevitable Spinal Tap moments. I’ll just let the band tell this story themselves:
Guitarist Henry Flury: With our live show we used to, we had a lot of blood and guts on stage, and props. Over time we’ve just kind of moved away from that. One, it was a lot of maintenance, having blood machines on stage. The clubs would hate you. And two, it would destroy all your equipment and malfunction and get everything bloody, which is awesome to watch and terrible to clean up.
Bass player Jason Klein: It’s awesome to watch as long as you don’t have to pay for it.
Shepherd: We had one show, this is Long Beach, California...
Flury: This is our last blood episode.
Shepherd: Yeah, the last blood show. Jason had a blood squirting bass, and he rigged this shit up to be awesome. And it was our prop guy’s birthday.
Flury: He’s an effects and prop artist.
Shepherd: He’s the one who would turn things on and off during the sets. He was drunk on his birthday.
Flury: He was having a great time.
Shepherd: It was so cute ‘cause he forgot to turn it off, and all of a sudden — that blood would dye my hair, so I was always like, don’t get it in my hair — well that shit was head to toe. I was like Carrie up in that bitch.
Flury: At the end of that show I turn around and look at my entire rig and I’m like, oh my god.
Shepherd: It still has blood splatters on it.
Klein: I had to change the front cover of the amp, and it still has blood in it.
Flury: It was a bloodbath. We’ve tended to move away from that. Our shows now are much more just about raw energy on stage. And really no props any more.
Incidentally, you can’t ignore that sexuality is a major part of the entertainer’s arsenal when you’re watching Huntress and the Butcher Babies, and I’m not just talking about the frontwomen either. But “sex sells” has been a part of the formula for as long as people have been performing on stages, both male and female. So it’s not exactly a revelation here. I think there’s an interesting discussion to be had about how a performer’s gender identity fits into the particular types of horror or fantasy that artist writes about, but it’s for another day.
The final word on this kind of theatricality came from the festival’s headline act, Rob Zombie. From my press seat toward the back of the pavilion, Zombie and his bandmates were miniscule figures strutting and dancing across the stage. At times they were completely lost amidst the backdrop of monolithic video screens and 40-foot stage props. Only Zombie’s gruff roar of a voice and enormous on-stage persona could compete with the bursts of fire and giant monster costumes. And really, if it had just been An Intimate Evening With Rob Zombie and Friends, just him and the band up there banging out the chords to “Living Dead Girl,” that would have been boring as shit, at least from where I was sitting.
But the raw spectacle of it — the kaiju videos, the steampunk dinosaur thing, the bobblehead Satan and alien dancing around, the clips from old horror movies — was amazing. And Zombie used it. He understood his place in it, as the ringmaster of a flashing, exploding, bleeding circus. It was obvious he’d understood this aspect of my theory years ago.
Theory 2 — Escapism and Catharsis
These are important elements of all forms of entertainment, but the blend of horror, fantasy and metal seems to be a perfect storm that provides all the escapism and catharsis you might need. Amon Amarth is named for a place in Tolkien legendarium, and in our brief interview, guitarist Johan Söderberg told me when they write music, “We try to make it almost like film scores.” The band dishes out both elements at once, with crushing riffs and singer Johan Hegg’s death metal growl providing the catharsis of aggression, while the lyrical themes (sample song titles: “Warriors of the North,” “Destroyer of the Universe,” “Twilight of the Thundergod.”) offer the escapism.
Horror metal wouldn’t seem to provide escapism at all. “Stare long into the abyss,” and so forth. But songs that explore dark themes give you little mini-abysses, easily digestible abysses you can handle. They’re an escape from the intractable problems and horrors we deal with or read about every day. Rob Zombie has perfected this — his songs are about horrors twice removed, based on old movies and infused with unexpectedly irresistible dance beats that take any edge off of the ghouls and maniacs lurking within.
“There’s two songs on our new album that are about serial killers. It really goes into the story about each of those serial killers,” Shepherd of the Butcher Babies told me. “‘The Werewolf of Wysteria’ is about Albert Fish from the 20s. He would kidnap children and eat them and write letters to their parents describing how he ate them. There’s a line in the song about how she did kick, bite and scratch, and that’s something he wrote in a letter to the parents of a girl he ate. Fuckin’ horrifying right? It’s so interesting to put yourself into the mindset and to write from that mindset — whether it be the victim or the killer — put yourself in the mindset of what they may have been thinking at that moment. That’s something that was so exciting for us, to finally have the freedom to explore that and put it into music.”
Exciting, fuckin’ horrifying, a little disturbing. Yet exploring stories about century-old serial killers feels safe somehow. It’s a safety valve; an escape.
Of course, the inherently aggressive nature of metal provides catharsis all day long.
Shepherd: “There’s so much passion [in metal], that’s what grabs people. That’s what grabs me. You know, I was an angry teenager in my closet lip synching to Korn, ‘cause I’m pissed off at my mom. The lyrics and the emotion and the feeling in the music, it’s real - it evokes emotion. Where I feel maybe some pop songs don’t.”
Flury: “When you’re on stage and you can see it in the audience and you can see it on people’s faces, like, you don’t see that kind of reaction at a pop show. There’s guys at our show that look like they need to be arrested immediately.”
Klein (sardonically): “That’s our band.”
Without the escapism to balance it, the aggression becomes a wall of noise, especially at an all day festival like Mayhem. The majority of the groups present didn’t have melodic singers, only screaming. It works in small doses, but eventually blurs into an endless stream of angry dudes yelling. Worse, the constant effort to seem tougher and more extreme has lead to a grotesque parody of machismo and hyper-aggression that I saw trotted out by band after band. Of course, maybe I was just severely bummed out by the horrible white supremacy vibe that permeated the festival — there was even a t-shirt booth openly and prominently selling racist clothing. I wonder how sponsors like Rockstar and Jägermeister feel about being associated with that, and if Darien Lake approved it? (To be clear, none of the bands playing said anything racist or promoted racism — it was more of an undercurrent among certain portions of the crowd).
A lot of this comes down to personal taste — dirty vocals just aren’t my style. The Butcher Babies seemed to want some kind of balance between aggro and sweetness as well. “I feel like it’s necessary,” said Shepherd. “People need to remember the songs. As metal as we wanna be, we also want to write good music for people to latch onto, and to give meaning to the songs.”
How did my day at Mayhem end? Shortly before Rob Zombie took the stage, my interview with the Butcher Babies concluded with the following exchange:
Me: “So what recent horror books or films are you guys into?”
Shepherd: “The new Evil Dead is FUCKING AWESOME.” [in full metal voice here]
Me: “I haven’t seen it yet, don’t spoil it.”
Shepherd: “Oh my gawd, you...”
Flury: “Wait, you’re giving this interview about horror and you haven’t...?”
This is how I party with rock stars.