Let me just get this out of the way right off the top: I'm not a huge fan of heavy metal. I was definitely the most interested during my adolescence in the late '80s/early '90s, but aside from some great acts like Metallica, Anthrax, Iron Maiden, Guns 'n' Roses, Motorhead, Ozzy and AC/DC, even then my tastes were largely classic rock. Since then, I went through my alternative phase like everyone else, then the whole "singer-songwriter" thing, but as an adult my taste in music now falls largely within the realm of trad. jazz/trad. pop/lounge. So admittedly, maybe I'm not the best one to pontificate about all this. But I'm going to anyway.
Recently, I started up a new blog about pop standards, and wondered how much overlap in readership there would be, since for the most part, heavy metal seems to be the music of choice for a lot of hardcore horror fanatics. I do have a handful of readers of both, however, and one of them recently got me thinking about exactly why it is that heavy metal and horror movies seem to always go hand-in-hand.
The easy answer is that both of them deal in shocking, sometimes violent imagery. Horror films depict it in a visually explicit manner, while much of metal evokes it through the lyrics and the tone of the music (the videos can also contribute a visual element). I can remember the first time I saw Marilyn Manson's "Sweet Dreams" video, and it's still probably the most disturbing four-minute movie I've ever seen.
But there's more to it than that. Heavy metal and horror films (at least in their modern form) can both appeal to something angry and adolescent within us. They both provide a catharsis. In the case of horror, many movies are positioned to the viewer in such a way that the violence is a release--one of the hallmarks of horror of the past few decades is that we are encouraged to enjoy the violence in some way, even as we recoil from it. And many fans of metal find empowerment in its bottomless rage. It's the ultimate teen male power fantasy, with its furiously bellowing singers and combative instrumentation.
Therefore, it should really be a no-brainer that so many horror movies have featured relentless metal soundtracks. The visual and aural imagery is a perfect match. Look at it this way. Arguably, heavy metal has been with us for nearly 40 years. And from the beginning, bands like Black Sabbath freely adopted the same kinds of themes that were already common to horror movies of the era. And once the earliest fans of heavy metal became old enough to be among the decision-makers in the film industry, the shift towards a metal-centric horror genre began. The phenomenon really hit its stride in the '80s, with The Return of the Living Dead probably being the prototypical example.
Particularly, the "new" type of horror movie that emerged in the 1970s gelled quite nicely with the metal aesthetic that was emerging at the same time. In the olden days, there was far less angst in horror films. Audiences were encouraged to identify with the heroes and heroines, and the monster was exactly that, a monster. A tragic figure at best, but still a monster. When the Frankenstein Monster follows Elizabeth into her wedding chamber, the audience was not gleefully cheering on the Monster. And almost invariably, no matter how horrific things might get, it all worked out OK in the end. Most of the time, these films were scored with moody, macabre, yet eerily beautiful orchestral music, whether original or classical in origin.
But with the rise of the youth culture and the glorification of adolescent angst, both music and horror movies changed. Modern horror movies are characterized often by unlikable protagonists whom the audience can't wait to see eviscerated. The monster is often portrayed as a "cool" anti-hero figure. While on the surface the status-quo of good vs. evil is there, it's really just lip service. God cannot be counted on to save us, and things almost never end happily. The spirit of the age is pure mayhem, and we, the audience, revel in it. No wonder, then, that heavy metal's subversive ethos is such a perfect fit, and that the two would appeal to a similar demographic.
The same morbid/juvenile fascination with blood, guts and chaotic rebellion that produced the modern horror movie also led to the popularity of heavy metal, with its preoccupation with death, anarchy and sacrilege.
Now before anyone gets up in arms, I'm not describing it that way because I hate modern horror and/or metal. Certainly, if I hated horror movies I wouldn't be writing this blog. And I don't describe much of metal as "juvenile" in a negative sense--there's nothing wrong with giving release to some of the more juvenile aspects of ourselves, within moderation. I mean, you're reading the words of a man who has about 5,000 comic books in his basement and every one of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection box sets, so I'm the last one to preach about the sober, Spartan life. But we must at least acknowledge that this is the part of our psyche that identifies with these things--the ticked-off 13-year-old screaming at the world.
It's one of the main shifts that separates fright flicks pre- and post-1970, and one of the central connections, I believe, between heavy metal and horror films. For some, both things are fascinations of youth, which pass through maturation. The appeal of listening to Carnivore's "Jesus Hitler" and renting Faces of Death often dissipate with the onset of adulthood, delayed or otherwise. For others, like myself, the love of one subsides while the love of the other grows deeper than ever. I am living proof that it is possible to love Rob Zombie's movies, but not necessarily his music.