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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Metal and Horror: What's the Connection?

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.

22 comments:

gord said...

Great article, especially since I love my metal. But, I for one would take Zombie's mediocre music over his movies any day.

Karl Hungus said...

I don't agree with this article.

Now, let me start by saying, I can certainly understand where you can draw parallels, and there's no doubting that bands such as Cannibal Corpse or the like are very much linked thematically with horror films. But I think there's a lot that you're not taking into account.

You say that both horror and metal deal with shocking and sometimes violent imagery, but this is not true of a lot of bands who use a lot of fantasy imagery, in music and lyrics as much as album covers of videos. Take Manowar for example, who evoke a very Conan-esque image.

Take the sheer amount of metal bands who've based their names on Tolkien, or who sing about fantasy related things. Blind Guardian did an entire album based upon the Silmarillion. I would say that a shared interest in Fantasy is about as pervailant in Metal as is the interest in Horror.

Likewise one could look to other bands who've been influenced by Science Fiction themes, such as Fear Factory or Biomechanical, and have imagery to suit.

The flip side to that is also true, and more films than just horrors have had Metal soundtracks. Many action films for example have had Metal and Rock bands substitute traditional film scores. There's plenty of comparison to be made there as well, and you can easily draw conclusions that fans of a high adrenaline kind of film find the same appeal in a fast, powerful and high adrenaline kind of music.

I do think you're looking at things like this in too narrow a view, and not taking in the many other genres that Metal fans also find themselves as fans of. I definitely know many Sci-Fi fans who listen to a lot of metal, no doubt about it.

B-Sol said...

You're absolutely correct. I think the wording of my article makes it seem like I'm saying the two are linked exclusively of anything else. There certainly is a strong fantasy link as well, starting with Led Zeppelin. There are certainly other genres of film that metal is associated with, and other genres of music that horror is associated with. What I was saying is that there is a link between horror and metal, and I was exploring what that link was all about. It wasn't meant to imply that ALL metal is connected to horror, only that there is a strong association with a lot of it.

frgodbeyjr said...

As a horror fan, I enjoyed your article on the ties to horror and metal. I'm 49 years old and I listen to Godsmack, Staind, Korn, Manson, Saliva, Chilli Peppers... just to name a few. I think I like to darker side of the music, not so much the words. I listen to a wide varitey of music, but the harder the better for me. Don't have an answer as to why, but it is an interesting discussion.

pot head pixie said...

Call me pedantic but...

I think there's a confusion in the article between metal and punk. The Return of the Living Dead soundtrack is basically punk (The Damned, 45 Grave) and psychobilly (The Cramps). The Misfits, whose logo you use, are horror punk as well. Maybe it seems like quibbling but there is a big difference I think between punk and metal music. Granted, both are loud and aggressive but the ethos behind the two is completely different.

B-Sol said...

You're pedantic.

Anonymous said...

RayRay – Another fantastic post, B-Sol. You hit a number of good points about teenage angst, rebellion, etc., as being part of the genesis of the heavy metal/horror connection. I think, though, that as the 60’s became the 70’s, and the promise of the youth movements falling short, a certain level of anxiety began to permeate music. Blues, never far from center stage, made a huge comeback, most importantly in the form of bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath [yes, Sabbath was originally a blues band]. Also, these bands began to delve beyond the subjects of peace and love. While other bands, like Pink Floyd, began to go into the dreamy haze of LSD, Zeppelin and Sabbath [the godfather and grandfather, respectively, of heavy metal], began to be inspired by fantasy literature. And fantasy is the gateway drug into horror, as both have monsters and doom in abundance, along with outlets for teenage angst and escapism.

Also, Sabbath, and the first kings of metal, Iron Maiden, took inspiration from apocalyptic religion in combination with near certain nuclear annihilation. For Sabbath’s part, songs like War Pigs, Electric Funeral, Children of the Grave, and Into the Void bear out this dynamic, where man’s rash actions literally invite the devil into the world. And, the devil, the biggest villain of all [and th emost misunderstood character in literature], also became a staple of heavy metal, either as one to be feared or worshipped [at first the former, but increasingly the latter].

Metal, in the 1970’s and early 80’s, took on the heavy subjects – war, [nuclear and conventional], fear, violence, drug abuse and addiction, and injustice. Again, with liberal doses of fantasy, these topics were written about in detail. And since this was a new, darker form of rock ‘n roll, we were not spared the gory details.

I think Iron Maiden’s mascot, Eddie, a skeleton-like monster, was the first real commercial success in melding horror and metal into a single package, though Eddie really was just an icon, and Iron Maiden continued to write songs about Satan, war, and self made gods.

I also think that the artists who wrote these darker songs read darker literature and had darker thoughts, and this resulted in songs in the 80’s written about witch burnings, pure evil, and the monsters from HP Lovecraft [See: Metallica’s Call of Cthulu and The Thing Which Should Not Be]. While the earlier bands, like Sabbath, were inspired less by the horror genre, I think that by the 80’s, and your noted shift in horror movies styles in the 70’s, now bands were taking a good deal of inspiration from horror movies.

B-Sol said...

Ray, I humbly bow to your metal expertise. I think you've added a great deal to my original post, thanks. Speaking of Metallica's Call of Ktulu, that's definitely one of the specific songs I was thinking of. This seems to be a very fertile topic--I'd certainly welcome it if you wanted to expand on it and maybe do another guest post at some point!

pot head pixie said...

I'll try not to be pedantic as before as I think this topic is really quite interesting.

I remember when I first saw Phenomena on video and it was really weird to hear bands like Iron Maiden and Motorhead in the context of a soundtrack for Dario Argento. Maybe this is because we were all used to Goblim and Simonetti stuff, but it really kind of jarred a bit for me.

I also remember a band from when I was a teenager in the 80s, called Sabbat, who were a new thrash band in the UK. They went so far as to record a flexi-vinyl EP that was stuck to the cover of the fantasy RPG games magazine, White Dwarf. Their EP was wall about the game Warhammer. Those guys were into a kind of English spiritualism/occult thing called Wyrdism as well. I think it fits in with what you're saying as lots of people, and the press, thought they were satanists.

B-Sol said...

A lot of bands got a bum rap with the whole Satanism thing. Most either had the exact opposite message, or were just having fun with it. And by the way, I remember those flexi-vinyl EPs. I had one as a kid, it was attached to a magazine as well. Some kind of weird sci-fi/horror thing. Scared the crap out of me as a kid.

Anonymous said...

As a Misfits fan it makes me sick to see them labeled as "metal".
Same with 45 G.

Howard said...

I'm one of your crossover readers, B-Sol. You might remember me from such threads as "What's the deal with Irving Berlin and slumming?" Sorry I'm late to the thread here.

I'm going to go ahead and say it: I think that Metal is completely antithetical to horror. Metal music is either pretentious and ponderous, or over-the-top self-parody. I can certainly see how people enjoy it, and I don't begrudge them their tastes, but it is completely antithetical to horror, and always takes me right out of the movie.

I keep telling myself I should go to a HorrorCon sometime, but I never do, because I just know there'll be a bunch of MetalHeads there being really loud and not at all horrifying.

I think finding the right soundtrack for horror is always going to be a challenge. A great model is the 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The only music per se in the film is whatever the characters happen to have on the radio. And yet, the sound design of that film is so rich and edgy, that the foley track essentially functions as the film's score. And that's great.

There is a sound design studio in Bangkok that's done sound for several recent Asian horror films. These guys are masters of sound design and multichannel audio. Next time you watch a Pang Bros film, pay attention to the audio mix. The foley is the score. Thai sound design is the best reason I know for 5.1 home theater sound.

I also love the jazz score for Romero's Martin. I wish that film had been a financial success, so that the canonical 80s horror score would be jazz-influenced rather than the dime-store ersatz Goblin music that infests so many slashers. (Not that the original Goblin scores for Deep Red and Suspiria weren't exactly perfect for those films, but the legions of imitators [I'm looking at you, John Carpenter] pretty much killed it for me.)

Shadow of a Vampire went back to early 20th c. theater orchestras for inspiration, and I think it's probably the best horror film score in recent memory.

But Metal? Look, I think I can really understand why Metal fans like the music, but the thrash and volume of metal is about creating barriers, about creating a safe place to contemplate morbidity. I fully grant that some people need that distance, but it functions like a safety valve, it creates a kind of distance from the subject matter. Metal is about making horror safe. Horror shouldn't be safe.

B-Sol said...

Some interesting comments there Howard, as always. I agree that metal CAN be pretentious at its worst--I'm talking about those times when you hear the fans and musicians discuss chord progressions like its Beethoven and then you listen to it and it sounds like someone is taking a chainsaw to a tree. But at it's best it has a great deal more musicality to it than a lot of other forms of rock music, even if its very much an anti-melodic musicality. Part of what you say about it being "antithetical to horror" is what inspired me to write this post, since it has become the standard style of horror score for much of the past few decades. This is part of the major shift in style that horror has undergone. I don't believe it makes horror safer, though. I think in a lot of cases, it makes it more cynical. It's part of the whole post-modern anti-hero thing. We're supposed to identify with the monster, and to revel in the morbidity and destruction, not be recoil from it as, say 1930s audiences might've done while watching Dracula. One of my fellow member blogs in the League of Tana Tea Drinkers, Slasher Speak, has a recent post talking about how horror has lost its innocence. I think that's very apropos.

Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion. I love metal and horror movies. (I'm a 39 year old woman) I always have though. Growing up I always liked hard rock and metal. (mostly thrashy stuff) and I always loved horror movies. I think it is somewhat a generational thing too, that is now having it's cyclical resurgence. (the 20 year cycle they say) Metal and horror are just as, or even more so, as popular now as they were when I was 20. (which is so cool, although it makes me feel old! lol)

Howard said...

I don't believe it makes horror safer, though. I think in a lot of cases, it makes it more cynical.

Well, yes. I agree that Metal makes horror cynical. But I also think that cynicism is a way of distancing yourself so things can't hurt you. Cynicism is a kind of safety.

To pick another emotion, consider love. If you are really open to loving someone, there are incredible rewards, but there are also incredible risks. But if you're cynical about love, you get the kicks and the thrills, but when she says "You're a nice guy and all, but I need to see other people," it's not such a kick in the teeth.

Being cynical about love makes you safe in transient relationships. Being cynical about horror makes you safe around horrors. They say the most popular song on US soldiers' iPods in Iraq is Iron Man.

Metal, by making horror cynical, means on the one hand that the grotesque body horror in modern films doesn't got to you in the same way that, for example, driving past the scene of a fatal car accident on a country road at 3:00 AM can get to you. (Raise your hand if you've seen this. Puts a whole 'nother perspective on things.)

On the other hand, consider a great scene like the Woodsman walking into Ingolstadt with the drowned body of his daughter in James Whale's Frankenstein. That scene is a punch in the stomach every time I see it, and I always weep uncontrollably. Both the visual and musical esthetic of Metal would never, as far as I can tell, allow for that kind of deep, personal horror. Everything is safely ensconced behind the velvet ropes of cynicism.

The cynicism of Metal is horror's safety valve. Metal fulfills the same function as the Odious Comic Relief and Scooby-Doo endings in the Old Dark House movies of the silent era.

Howard said...

One more thought on music and horror.

"United Air Man" (.mp3) is a parody of Berlin's "Let's Go Slumming" by Charlie and His Orchestra, Goebel's personal propaganda swing band.

Let's go shelling
Where they're dwelling,
Let's shell churches, women, children, too,
Let us go to it, let's do it,
Let's bomb neutrals, too.
Let's go bombing, it's the coming,
Quite the thing to do.


In other words, it's the fucking Nazis calling out the allies on the bombing campaign that culminated in the firebombing of Dresden.

Think about it: The Nazis of all people playing on the basic human sympathies of allied airmen, with respect to one of the great horrors of WWII. The moral ambiguity that asks "Who's the real monster?" comes right out of the Universal playbook. The irony of the parody accentuates the horror rather than drawing from it. And this is no movie. This is probably the single most horrifying piece of music I've ever heard.

pot head pixie said...

I've been mulling over this a bit more and the following things have stuck in my mind.

Thematically, I think metal and horror are linked but I don't really know that many films that have heavy metal soundtracks.

Cradle of Fear springs to mind, but that stars the singer from Cradle of Filth and has a very goth aesthetic so maybe it's ok to have their music on the soundtrack...).

And the 80s Argento stuff (Phenomena above all) and maybe Demons as well...

Maybe I haven't watched enough modern US horror movies - or maybe I haven't noticed (which wouldn't be good) but I can't think of any more off the top of my head.

Perhaps there's also a link between the kind of people who like both but I think it's the same for fantasy and sci-fi. I remember going to a sci-fi festival in the UK when I was a teenager and it was full of heavy metal kids. Nothing wrong with that, though.

I agree that films like Martin have a cool soundtrack - and I don't think there's any specific style of music that works better than any other. The contention that metal is about creating barriers is rubbish. The idea that it's cynical is just plain bollocks. Do you think Celtic Frost were cynical? Mercyful Fate?

If it's safe commercial music used in a soundtrack then that's cynical. Metal can be commercial too so there's maybe a confusion. I don't know.

Howabout, though, for a GREAT SOUNDTRACK, the music from (REC)?

B-Sol said...

There are a bunch of horror movies with metal songs featured in them, but the connection extends beyond that. You touched on it yourself--there's a lot of overlap in the fan base. So the two things appeal to a lot of the same people, and I've been trying to understand why.

pot head pixie said...

I'd say there's as big or bigger a connection between goth and horror as between metal and horror.

Whatever, I think the article you wrote and the subsequent discussion was interesting.

B-Sol said...

Goth and horror, eh...? I think I feel a future blog spot coming on...

pot head pixie said...

The biggest goth music festival in the UK takes place in Whitby. Connection with horror there? Erm... :-)

viagra online said...

I don't believe it makes horror safer, though. I think in a lot of cases, it makes it more cynical. It's part of the whole post-modern anti-hero thing.

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