Looking Back At Per “Dead” Ohlin

Earlier this year, I read Metalion: The Slayer Mag Diaries by Jon Kristiansen. The book is a solid testament to the Second Wave of Black Metal in Norway during the late ’80s and early ’90s, but while the zines themselves are incredibly evocative of a reality that may no longer exist in metal, the written chapters in between the photocopied pages are the book’s most valuable assets. These are the confessions of a player in what is now a cultural myth, expressing the disillusionment and intensity (and sure, the drunkenness and poverty) that helped gestate something that many of us find incomprehensible–an unequivocal rejection of life, light, and happiness. But while reading about the major events in this movement, the one that always stops me in my tracks is the life and suicide of Morbid and Mayhem frontman Per Ohlin, known to many by his stage name Dead.

Unlike that of many of his contemporaries, Dead’s darkness was pure. As a child in Sweden, he had a near-death experience caused by a ruptured spleen, which Ohlin claimed was the result of an ice-skating accident but his brother later attributed to a beating by schoolyard bullies. This brush with death left him depressed, introverted, and obsessed with dying. If the stories are to be believed, Ohlin’s original communication with Mayhem came in the form of a package containing a letter, a demo tape, and a crucified mouse. Dead was the real deal—he would cut himself onstage, bury his clothes to make them cerements of the grave, huff a dead crow he kept in a jar to get the scent of decay in his nostrils. He’s credited as the first black metal musician to wear corpse paint. Then, in the house he lived in with Mayhem guitarist and black metal svengali Oystein “Euronymous” Aarseth, Dead slit his wrists and throat before shooting himself in the head with a shotgun. His suicide note famously included the phrase, “Excuse all the blood.” Upon finding him, the legend goes, Euronymous made necklaces with pieces of Ohlin’s skull and a stew with bits of his brains. That Aarseth photographed the body is undisputed—a picture of Ohlin’s corpse graces the Mayhem bootleg Dawn of the Black Hearts.

The importance of Ohlin’s death is indescribable. Obviously, the Norwegian black metal movement came about through a great number of albums, personalities, and circumstances, but before Per Ohlin joined Mayhem they were a thrash band from Norway; with him on board they were a cultural landmark, synonymous with corporeal morbidity and the unstoppable darkness within every soul (and pig’s heads). His depression, which often alarmed and upset those around him, was a justification of the whole black metal aesthetic, because fuck, man, if someone like Per Ohlin existed, so wrapped up in his own demise that he’d gash his arm with a broken bottle at parties, then maybe this world was the Hell all the songs claimed it was—what else could birth a soul like that of Dead? But while his life was powerful, his suicide was monumental, both solidifying his role as Mayhem’s greatest frontman and driving home Euronymous’ so-desperately-desired image of the Satanic overlord unconcerned with decency or humanity.

Reading about Dead’s life and death makes Euronymous, often considered the martyred father of black metal, look like a real piece of shit. Never mind pilfering Ohlin’s corpse—many players in the movement have described how Euronymous not only allowed Dead to mutilate himself, but also encouraged these tendencies. Some even speculate that Aarseth, well versed in Dead’s mental anguish, left the singer alone in a house containing a shotgun in the hopes that he would commit suicide. All speculation aside, an undeniable fact is that when it came to acting “true,” Euronymous had nothing on Dead, and more so that he used Dead’s instability as a tool for his own mythology. Maybe this wasn’t entirely on Aarseth—Dead obviously gave a shit about how he was perceived, and was finally responsible for his own death—but one can’t help but wonder what the fuck Euronymous was thinking, or if he ever cared about his singer. From what I’ve read, Aarseth was a charismatic figure who could easily have discouraged Ohlin from self-slaughter. Euronymous himself didn’t want to die, made evident by how he fled during his murder. So maybe he wanted this genuine article to be sacrificed to his scene. In a letter reprinted in Peter Beste’s True Norwegian Black Metal, Euronymous claims that Dead committed suicide because the poser-riddled scene disgusted him, rewriting history to make his friend’s tragedy justify his existence.

Then again, those around Dead seem to think he was pretty intent on dying. Bard Eithun of Emperor said, “Honestly, I don’t think he was enjoying living in this world.” One wonders if anything could have been done to save Ohlin. Maybe he needed to go home—Sweden is a very different country from Norway, less frigid and cut-throat, and though Dead was already mutilating rodents in Sweden, maybe he would have been comfortable enough there to weather the storm. Or maybe it was Scandinavia as a whole—in Metalion, Kristiansen describes going to Australia as an eye-opening experience, full of warm, uninhibited people. Maybe Ohlin needed to go somewhere with sunny beaches and open plains to soothe his torment; a month in Greece could have saved Dead. Maybe he just needed those around him to show him more love, though given how well the survivors of the Second Wave speak of him he probably received plenty. Hell, maybe he needed medication and therapy, practices I feel conflicted about. What if Ohlin had someone to talk to entirely divorced from the scene? But all these maybes and ifs mean nothing. Had Dead been saved from or grown out of his abject misery, black metal would not have exploded the way it did. I would not feel as touched by his story, and this article would go unwritten.

That, finally, is the tragedy of Per Ohlin’s death—how much we owe him. Dead’s suicide created black metal as we know it, the perfect mixture of disharmonious music and absolute seriousness of attitude. Interestingly, Dead’s obsessions always leaned more towards the vast cold of the void rather than the glory of Satan, and this only makes him more genuine than many of the genre’s artists. Norse Satanism is steeped in the state-sponsored Christianity it rejects, finding solace in a punk-ish Anti-Your-Thing quality backed by grandiose and bestial imagery. Dead didn’t didn’t stand in opposition to everyday life, he felt foreign to it, and sought a realm where his overwhelming urges weren’t trapped in a veil of meat and emotion. That’s what black metal is, at its heart—a deep, violent revolt against the boundaries of one’s reality, the scream from the mouth of a person who has realized that they do, in fact, have a soul. In black metal, I see magical rebellion against society, but in Per Ohlin I see something more, a spirit who forsook the uncomfortable prison of living and leapt into a freezing ocean ahead of him, where he could disappear like a single drop among rolling black waves.

— Scab Casserole

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[Editor's Note: Scab Casserole is a metal journalist for Invisible Oranges. He has never been to Scandinavia or spoken at any length to any member of the Norwegian black metal scene.]