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Why teens love metal, gaming, and the occult

Beth Winegarner is many things: journalist, poet, published writer, mother, metalhead. Her latest project reconciles the latter two sides of herself. She is writing a book called Why Teens Love Metal, Gaming & The Occult: A Guide for Parents. It is meant to dispel the fears that parents have regarding these esoteric-seeming yet common interests.

To fund this book, the San Francisco-based writer has set up this Kickstarter page. If you aren’t familiar with Kickstarter, it is a risk-free donation mechanism. Each Kickstarter project has a donation goal and deadline. If the goal is not met by the deadline, no money changes hands. If the goal is met by the deadline, the project moves forward, and donors receive any number of incentives offered by the project owner. In this case, donors can receive, among other things, personalized writing from Winegarner, their names in the book’s acknowledgments, and the satisfaction of helping fund a worthwhile project. (My mother could have used a book like this.) Winegarner’s goal is reasonable: $2000 by the end of this month. Below are her answers to some questions I had about her project.

— Cosmo Lee

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What makes you qualified to write a book that’s essentially on parenting? Are you a parent yourself?

Well, it’s less a book on parenting, and more a book for parents – or anyone else, really – who is unfamiliar with the topics of heavy metal, violent video games, and the occult, and who is worried about someone who has taken an interest in one or more of these things. Most often, that’s a parent who is worried about their teenager, so that’s how I’m framing the book. But it can also be used by teachers, school counselors, church leaders, friends, etc.

The thing that makes me qualified to write this book is my background as a former teenage metal fan and as someone who explored paganism for a time – and as someone who has been close with lots and lots of people who are into metal, the occult, and video games.

I worked as a journalist for many years, where my job was to dig up information that the public needed to know, and then convey that information in a way that made it accessible to anyone. I’m doing the same thing here, except in this case the information is about these three genres. I think parents and others can get so wrapped up in what they hear from the press – that these interests cause kids to become violent or suicidal. Fear can poison relationships, but a healthy dose of friendly, accessible information seems like a good antidote to that fear.

Oddly, while there are lots of books about all three topics, very few, if any, are aimed at parents. I know one or two books on video games that were written specifically for parents of gamers, but the books I’ve seen on metal or on paganism were written either for an academic audience, or for fellow fans/practitioners.

Lastly, yes, I am a parent; my daughter is 18 months old. My experience-based parenting tips right now would be more along the lines of, “make sure your kid is well-rested, fed, and diapered” or, “if she’s refusing to do something, give her two options and let her choose one of them”. We’ll see how I do when it comes my turn to parent a teenager.

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What made you want to write this book? As a teenage metalhead, were you misunderstood by your parents?

I think most teens feel like they’re misunderstood by their parents, whether they’re into metal or not. I got into metal by accident – I’d heard plenty of it and didn’t like it, and then one day I heard “Welcome to the Jungle”, and it was like someone flipped a switch in my head. I was 15 years old, and metal suddenly went from being tuneless noise to being my major source of entertainment, comfort, solace, and energization. My parents knew I was into it, mainly because I was watching the Hard 60 every day on MTV and our television was in the living room. My dad didn’t really get the appeal, and complained about it a few times, but still gave me rides to local metal shows. My mom didn’t like some metal – I remember her complaining about Robert Plant’s voice, for example, but she was a bigger Twisted Sister fan than I was.

Really, I was motivated much more by the reactions I saw to heavy metal from other factions of society, starting with the PMRC in the 1980s. I was so angry with them from the beginning, and didn’t understand why they wanted to separate kids from the music they loved. It was obvious that they were misinterpreting songs, lyrics, and the personae of the musicians involved. I didn’t understand why Tipper Gore didn’t want her daughter listening to a song about masturbation – what’s wrong with masturbation? – or why she felt it was better to slap a warning label on albums containing profanity rather than encouraging parents to listen to the same music their kids listened to, and then engage in actual dialogue about what they heard. I recognize that a lot of music, metal definitely included, will make parents uncomfortable. But a lot of kids are uncomfortable with it the first time they hear it, too – especially kids who listen to experimental or black metal. I think if you could launch a conversation from that starting point, it would be a lot healthier than freaking out because there’s a warning label on something.

Two other incidents really made me angry – the conviction of the West Memphis Three and the press coverage of the Columbine High School shootings. With the WM3, three teenage boys were convicted of the murders of three little boys in Arkansas. There wasn’t much evidence against them, but one of the teens, who is mentally disabled, was coerced by police into confessing – and his confession was basically fed to him. But the other two teens were known around town for wearing black, listening to Metallica, and reading books about Wicca and Aleister Crowley; apparently these things are enough to land you on death row in Arkansas. That, right there, is based on fear – fear that comes from what people read in the newspaper and hear on TV, that heavy metal and the occult makes people violent. Meanwhile, these teens have spent half their lives in jail, even though recent DNA evidence has proven they didn’t commit the murders. With Columbine, we know what happened – the media blamed industrial metal and first-person shooters for “inspiring” the killings, even though it looks like Eric Harris was a sociopath and Dylan Klebold was clinically depressed. And they both had histories of smaller violent acts. Unfortunately, after Columbine there was a major backlash among parents and politicians against teenagers, especially teenage boys, goths, and “misfit” kids. I’m not sure the country has really recovered from that yet.

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How do you plan to structure your arguments? A book like this has the potential to become touchy-feely.

Most of the book is based on providing information. For example, the heavy metal section explains what heavy metal is, describes some of what teens experience and why some teens would be really drawn to the genre, and then describes some of metal’s predominant subgenres. I also have a long section on the misrepresentation of metal in the press and in the courtroom, including information on the trials against Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne. I think many people know that they were sued, but not that the cases were thrown out of court and the judges strongly sided with the musicians.

I spent a lot of time interviewing fans of metal, fans of video games, and folks who pursued an interest in the occult when they were teenagers, so their stories and perspectives anchor the book in many places. It’s one thing to provide parents with my perspective or quotes from academic sources, but I felt like they needed to hear alot of this information in the words of the teens themselves. If they’re having trouble approaching their own kid, then hearing it from another kid seems like it would help them understand more fully.

I’m trying to write this with a good deal of compassion. I think any parent who picks up this book is going through some level of anxiety about their kid’s interests, but is open-minded enough to want to learn more. The information definitely comes first, but you have to approach people gently when you’re explaining to them why their teen is reading about Satanism or listening to Cannibal Corpse. I’m still describing everything in detail, because sooner or later they’re going to read books or lyrics and see it in detail anyway, but I’m trying to convey it in as friendly a manner as I can without being overly sentimental.

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Could metal, video games, or the occult cross any line for you? Would you let your own children listen to pornogrind or white power music, or sacrifice animals in the name of the occult?

Well, I don’t let my daughter watch Metalocalypse with me yet, but she’s only 18 months old. In general, I have very few barriers regarding these interests, and here’s why: again and again when I interviewed folks for my book, they said as teenagers they had their own internal limits. Such and such game or band was great, but others just went too far; the gore factor was too much, the sound was too intense; and so on. I think kids have better limits than we give them credit for, and if we allow them the opportunity to discover those boundaries on their own, it’s going to be a lot more meaningful than if we as parents impose them. That said, I plan to find out what my daughter is interested in, and learn as much as I can about it. If something comes up that I’m uncomfortable with, I’ll talk to her about it to make sure I understand more – and to make sure she understands why I’m uncomfortable. That’s what I’m encouraging parents to do with this book. The information in it is just a launching point for further exploration and conversation.

As for animal sacrifice – there are very few occult practices that sanction animal sacrifice. Those that do are primarily those from Africa and the Caribbean – and they’re not common practices among teenagers. In general, teens who are harming animals have something else going on psychologically, and that’s worth looking into with the help of a professional.

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What metal are you listening to these days?

There are a few albums on reasonably heavy rotation on my iPod recently, including Eluveitie’s Spirit, Amorphis’ Skyforger, and Alice in Chains’ Black Gives Way to Blue. I’m looking forward to the new Apocalyptica record, which just came out but I haven’t purchased yet. Baroness has been a favorite of mine since I discovered them about three years ago; in general, I’m not a big fan of prog metal but they have so many other brilliant qualities that the sound works well for me. And then there are perennial favorites, such as Metallica, Megadeth, Guns N’ Roses, Lacuna Coil, High on Fire, WASP. I gravitate toward bands with an anthemic, melodic sound – either that or stoner metal.

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To help fund this project by September 30, see its Kickstarter page.
For more information, see Beth Winegarner’s official website.

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