Fear: What Is This That Stands Before Me?
Allen Shawn is a noted classical composer and professor. He's also a lifelong sufferer of panic attacks and agoraphobia. Shawn's eloquent book Wish I Could Be There details his difficult journey. His fears aren't robbers or jihadists, but mundane things most people overlook: the quiet road near his rural Vermont home, the store where he once felt like he was going mad during a panic attack, a highway drive.
Fear – or, more accurately, the fear that he will panic - demarcates the geography of Shawn's life. It determines where he can go, where he feels safe. The book is about his journey to widen these boundaries, become a part of the larger world, and embrace fear so that it no longer suffocates.
Shawn's struggles – common among sufferers of anxiety disorders and agoraphobia – are instructive when you consider metal. Why? Perhaps no other music has a more direct relationship with fear than metal. Metal fans live with fear every day. Fear is part of the ritual and experience of metal.
It isn't something that restricts lifestyles or causes lingering dread. Rather, it's something that's endlessly dissected and discussed. Metal can also be cathartic in that it allows musicians and, by extension, fans to give voice to their worries, and thus to excise them.
Since its beginnings, metal has trafficked in fear: the demonic cover art of Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath, Slayer's "Tormenter" waiting to attack a hapless victim, Venom's Satanic posturing, King Diamond's elaborate stage setups. Death metal bands still aim to outdo each other with album covers detailing body parts, gaping wounds, and less-than-efficient surgery. These efforts often end in unintentional parody, but the initial aim is to scare. Sometimes fear and public outcry seem warranted; the murders and church burnings that made Norway center of the metal world are the most glaring examples.
Musicians and critics have likened the scary elements of metal to horror films. Walter Kendrick argues in his book The Thrill of Fear: 250 Years of Scary Entertainment that the scares produced by horror are something we enjoy, that watching a Grand Guignol or slasher movie isn't different than a roller coaster. Evil will be defeated and the social order restored.
Kendrick's book was written in 1991 and hence predated roughly two decades of horror, some based on real crimes. Many filmmakers now don't give viewers hope. Down videographer Jim Van Bebber directed My Sweet Satan, a film loosely based on a Long Island teen killing unfortunately linked to heavy metal. His most recent film was the documentary-style The Manson Family, which ends with the gratuitously violent killing of a broadcaster investigating the sect and Manson's new followers. Pessimism courses through Van Bebber's films, which all end in suffocating darkness.
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Interview with Jim Van Bebber
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What is it about metal that scares us? Can metal frighten anymore in a world where terrorists fly airplanes into buildings, climate change portends doom, and geneticists toy with genomes in Frankenstein fashion? The answer depends in part on who is playing an album.
The younger and less experienced listener, one unaccustomed to the barrage of crime and depravity on the nightly news, is more likely to be scared. A young imagination is fertile. Death and disease seem remote. Religion is sometimes omnipresent.
When I listened to the spoken opening of Mercyful Fate's "The Oath" as a kid, my mind went haywire. I felt like I was damned and that it was too late to do anything to save myself. Yet something compelled me to rewind the tape and listen again.
It's tougher for adults to be scared of metal, because we know it's art and that nothing bad will happen if we play an album. We also enjoy the music for an infinite number of other reasons. Fear takes a willful suspension of disbelief and the ability to shut off the outside world entirely. When you worry about bills, it's tough to make that happen. But with committed listening, it's possible to at least mimic the feelings metal provided years ago.
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Mercyful Fate - "The Oath" (Live 1986)
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Fear was a constant companion in my childhood. It lurked in homes, church, school, my neighborhood.
There was the priest who sat inches from my face, so close his beard bristles nearly touched my cheek, warning me that I risked Hell if I continued to misbehave. I imagined the ways I could end his tyranny: a tripwire at the rectory, a brick dropped from the steeple. His admonitions never left me. My anger at him never subsided.
There was the picture of a clown in my great-grandfather's otherwise austere home, his face a death mask that belied the happy smile.
There was our Born Again after-school sitter, a stone cold '70s fox with teased hair who told elaborate tales of how demons masquerading as angels visited her bedside to tempt her, and how they fled when she whispered, "Jesus".
When there was a streaker in our neighborhood, our elementary school imaginations turned a garden-variety pervert into an axe-wielding lunatic who carried a severed head.
To make things worse, I was a nerd, perpetually frightened by my peers. The Close Encounters of The Third Kind lunchbox I carted on my first day at a new school met uniform derision. Later that day, I carried home a pile of books which were knocked out of my hands by a bully. He challenged me to a fight. I ran, blindly. For years, every walk to school felt like navigating a gauntlet.
My misfit group of friends dabbled in fear. There were games of Bloody Mary (say the name ten times in front of a mirror in a dark bathroom), séances, and "light as a feather, stiff as a board". There seemed an unspoken agreement that much of this was silly – that we were playing dress up – but the simple act of turning out the lights and burning candles was enough to induce goose bumps.
Metal soon arrived in this world. The music initially seemed terrifying and induced nightmares. It asked me to confront images that were more blasphemous than I could fathom after a childhood in the Catholic church. What was I to make of the cover of Black Metal? At that point, I could have never imagined something that went further – Profanatica, Sarcofago, or Mayhem.
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Iron Maiden - "Killers"
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The family across the street had a reputation for fighting and arguments that ended in screaming and door-slamming. While my parents were at work, the imposing live-in boyfriend slept through the day like Nosferatu (vicious hangovers were the likely culprit). A giant record store standee from Iron Maiden's Killers dwarfed his window. The victim's arms reached up at Eddie, but it was obviously too late. I looked up at Eddie every day, scared.
Everyone my parents wanted me to avoid seemed to have a tangential relationship with metal. The tough who flailed his nunchucks on the front lawn - he would have been perfect in a Mike Judge film - played Judas Priest on his boombox. Troublemakers had metal stickers on car bumpers. The music, while taboo, seemed a readily accessible way to enter a world that oozed strength and defiance.
The fear and power associated with metal became alluring. I was 13. Junior high was more brutal than elementary school, and I looked for ways to set myself apart. My bowl haircut damned me to comparisons to another nerd who had since left the school. I wanted to be something and someone else. I needed to change.
The coolest kid in seventh grade nicknamed himself "Maiden". He pulled off an amazing balancing act: he fully embraced metal and was still sought-after by every girl in school. His long hair, leather jacket, affinity for Marlboros, and antisocial attitude completed the picture. I saw him walk down the hall in a Number of the Beast shirt and wanted to capture and bottle his bravado. I thought we could be friends, but I never became more than one of Maiden's distant hanger-ons.
Metal is supposed to be about individuality and following your own path. Sadly, peer pressure played a role in my induction – it sent me in a different direction in the record store. Instead of purchasing Purple Rain, I headed to the "Hard Rock" aisle. I bought Paranoid, Piece of Mind, and a few buttons to pin on my blue wind-tamer jacket . The records didn't leave my turntable for months. An Iron Maiden poster followed. My metal journey began.
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Black Sabbath - "Killing Yourself to Live"
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I quickly learned that fear wasn't just something that metal instilled in listeners. Metal scared outsiders even more. It allowed fans to exercise control and offered guaranteed distance from jocks and agitators. Metal offered power. I finally owned something that scared others.
I scrawled pentagrams on bathroom walls, risking suspension or worse, knowing that it would shock. Our collection of misfit boys tiptoed out of quiet homes at night to walk the grounds near an old mental institution, talking aloud about horrors we imagined took place within the walls.
Metal was not as ingrained as it is in American culture now, and far more likely to incite well-meaning but misguided adults. There were weekly sessions with the junior high counselor, a portly woman who decorated her offices with photos and calendars of garish chocolates and candies. She looked aghast, her hefty jaw dropping, when I said I believed sorcery was real. Fortunately, this was before any kid with an overactive imagination could be arrested or carted off to a brain garage for what amounts to severe growing pains.
Metal allowed me to set myself apart as special and different. But my parents were alarmed by the music and my friends, including the 18 year-old role-playing guru who had posters of demons covering his room, and who roamed the playground at night shirtless, wearing an executioner's hood like a gaunt El Duce.
It wasn't all about fear and manipulation. Once I began to find and lose myself in the music, I cared less about my place in the Darwinian teenage world. Metal spoke to me like nothing I'd ever heard.
There was something moving about listening to Sabbath’s "Killing Yourself to Live" while delivering newspapers as I smoked Lucky Strikes and the sun set in suburbia. Nothing felt like listening to Sabbath's "Warning" alone in my room before my parents got home from work. "Evil Has No Boundaries" prepared me to endure days of bullshit with a history teacher who did nothing to kids who picked on other kids.
I ended up in an all-boys private school, my reward for my listening habits.
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Geraldo Rivera special on "devil music"
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A quarter century ago, metal was in the crosshairs, its opponents as outraged and misguided as members of the Tea Party. Benign hair metal artists like Dee Snider and Blackie Lawless were paraded around like pied pipers seducing American's children into lives of the occult and drugs. This was before Al-Qaeda, shoe bombers, and anthrax, before the economy went into freefall and workplace shootings became common. We had the luxury of being scared of men like Snider and Lawless who paid taxes and generated millions for record companies. What would politicians have made of Glen Benton a decade later?
During comfortable times, people need bogeymen. Metal was a perfect foil to the go-go, materialistic '80s, primarily because of misinformation pumped onto the airwaves. Each week, there was a new special about Satanic cults or a slipshod piece on metal culture.
Part of it was that the music was a decade old, and people didn't have gangster rap or teen pop to blame when children went awry. My parents, particularly my father, partially bought into the hype. It wasn't entirely his fault; propaganda was pervasive. Friday nights usually meant another news report that could imperil my record collection.
Geraldo Rivera's "Satanic panic" special was the worst. "This is not a Halloween fable, this a real life horror story", Geraldo said before claiming teenagers could be "driven to commit terrible deeds". The report immediately cut to video clips of Venom and Mötley Crüe, likely boosting record sales. Iron Maiden’s "Number of the Beast" played in the background. Geraldo mentioned that most kids who listen to the music won't end up killers, but the implication was clear: heavy metal will turn your kid into the equivalent of Jim Thompson's sociopathic narrator Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me.
Watched decades later, the piece is laughable and frightening in a real way. These kinds of stories can ruin lives. Megadeth is called a Satanic band, despite never writing a Satanic song and the eventual conversion of their frontman to Christianity. Troubled teens presumably ruined by metal are allowed to talk unchallenged, with nary a word about what might have taken place in their homes.
The only voice of reason is King Diamond, sadly undermined by his decision to be interviewed in makeup: "I think people are too clever to be influenced by watching a band or listening to an album", he said. It's the only sensible thing uttered during the episode, which wouldn't have cleared introductory journalism.
My father had enough. He taped another metal-is-evil special from 20/20 and made me watch it. Dad also got crafty. He knew I badly wanted a Powell-Peralta Steve Steadham skateboard but couldn't afford it. He proposed a twisted Faustian bargain: if I parted with all of my metal albums, he would trade them for the skateboard.
I taped all the albums, hid the best ones, collected the remaining vinyl, and brought the records downstairs on a Friday night. The collected heft of the blasphemy I handed over was enough to make a convent combust.
Years later, a nationwide witch hunt culminated with the bogus convictions of The West Memphis Three. The people that we should have been scared of weren't the bands or kids. It was the misguided authorities – the nicely dressed folks looking concerned in the front rows of talk shows – who went unchecked. People were taken to prison and accused of horrific crimes for doing nothing except liking the wrong music or being in the wrong place (for an egregious example, see the recent documentary Witch Hunt). Lives were destroyed because metal and Satan offered the most convenient symbols.
We should have been scared of the fear-peddlers.
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Current Affair special on "death music"
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What is it about metal that is really frightening? It's not Satan, King Diamond, Vince Locke's artwork, Chris Barnes' early lyrics, or even the cosmic heft of Deathspell Omega or Portal.
It's an idea that has vexed man since our earliest roots, one that is voiced throughout extreme metal: things are not as they should be. Our world is off-kilter. This unifying idea manifests itself in metal about politics, violence, religion, and even sex. What is truly frightening is that our lives rely on the illusion that everything is in control, and that people and institutions have our best interests at heart, that the world is logical, that your life is meaningful and not a facade. Metal tells you that's almost never the case.
Look at Napalm Death's catalog, and you'll see a unifying fear of the forces operating governments, corporations, and economies, a fear and anger that the powerful care little for everyday struggles or the poor. Listen to Burzum and Mayhem, and you'll find a fear that mankind is entirely distanced from nature and has lost its way in a world of tract homes and technology. Death metal is rife with the fear that we are not connected to our bodies, and a fear of the fragility and demise of our physical shells. (For a further examination of this idea check out Mark Seltzer’s sometimes pedantic yet intriguing book Serial Killers: Death and Life in America's Wound Culture.)
This idea could even be extended to Agoraphobic Nosebleed. Their work, at least up until Agorapocalypse, straddles the line between music and noise. Listen to ANB's landmark Altered States of America and one idea becomes clear: what we consider music is arbitrary. ANB's music can be frightening, because it shows that everyday music – say, a 12-bar structure - is another form of control, a means to hold anarchy at bay.
Strangely, the same core belief, that life is little more than sleepwalking, anchors many spiritual and religious practices. This idea – that we need to open our eyes and confront impermanence, injustice, and death – is found in every religious tradition.
Most metal positions itself as diametrically opposed to Christianity, but when one considers the most primal emotion – fear - there are parallels. Early Christianity was essentially rebellious and revolutionary, the followers a group of radicals who also believed that the world was off its axis. The practitioners weren't bureaucrats running the Vatican but young people who wanted to change the world. Metal may not offer transcendence, but it recognizes that we are guided by illusions and perhaps irreparably distanced from ourselves. Even Watain suggests that there's little of interest in our physical world, and that we should instead turn our attention to the abyss.
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Weekend Nachos - "Reason to Die"
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I am well into my 30s. The anger and resentment have passed. The music remains.
I own a massive metal collection and see bands that would deeply trouble my coworkers. I get on the train to commute every day with a gym bag and newspaper in hand. You would not know that I listen to Darkthrone.
Metal doesn't retain the same power to frighten as it once did, perhaps because I've heard and seen so much of it that it's become familiar. But I can still feel hints of fear in the primordial muck of Vasaeleth's Crypt Born and Tethered to Ruin or the psychopathic rage of Weekend Nachos.
Outsiders don't understand metal's relationship with fear: the capacity to understand and own your darkest emotions, and the power to endure. Composer Shawn makes an interesting point in his book, that confronting fear and learning to become a wholly integrated person requires accepting that our fragile egos and lives are surrounded by nothingness. Metal sets us on this path from the get-go.
Metal is the audible equivalent of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. We are all a bit like the narrator Charles Marlow, headed upriver to confront horror and integrate what we learn in our daily lives:
I turned to the wilderness really, not to Mr. Kurtz, who, I was ready to admit, was as good as buried. And for a moment it seemed to me as if I also was buried in a vast grave full of unspeakable secrets. I felt an intolerable weight oppressing my breast, the smell of the damp earth, the unseen presence of victorious corruption, the darkness of an impenetrable night.
Metal is ultimately an instructor. It teaches us to continue on life's uncertain path, to push ahead in the face of fear.
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