Mutilation and Its Discontents
The state of metal fandom is indeed one of extremity. Fans of the genre live in constant fear of two dichotomous yet equally horrific fates: ineffable dread and abject boredom. Rationed out in the form of metal lyrics, fantasy allows many to cope with these twin specters of evil. In the case of the latter, fantasy allows audiences an escape into exotic worlds. As to the former, this escapism carries with it the unfortunate byproduct of desensitization to the truly heinous. Fantasy can beautify the horrendous, but it can also neutralize it, dulling the impact of real world terror.
Death metal fantasy in particular fulfills both roles with aplomb. The hyper-violence presented instills in listeners a haunting, depressing, and ultimately unhealthy sense of apathy regarding the infinite methods of torture and murder on parade. Like any form of storytelling, death metal draws audiences into a sense of complicity with its content, but in this case the listener is required to immerse oneself in a world where the unthinkably blasphemous and offensive is made gleefully mundane. The imagination—and subsequent neutralization—of the unthinkable in such a manner is a morally questionable act, but not quite in the manner one may expect.
Sigmund Freud’s massively influential 1930 opus Civilization and Its Discontents details the inherent conflicts between man and mankind. According to Freud, “Life, as we find it, is too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointments and impossible tasks. In order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures.” The myriad trials and trivialities of life are too much for any person to bear, and as such it is necessary to fall back on coping mechanisms, of which Freud cites three: deflections, substitutive satisfactions, and intoxicating substances. Though the others are valid in their own rights (and of course the last is assuredly most glamorous), this essay will attempt to illustrate how the slasher film fantasies of death metal work as effigies of real world anxieties.
The fact that metal lyricists often are not the best-adjusted members of society is no secret. Their rejection of society is represented by their attempts “to try to re-create the world, to build up in its stead another world in which its most unbearable features are eliminated and replaced by others that are in conformity with one’s own wishes.” In other words, those who shun society for certain aspects they refuse to accept tend to rebuild society within themselves with the perceived problems “fixed.”
Freud illustrates his point by referencing his previous critique of religion, 1927’s The Future of an Illusion. To Freud, the concept of the afterlife has its origins in humans wishing to believe they were more than animals. Humans rejected a world where they could be nothing more than ordinary and erected in its place one where their supremacy over Creation was innately asserted. Similarly, death metal lyrics are the poetry of self-aggrandizement. While far removed from the alternating ego-driven posing and angst-ridden pity parties of nu metal, death metal’s carnage-laced narratives work to raise the author—and by tacit inclusion, the audience—above the encumbrance of daily routine. The lure of death metal’s generalized disaster is its release of one from normal obligations.
Indeed, the most worrisome satisfaction such gruesome fantasy sows is extreme moral simplification. Like its close cousin the slasher film, death metal creates a morally acceptable outlet for cruel or amoral feelings. The sense of highest superiority over the countless victims imaginatively butchered conjoined with the titillating rush of fear and aversion allows for moral standards to be ignored so the listener can sit back and enjoy the cruelty. Both death metal and slasher films provide a fantasy target for righteous bellicosity to discharge itself and for the aesthetic enjoyment of suffering through the convergence of the ugly and the predatory. Such imaginings are the purest form of spectacle; audiences are never burdened with questioning the motivation for the debauchery. Instead, they are transported to a world where such questions are completely beside the point.
Of course any fan of either medium would defend it as nothing more than mere distraction—gruesome as the fantasy may be, it is still only imaginary. But Freud warns that “…whoever, in desperate defiance, sets out upon this path to happiness will as a rule attain nothing. Reality is too strong for him. He becomes a madman, who…finds no one to help him in carrying through his delusion.” The siren song of the fantasy world proves too strong, and spectators find themselves longing to return to the worlds of the unreal. In an excerpt from his book The Art of Immersion, Frank Rose details the history of media immersion, from books to movies to television. All the way from Don Quixote to Avatar, Rose traces the lineage of fantasy addiction to arrive at his conclusion: “What we really want is to go back to Pandora, even though we’ve never been there in the first place. We want to be sucked inside the computer like Jeff Bridges in Tron. We want to be immersed in something that’s not real at all. Just like Don Quixote.” Fantasy presents in itself no threat of danger, but a willful mental disassociation from reality indubitably does. This is where the inherent moral questionability of escapism arises. It would be easy to make the claim that the relatively peaceable catharsis of conquering real world trials through lyrical body horror is enough to merit continued reliance on this particular defense mechanism, but this simply is not the case. According to Freud, “the enjoyment of works of art…is made accessible even to those who are not themselves creative” “by the agency of the artist.” “Nevertheless the mild narcosis induced in us by art can do no more than bring about a transient withdrawal from the pressure of vital needs, and it is not strong enough to make us forget real misery.” No matter how real imagined triumphs may seem, they can never be anything more than a lesser surrogate of real world accomplishments, and as such the dissociative divide grows ever larger.
The point of this essay is not to make some concerned parent argument decrying heavy metal as Satan’s latest effort to emotionally corrupt children (or whatever). Rather it is to assert the timelessness of deathly visions as defense mechanisms. Just before his suicide in 1945, Hitler ordered the citizens of Berlin to be executed en masse. “It appeared that the Nazis did not want the people to survive because a lost war, by their rationale, was obviously the fault of all of us. We had not sacrificed enough and therefore, we had forfeited our right to live,” wrote Dorothea von Schwanenfluegel Lawson in her memoir Laughter Wasn’t Rationed. Surprisingly, the Berliners hardly reacted to the order at all. While continuing life unabated in the actual face of death is an admittedly extreme example, such apocalyptic expectations are part and parcel of death metal, and both represent at their cores an inadequate response. The lyrics are not the problem; they are simply a symptom, stripped of sophistication, of the insufficiency of people’s responses to the unassimilable horrors to which they are witness. The interest of the lyrics, aside from their narrative charm, resides in the intersection of escapist art and the most profoundly timeless dilemmas facing humanity.