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The Horror Genre in Heavy Metal

The horror genre embraces many forms of art, affecting their aesthetics, content, and representation. It tackles the themes of death, supernatural, ghosts, monsters, witchcraft, and generally everything dark and evil that can awaken the sense of fear. However, the influence of horror is controversial, as it can be repulsive and attractive at the same time. Due to its intensity, it can arouse a creative impulse, and its ambiguity can provide a great source of inspiration for many artists. Horror “reaches out with bloody, ichor-dripping tentacles to touch whatever it can get its fangs around. It loves to try new things, bring new genres into its web, and no form is spared. Music is no exception” (Ball, 2021, para. 2). Music has always been affected by the horror genre, even back to the medieval times, in the works of classical composers, and in the soundtracks for the first scary movies of the 20th century. However, heavy metal is the genre on which horror has had the greatest influence.

Figure 1. Horror Movie and Heavy Metal Characters Design. Allen, B. 2015

Heavy metal and horror have coexisted and influenced each other for over half a century. According to Asbjørn Dyrendal, a professor of history and sociology, rock music began to evolve and manifest a heavier sound in the early 1970s, when the bands started to “look at horror films and the demonic as inspirational” for their music style, lyrics and aesthetics (Dyrendal, 2008, p.75). While the bands of the ‘60s and ‘70s, such as The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin played around the occult topics, rock music history unanimously agrees that Black Sabbath was the first band to really tap into the evil and horror, expressing it in every aspect of their work: their sound, texts, album covers, and overall style.

The Birmingham quartet named themselves after the classic 1963 Mario Bava’s horror anthology (Hartmann, 2020, para. 2), and used sinister topics for their lyrics with vivid references to the occult, Lucifer, and Dennis Wheatley’s horror fiction. In an attempt to go against the mainstream music scene and create something new and exciting they used the Devil’s interval for their guitar riffs. Also known as Diabolus in Musica, a triton – is a chord that provides a disharmonious and eerie sound due to its dissonant intervals. Over the decades “countless bands including Judas Priest, Metallica, Slayer, Marilyn Manson and Slipknot have all relied on the devil’s interval to add darkness and power to their music” (Wiederhorn, 2022, para. 5). Black Sabbath changed the course of music history as, due to their work, the horror genre has firmly merged with heavy metal.

Figure 2. Alice Cooper on stage with his snake. (n.d.).

The ‘70s era produced more artists who found inspiration for their music in horror. While the sound and the lyrics of KISS and Alice Cooper were not as dark, their performances appeared “far more theatrical” than Sabbath’s (Beezer, 2020, para. 5). KISS introduced to the audience provocative clothes and make-up, while personifying demons and spitting blood and fire on stage. Although, Alice Cooper is the one who is frequently referred to as the godfather of shock rock. He is known for his macabre shows, which include staged tortures and executions by electric chair, guillotine and gallows, chopping up baby dolls, pyrotechnics, giant snakes, and theatrical make-up (Gagne, 2022). Cooper popularised dreadful and terrifying imagery in heavy music, making his “carnival-of-terror live show” just as entertaining and trilling as horror movies (Beezer, 2020, para. 8).

First shock-rockers laid a path for the musicians of the following decades who made a purpose for their music to scare the listeners. Their performances on stage were theatrical and frightening, while the texts of their songs revealed disturbing topics. Rammstein’s lyrics include the themes of various perversities, serial-killers, and psychopaths (Enis, 2022). Marilyn Manson had borrowed a part of his stage name from Charles Manson and invented a whole new horror-persona with an eccentric appearance. Rob Zombie is known for his love for the monsters, like Frankenstein, whose imagery he uses on the stage. Additionally, Zombie is recognised for the horror movies that he directed himself, like House of the 1000 corpses (2003) and Halloween (2007). At this point, with more bands creating creepy music videos or even writing soundtracks for the movies like The Crow (1994) or Bride of Chucky (1998) the metal scene and the horror cinema rose in mutual harmony.

Figure 3. Scary heavy metal album covers. (n.d.).

In the ‘80s and ‘90s rock and metal album covers became very much like horror movies posters, as the art intended to reflect the mood of the music and “to create an aura of fear and terror” (DiVita, 2022, para. 2). The direction of the genre was turning to the extremes and trash, death, and black metal bands were striving for faster, louder, and more aggressive sound. Their names also tended to represent the edge of the genre, such as Slayer, Venom, Death, Mayhem, and many others, recalling violent, frightening or demonic motifs. Aesthetics, sound, and performances of the metal bands “have always been influenced by horror movies”, their major themes and imagery (Zombie, D’Onofrio, 2017, para. 11). However, not all of the rock and metal bands who were influenced by the visual elements of the horror genre developed the same way of expressing it, being as gore and repulsive as possible. Besides cinema, many musicians found inspiration in horror literature, implementing some themes from it in their work. For instance, Anthrax’s Among the Living and Metallica’s Ride the Lightning are based on Stephen King novels. Iron Maiden’s Murders in the Rue Morgue is a clear reference to the Edgar Allan Poe’s short story. Metallica’s Call of the Ktulu and Black Sabbath’s Behind the Wall of Sleep are inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s work. Fantasy, gothic and even classic literature overall finds a wide representation in heavy metal songs.

Naturally, many musicians used to find inspiration in Biblical texts, and mentioning Satan and Luciferian imagery was very much in trend, as it has always been a frightening theme and a taboo in religious societies. Since Black Sabbath’s first references to the Devil, many rock and metal bands have developed this topic in their lyrics. A modern-day band Ghost can be seen as a fascinating example of how the “satanic” can shape the main concept of the band, with the prevalence of the content over the edgy sound. While the front-man of Ghost appears on stage as a Christian Pope with a demonic make-up, their lyrics mainly focus on praising Lucifer. However, musically, they do not rely on an extremely heavy or aggressive sound, as it is very diverse and they characterise themselves as “an occult, pop, satanic sort of rock ’n’ roll band” (Forge, Appleford, 2022, para. 11). Even though back in the ‘70s and ‘80s “metalheads such as Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Alice Cooper and Mötley Crüe” were blamed for contributing to “what the American media called ‘The Satanic Panic,’ hardly any of these groups actually believed what they were singing about” (Watson, 2016, para. 6). From this point of view, horror themes function purely as a rich source of inspiration for creative musical acts.

Figure 4. Ghost: Papa Emeritus III and the Nameless Ghouls. (n.d.).

Horror genre has had a great influence on heavy metal in its development. Music can be a very visual form of art, finding expression in the stage performances, videos, or album covers, and many bands scooped ideas from the horror movies and their imagery. Literature and horror fiction have an equally significant impact on the content and the lyrics of many musicians. The similarities between horror and heavy metal lie in a dark essence and a purpose to frighten and inspire at the same time. Kirk Hammett, a guitarist of Metallica and a profound admirer of the horror genre, says that he has always strived to create music that would confront the frightening subjects or “that most people feel aren’t appropriate to confront” (Hammett, Almond, 2017, para. 26). The horror genre does the same thing , as its power lies in ability “to shock and astound us, to defamiliarise us, to make us see the world anew” (Almond, 2017, para. 52). It becomes evident, then, that all forms of art are interlinked and that the genre of horror can be manifested and bring both joy and thrill equally through all of them.

Bibliographical References

Almond, S. (2017, October 31). On horror, heavy metal, and why we love to be scared. Literary Hub. Retrieved December, 2, 2022, from

Appleford, S. (2022, March 16). How ghost — 'an occult, pop, satanic sort of rock ’n' roll band' — conquered metal and the charts. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 2, 2022, from

Ball, M. (2021, September 27). Horror is metal: Birmingham, Black Sabbath, and the birth of metal. Tor Nightfire. Retrieved December 2, 2022, from

Beezer, T. (2020, October 31). The sinister urge: How the marriage of metal and horror terrified the world. uDiscover Music. Retrieved December 2, 2022, from

DiVita, J. (2022, October 24). The 31 scariest metal album covers all time. Loudwire.

Retrieved December 2, 2022, from

D'Onofrio, R. (2017, February 13). Rob zombie on heavy metal and horror movies. Retrieved December 2, 2022, from

Dyrendal, A. (2008). Devilish Consumption: Popular Culture in Satanic Socialization. Numen, 55(1), 68–98.

Enis, E. (2022, August 19). Cannibalism, perversion, torture: 10 most shocking Rammstein lyrics. Revolver. Retrieved December 2, 2022, from

Gagne, M. (2022, November 9). Rock rewind: Alice Cooper the godfather of shock rock. Rock 95. Retrieved December 2, 2022, from

Hartmann, G. (2020, March 5). The secret to metal is horror. Loudwire. Retrieved December 2, 2022, from

Watson, T. (2016, October 31). The devil's chord: A history of satanism in popular music. Crack Magazine. Retrieved December 2, 2022, from

Wiederhorn, J. (2022, August 9). The devil's tritone: The history of a most sinister chord. Fender Guitars | Electric, Acoustic & Bass Guitars, Amps, Pro Audio. Retrieved December 2, 2022, from

Visual Sources

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Anna Artyushenko

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