This post, and the book it discusses, carry trigger warnings for discussion of suicide and murder. Please proceed cautiously.
Despite appearances, metal fans tend to be a kinder, gentler type of weirdo. Studies have shown that people who listen to metal actually deal with negative emotions like anger better than people who listen to other genres, and mosh pits, though they look like a violent whirlwind, are a supportive and safe place to work out aggression governed by rules metalheads pass down to each other. Yet, despite all this, the popular culture viewpoint of metal is still one of murderous villains who worship Satan and burn down churches. There’s unfortunately a reason for that. Friends, let me tell you about the most horrific, true crime podcast-esque group of degenerates to ever grace a stage. Buckle up, this shit is gonna get messy.
Let’s talk about black metal for a second. It’s probably the genre most people think of when they think “metal.” It’s the rough, growling, incomprehensible Cookie Monster vocals and loud, fast guitar, and intense drums people love to satirize. This is the genre of metal where you see shirtless, burly Norwegian guys in studded arm bracers and corpse paint frolicking through snowy forests. It hit the scene in the 80s, born from thrash metal and hardcore punk music, and countries like Sweden, Norway, and Finland adopted the style with vigor. These are the bands that have the logos that look like a spider on acid made a web on a t-shirt after getting struck by lightning. The genre tends to focus on Satanism, paganism, and violence, and band members often adopt pseudonyms taken from profane religious imagery, dark literature, or just straight up shoving violent and gross words together. It’s a weird delight, honestly. Black metal can take itself too seriously but also, somehow, maintain an air of camp. There’s a wink there, like everyone knows the parts they’re playing. Mayhem, unfortunately, didn’t really get that memo. If a band like GWAR is horror, then Mayhem is true crime.
Mayhem formed in Norway in the 80s and had a lot of problems, even from the beginning. The biggest problem, however, was Varg Vikernes. If they gave out awards for being an edgelord, Varg would have EGOTed several times over. And that’s saying something in a band full of edgelords. Mayhem used to perform with actual pig heads stuck on pikes, for god’s sake. Their live shows were notoriously bloody, profane affairs and one of their early singers would cut himself with knives and wear clothing he had buried out in a forest to help him achieve that perfect corpse vibe. That singer was Per Yngve Ohlin (known by his stage name Dead) and it’s with him we start our story into the real horror of Mayhem.
Mayhem existed for a few years, swapping out members as people got bored or started new bands. It took a few years for them to get around to recording their first album but when they did, they did it in perfect black metal style. The band moved to a remote house in the woods outside Oslo to write and record but it wasn’t a very harmonious affair. The band fought a lot, especially Dead and guitarist Øystein Aarseth (better known as Euronymous). Dead had a lot of problems, and one could armchair diagnose him for days, but that wouldn’t change what happened. Dead committed suicide in the band’s house in 1991, leaving a disturbing letter behind. Euronymous discovered his body, but instead of calling the police or an ambulance, he ran out to a local store, bought a disposable camera, and took lurid pictures of his dead bandmate. These pictures would later be used (to much shock and horror) as the cover of Mayhem’s bootleg live album, The Dawn of the Black Hearts. Do not Google it.
Disgusted by Euronymous’ actions, their bassist (who had actual morals despite going by the name Necrobutcher) quit the band immediately. Unbothered, Euronymous hired Varg as their new bassist. This would be Euronymous’ undoing. It’s an almost Shakesperian downfall.
Varg is just the worst. He started in a band called Burzum, one of the founding bands of black metal. Burzum is notable because members of the band burned down four historic Christian churches in Norway. Yes, that really happened. The stereotype exists for a reason. It’s one of the more bizarre moments in black metal history. But that’s not the worst thing Varg did. Not even close.
The death of Dead didn’t stop Mayhem and the band continued on with Varg and Euronymous. It worked, for a little, but the two never got along. After the release of Mayhem’s debut album, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, the two had a fight at Euronymous’ apartment and Varg murdered him, stabbing him to death in a fit of rage. He was quickly caught by police, put on trial for murder and arson, and sentenced to 21 years in prison. It’s not as if Euronymous was a saint but he certainly didn’t deserve to be murdered either. It’s just shitty people and bad decisions the whole way down.
The bloody demise of multiple members of Mayhem still didn’t stop the band. Necrobutcher came back, grabbing the reins and hiring other musicians to keep the group going. They released other albums, their stage shows got even more intense, and they gained a reputation as one of the most bloody, fucked up acts in all of black metal. They never quite shook their association with Varg, either–it doesn’t help that Varg is still around causing even more chaos.
Varg served 15 years of his prison sentence before being released. During his time behind bars he continued to release music and write books. Once freed, he really went off the rails, throwing his support behind far-right fascist viewpoints on a YouTube channel (of course it was a YouTube channel) that he ran for several years before deleting it in a fit of pique. He’s cast a long shadow over black metal and there’s a sad little joke in metal circles that you have to spend twenty minutes doing a Google search on any new black metal band to make sure Varg isn’t associated with them (and to make sure they don’t share his politics). Varg had his hand in many of the biggest acts of the day including Darkthrone, probably the best known black metal band. It sucks, honestly.
It’s hard to overstate just the total weirdness of Mayhem, from the stage performances, the lurid deaths of two members, the general fuckery of Varg, and so on. There have been books that attempt to describe what went down but none of them really can nail it. The best attempt was Lords of Chaos, a book released in 1998 that tried to explain everything that happened to the band. It’s… a lopsided book, charitably speaking, and the author is incredibly sympathetic to Varg. (The author’s own far-right views came to light after the book was published because of course, this is why we can’t have nice things.) Despite that, the book was used as the basis of a film that also tried to explain Mayhem’s whole deal with very mixed results. The 2018 movie, also called Lords of Chaos, is a strangely sanitized version of Mayhem’s story with pretty-boy Hollywood stars cast in the roles of the band members. It’s not exactly what I would call a successful film and every living member of Mayhem hated it.
Sometimes horror isn’t singing about Satan and having a cow’s head on stage. Sometimes the real horror is much darker and more bloody than you can imagine. That’s Mayhem in a nutshell. Never has a band been more prophetically named.
Black metal isn’t all bad, though. Lots of today’s bands work on being progressive and stomping out hate whenever they see it, using the same verve and energy the genre embodies and redirecting it to take on themes of gender, police brutality, capitalism, and fascism. I heartily recommend bands like Feminazgul (founded by horror author Margaret Killjoy!), Gudsforladt, Avvika, and Zeal & Ardor, all of whom do it with aplomb.
Join me next month as we switch gears (for my sanity) and look at the delightfully dark and bewilderingly whimsical horror of a certain stop-motion animated movie. It might be Christmastime, but allow me to invite you to a little place called Halloweentown…