There is a hand gripping your throat, cutting off your breath with grim finality. You try to struggle but find yourself unable to move, frozen in terror. Your lungs heave, trying desperately to suck in even a gasp of air, but the hand around your throat does not relent. You can do nothing but lay there helplessly, bedsheets slick with sweat and wrapped around you like a funeral shroud.
It’s gone just as suddenly as it began and you can breathe again, lungs hungrily sucking in oxygen like it’s going out of style. You sit up in shock, hands shaking. The tremors and your sweat soaked pajamas are the only visible tell of the intense nightmare you’ve just had. The same nightmare as the night before. The same nightmare every night for almost a week. You glance at the alarm clock on your bedside table and notice that it’s barely morning, the sky outside still dark and quiet. With a sigh you lay back on clammy sheets and try to pierce together what’s happening to you. It feels like you’re living in a horror movie. Maybe the stress has finally broken you and you’re going insane.
Your name is Gerard Way, you are the lead singer of My Chemical Romance, and you are recording the best album of the decade in a haunted house that is trying to kill you.
I am a diehard My Chemical Romance fan. I was lucky enough to be in high school in New Jersey during the hardcore and emo heyday and experienced their rise to fame first hand. I was a fan from the second I heard their first album, as the dreamy Spanish guitar of “Romance” drifted into the harried howls of “Honey, This Mirror Isn’t Big Enough For The Two Of Us.” New Jersey was the epicenter of what would soon become one of the defining musical genres of the early 2000s. There was literally no better place to be. You couldn’t throw a rock without hitting someone in a band back then (I tried) and all of the bands knew each other and worked together. One of the pioneers of the genre, Thursday, became sort of big brothers to all who would come after them. Geoff Rickley, Thursday’s lead singer, would help produce many of the groundbreaking albums of the genre (including My Chemical Romance’s first album) and they all practiced in the same dingy, crowded rooms in warehouses and rented studios. I don’t know what it is about New Jersey, man. There’s gotta be something in the water here. There’s a great emo joke that exemplifies both New Jersey and the bands that come from here: Fall Out Boy shouts “I love Chicago” and Panic! At The Disco says “I love Las Vegas” but My Chemical Romance leans in and whispers “I found a dead body in a park once.”
Horror is essential to the DNA of My Chemical Romance. There’s not one part of the band that isn’t entrenched in some kind of tragedy, despair, or terror. Gerard Way decided to start the band after seeing the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11th from a ferry on the way to his comic internship in Manhattan. Their first album, I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love, was recorded while Way was in the throes of horrific tooth pain and his screams of agony are often legitimate wails of pain. Their albums are dark, whip-sharp, and ferocious. Way sings like a man running out of time. There’s a fervent energy to My Chemical Romance, feverish and rattled and desperate. Each member of the band is a fan of horror in their own ways (Guitarist Frank Iero is especially devoted: he was born on Halloween and has the word tattooed across his knuckles) and it bleeds through in their lyrics and their musical style. Each album is drenched in blood, from songs about vampires, murder, and suicide to a whole concept album about to being sent to Hell and being told to kill one thousand evil men to save your lover’s life. It only makes sense that they would turn to a haunted house to record their third album, the dazzling concept album The Black Parade.
Going to a special location to record an important album isn’t a new trend. The Rolling Stones found inspiration (and drugs) in France while recording their masterpiece, Exile on Main Street. Nine Inch Nails recorded The Downward Spiral, probably their darkest album, in the actual home where Sharon Tate was murdered by Charles Manson’s acolytes. Johnny Cash famously recorded a live album at Folsom Prison. [Editor’s note: if you’re looking for some horror fiction in this vein, I can’t recommend Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall enough.] Leaving behind the bland, uninspiring rooms of recording studios for something far more exciting can lend a lot of fantastic inspiration and push albums to become even greater. My Chemical Romance leapt at the chance to do the same, renting a stunning estate in Los Angeles known as the Paramour that would prove to almost be their undoing.
The Paramour is a beautiful mansion in Los Angeles, built in the 1920s for a silent movie star and his oil heiress wife. The house is full of fantastic art deco flourishes, airy rooms with big windows built in a Mediterranean style, and grounds with beautiful gardens and statues. There’s even a pool! How could you go wrong? Alas, the estate was touched by tragedy right from the get-go when the aforementioned oil heiress wife was mortally wounded in a car accident on nearby Mulholland Drive and died of her injuries in the mansion. Her husband, mad with grief, could no longer bear to be in the home and it began to cycle through many interesting lives. During the years it was an all-girls school, then a convent for an order of Franciscan nuns who later housed orphans there, before becoming what most old mansions eventually become: a wedding venue. There were a few movies shot there and some TV episodes but one thing everyone agreed upon, over all those years, was that the place was haunted as fuck. My Chemical Romance couldn’t pass up the opportunity to record in a place like that and quickly moved in to begin writing and creating what would become their magnum opus.
Almost immediately the band realized they had made a grave mistake. In the liner notes of the album, the band describes how oppressively awful the vibes in the house were. There was an unshakeable feeling of dread that lay heavy everywhere and often they felt like they were being watched. Poor Mikey Way, the band’s bassist and Gerard’s younger brother, ended up sleeping in the most haunted room in the estate and quickly began to sleep on Gerard’s floor instead because he could not bear to be in his room alone. Mikey Way was already battling some personal demons in the form of depression and drug and alcohol addiction and he visibly deteriorated during their stay in the mansion. Unable to take it much longer, he fled the mansion to seek help. Worried about his brother and freaked out by the estate, Gerard and guitarist Ray Toro wrote “Famous Last Words,” the song that ends the album late one night when neither could sleep.
Bad vibes weren’t the only manifestation of the mansion’s haunted nature. Gerard Way was gripped suddenly with horrific night terrors. He often woke up feeling like someone had been strangling him in his sleep and he had vivid nightmares of watching his loved ones burn to death. He talks about these terrors at the beginning of the song “Sleep,” the recording distorted and glitching. The band would often hear things, like the sound of dogs barking or voices murmuring when there was no one else around. Doors would slam in empty rooms and on more than one occasion the band returned home from a night out to discover every bathtub in the place had filled mysteriously with water. Ray Toro swears he once saw a ghostly apparition at the end of a dark hallway. The house was always cold, despite being in Los Angeles, and they brought in space heaters to fill the cavernous ball room they used as a practice space. In interviews, Gerard Way would liken the Paramour to the Overlook Hotel in The Shining and go on to say that the band truly felt like they were losing their minds as they stayed there. Way fought daily with the visceral urge to leap into the pool and sink to the bottom, and in The Black Parade liner notes says, simply and terrifyingly, that the house was “consuming us.” In fact, in very early demos, the song that would go on to become the iconic “Welcome to the Black Parade” was first called “The Five Of Us Are Dying.”
The Black Parade might just be one of the best albums of all time, but I might also be a little biased. It’s grandiose, bombastic, grim and joyful in equal measures, and a true masterpiece from some weirdos from New Jersey. It’s a triumph of storytelling, of musical talent, of perseverance. It’s also EXTREMELY fucking haunted.
Join me next month where we flip genres and head into the slick 80s-tastic, neon horror of synthwave. What do you get when you mix Satanism with synthesizers? I think the kids nowadays call it “a bop.”