Through the Looking Glass Darkly: Medievalism, Satanism, and the Dark Illumination of the Self in the Aesthetics of Black Metal
By Brenda S. Gardenour Walter
Helvete: A Journal of Black Metal Theory, Issue 2 (2015)
Introduction: Entering into the magic circle of black metal, we cross an invisible threshold into a world of inversion, a dark dreamscape rendered in black, white, and blood. Here, in the in the sempiternal night, ice-laden autumn winds twist through gnarled and blackened woodlands as shadows grow long beneath a freezing moon. Throughout the forest, covens of corpse-painted men robed in black leather chant demonic paeans to death and destruction, to pain and terror, in honor of their lord Satan. In an ecstasy of evil, they lift their heads to the dark sky, pink tongues lolling while phallic fingers writhe and clench into fists. Inverted crosses, downward-facing pentagrams, and the severed heads of sheep flicker in the firelight cast from the conflagration of Christian stave churches in the distance, while the Goat of Mendes, ruler of darkness, surveys his kingdom of hellfire and sulphurous smoke.
The upside-down world of Satanic black metal is uncanny, both familiar in its use of inverted tropes and schemes and yet completely “other” to those on the outside looking in, including Christians and consumers of mainstream popular culture. For them, it is a spectacle of abject horror in which the viewer, unable to look away, becomes one with the object of revulsion through jouissance, or desire. Those within the hellish magic circle experience a similar abjection as they gaze outward at the decadence, hypocrisy, and emptiness of WASP-y middle-class culture. In this context, the inverted signifiers of Satanic evil serve not only to distance the blackened self from the hated once-self / other, but also to caricature and reflect the horrors of human society. From Satanic black metal to Cascadian black metal and beyond, the black metal mirror moves from inverted binary into existential complexity, calling the viewer to contemplate not only humanity and nature, but also his or her own fetid image. Staring into the darkened abyssal glass, the blackened self discovers negatives of negatives, a string of perpetual inversions that ripple into oblivion. At the moment of dark epiphany, the abyss gazes back, the self succumbs to blackness, and is annihilated.