The Allure of Thanatos

The Allure of Thanatos - KILTER magazineby Michael Kleen

I was eight years old when my uncle died suddenly. I still remember the icy chill that ran through my small body when I realized for the first time that I too—despite all denials, pleading, and protest—was going to die some day. Both of my grandfathers passed away a few short years later, and I shivered in fear each night after their funerals. What a cruel joke life seemed to me; we are born without consultation, and at any time can be hurled back into that empty void.

I began reading books about death. I prayed for some kind of sign from the other side. I visited cemeteries. I even wrote my own will. None of it alleviated that ominous feeling of mortality. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was slowly joining a rich tradition in Western culture; a tradition that embraces rather than denies the unpleasant facts of life, and that seeks to understand the meaning of our mortality through a submergence in its imagery.

Lord, bring on the night.

Anthropologists tell us that some primitive precursor to humankind realized its mortality between 50,000 and 150,000 years ago during the Upper Paleolithic Period on the continent of Europe. They have uncovered Neanderthal and early human skeletons carefully laid in the cool, murky depths of Spanish caves. Small artifacts occasionally accompanied the remains. It is fitting that these token expressions of loss, along with the artwork that still adorns cavern walls, are the earliest evidence of something uniquely human lurking behind the simian eyes of our distant ancestors.

Ever since we emerged into the daylight of consciousness, humankind has expressed a fascination with the limits of our mortality through the mediums of art, ritual, and music. The contemporary Goth, Industrial, Dark Wave, Heavy Metal, horror, paranormal, and various occult subcultures, as well as their hybrids, all share a common desire to embrace the allure of Thanatos—the Greek god of death—and explore his depths.

This siren song is certainly not new, and our contemporary exploration of the dark side owes its existence to a long history of Thanatophilia in Western culture. Every ancient civilization had its personification of death and its ruler of the underworld, of course. The Hindus called him Yamaraj, the Aztecs—Mictlantecuhtli, and the Egyptians—Anubis. In Japan, death was a female spirit named Izanami. But most contemporary expressions of our fascination for the macabre can simply be traced back to the Romantic Movement of eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe and North America. The Romantics certainly did not create this culture out of thin air, but they molded preexisting symbolism into the familiar form we see today.

The Romantics revolted against both the rationalism of science and the old order in Europe. They believed in exalting the irrational, emotional, and imaginative side of the human experience. For instance, Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), a classic in Romantic fiction that heavily influenced the “Sturm und Drang” literary movement, caused some young readers to follow the novel’s protagonist in taking their own lives. Romanticism gave us “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820), Gothic horror novels such as Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), authors and poets such as Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ann Radcliffe, and Lord Byron, and even composers like Richard Wagner, who some have called the grandfather of heavy metal. Spiritualism, and the field of “psychical research” that grew up as a reaction to it, emerged out of the same cultural milieu. The Romantics were also responsible for preserving and recording most of the folktales and legends that provide the fodder for so many modern horror movies and heavy metal albums.

It was no accident then that the Victorians, who were raised under the influence of Romanticism and who eagerly embraced the aesthetic of Gothic Revival, were some of the most morbid people who have ever lived. They adorned their front parlors (when they weren’t being used to display actual corpses before burial) with memento mori—pictures of deceased relatives, and their contributions to cemetery art are still unrivaled in beauty and sublimity. The Victorians, as I had after the death of my uncle, desperately tried to contact their departed loved ones. Mediums claiming to be able to manifest all kinds of supernatural phenomenon flourished on both sides of the Atlantic, alongside an unquenchable public thirst for ghostly tales and dime novels starring vampires, werewolves, mad scientists, and maniac killers.

In inter-war Paris, spectators packed the Grand Guignol, a theater that offered live action horror shows replete with insanity, bondage, and mutilations. But despite a brief rebirth of the Gothic in German and American cinema in the 1920s, which gave us F. W. Murnau’s silent classic Nosferatu (1922), Hollywood’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), the two world wars permanently shattered our Romantic and Victorian sensibilities. Humankind no longer seemed dignified in the face of our mortality; we appeared to have been transformed into the very beasts we always assumed were only lurking in the recesses of our imaginations. Between 1918 and 1945, the old order in Europe collapsed in an apocalyptic inferno. Out of its ruins rose a new, consumer-driven popular culture. On both sides of the Atlantic, Thanatophilia would never be the same.

America was largely untouched by either world wars, and during the 1930s Hollywood popularized horror in a series of movies we are all still familiar with today. Among these were Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), all of which had been adapted for the screen from the classic Gothic fiction of the Romantic era. Charles Addams’ morbid and satirical cartoons also found their way into the pages of The New Yorker during that time period.

By the 1950s and early 1960s, popular culture in the United States had split into two distinct categories. On one hand stood television shows such as Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963) and My Three Sons (1960-1972), muscle cars, and Elvis, and on the other stood horror comics, TV shows like The Adam’s Family (1964-1966), movies such as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), and real-life killers Ed Gein and Charles Starkweather. The existence of a shiny, polished surface and a gritty underbelly would henceforth be characteristic of American culture.

This reacquaintance with the death culture might have faded away if it hadn’t been for a series of important events: the Vietnam War and the industrial depression of the 1970s. As American prosperity vanished, the British Empire collapsed, and the cities fell into disrepair after urban rioting and white flight, three important music genres were formed: Punk, Heavy Metal, and Rockabilly. Drawing from historical themes, as well as the dystopia that surrounded them, these musical genres flirted with the darker side of the postmodern landscape. Their lyrics were filled with violence, pain, nihilism, and death.

The turmoil of the Vietnam War era gave birth to a new generation of horror films, whose creators drew direct inspiration from the tumult they witnessed at home and abroad. In the 1970s, Alice Cooper’s stage theatrics, accompanied by the growing popularity of graphic horror movies like The Last House on the Left (1972), threw Evangelicals and local police into a panic over prepubescent Satan worshipers. Every abandoned cemetery—a longtime setting of Gothic fiction—was rumored to be the stomping grounds of occultists ready to engage in ritual murder.

It wasn’t long before Punk, Heavy Metal, and Rockabilly splintered into more extreme forms. Death Rock, Goth Punk, Death Metal, Black Metal, Psychobilly, and Horrorcore all joined the scene in the late 1980s and ‘90s. The Goths especially drew their inspiration, as well as their name, from Victorian death culture. But other genres, such as Horrorcore and Psychobilly, drank from the deep well of twentieth century horror films, and as an extension, the old Victorian Gothic novels that had inspired them.

These new urban subcultures, while they embraced distinctive musical forms, all shared virtually the same aesthetics and owed their existence to the same pool of cultural references. For instance, the music videos for Type O Negative’s “Love You to Death” and Cradle of Filth’s “Her Ghost in the Fog” could have both rested comfortably in the pages of an Ann Radcliffe novel. Even the dark, brooding, and sorrowful tones of Bella Morte and The Crüxshadows, while found in a neon-filled techno landscape, are all reminiscent of nineteenth century Romantic sentiment. Contemporary Gothic fashion, characterized by black dresses, tight corsets, high boots, and porcelain skin tone, are all reclamations of Victorian mourning and funerary costumes.

But it is not only our Thanatophilia that we share with the Victorians of yore, it is the burning desire to understand and come to grips with our mortality. Sigmund Freud believed that we developed a death drive—the primal urge to return to our pre-existing, inanimate state—as a way to mitigate the trauma of unpleasant experiences. Similarly, I believe our fascination with death stems from a deep curiosity of an unavoidable and ultimate experience. This curiosity leads us to embrace the trappings of Thanatos, and to seek understanding through an intimate connection with the cultural expressions of our innermost fears.

That is what I, Goths, Metal Heads, horror movie buffs, paranormal enthusiasts, and cemetery stalkers all have in common—a desire to come to grips with our mortality on death’s terms. Like Horace Walpole, who penned the first Gothic novel over two hundred forty years ago, and like our simian ancestors before us, we seek to slowly alleviate the fear of our own deaths, one artifact at a time.