Fade to Black: Heavy Metal and Suicide

The issue of mental diseases among metal fans is one that has plagued the minds of researchers, journalists and, of course, the fans themselves for as long as metal has existed. As a genre in which topics like death, war, destruction, criminality and alienation seem to be commonplace, it is not surprising that there have been several attempts at clarifying what exactly is the relation between music and violence, depression and suicidality.

As it happened to many, my “initiation” into the world of heavy metal came at a difficult time. I was crossing the often complex boundary between childhood and adolescence, my father had been diagnosed with a very aggressive type of cancer that, after a long and painful agony, ended up taking his life, I felt increasingly disconnected from my peers and questioned my very existence. Although these feelings are far from unique, particularly during adolescence, I was unable to find an escape valve and spiraled into a path of self-destruction. Although I can’t say that heavy metal “saved my life” (I refuse to indulge into that level of moronic drama), it certainly helped put things in perspective. When you’re a teenager, and you feel like a really unique special little snowflake that nobody understands, it is easy to lose perspective and imagine that your problems are something that nobody else has experienced. While music did not help me be any less of an obnoxious angsty know-it-all asshole (like most teenagers) it showed me that there were people out there who understood; whether the songs were sincere or something made just because was irrelevant, since for a few minutes it felt as if somebody else was channeling what I was feeling.

Still, it is undeniable that sometimes music does not make you feel better, but worse. Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”, Metallica’s “Fade to Black” and Megadeth’s “A Tout Le Monde”, to name a few, have probably been the soundtrack to several suicides. Hell, I remember once contemplating the idea while listening to Johnny Cash’s beautiful and powerful rendition of the Nine Inch Nails’ classic, not exactly getting any more cheerful as a result.

So, why do so many emotionally scarred people flock to heavy metal and, most importantly, what is the role that the music plays into the decision that some of them will take to end their lives? This is a very important issue, as evidence shows that heavy metal fans score lower on the Reasons for Living Inventory test than the general population; in other words, they represent a higher suicidal risk as a result of possessing less “appreciation” for life, based on questions regarding things like family ties (e.g. “I can’t die because they need me”), religiosity (e.g. “killing myself is a sin”) and morality (“I can’t kill myself because it’s wrong”). After all, if there is a correlation, if heavy metal is indeed responsible for suicidal ideation and antisocial behavior, then your parents might have been right in trying to keep you away from it.

Throughout its history, there has been plenty of blame thrown at heavy metal as a result of adolescent suicide and criminality. The Columbine Massacre was said to have been caused, in part, as a result of the killers’ alleged admiration of Rammstein, KMFDM and Marilyn Manson; Judas Priest were sued as a result of a couple of idiot’s attempting to complete a “suicide pact” which, according to the deceased’ families was the result of “subliminal messages” hidden in the song “Better by You, Better Than Me” (itself a Spooky Tooth cover); and Ozzy Osbourne was sued over the suicide of a teenage kid, allegedly after listening to “Suicide Solution”. Do these allegations hold any water?

In Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music, Robert Walser speaks of a relation between depression and heavy metal, but not one in which the latter is responsible for the former. According to Walser, “metal is attractive precisely because it offers a way of overcoming those feelings of loneliness and helplessness. Even when it models musical despair, heavy metal confronts issues that cannot simply be dismissed or repressed, and it positions listeners as members of a community of fans, making them feel that they belong to a group that does not regulate them”. Walser’s seems to reflect the academic consensus on this issue, where it has been stated that “[t]he pessimism of heavy metal music… would, however, seem more likely to attract unhappy and alienated youth. […This] seems consistent with the arguments of numerous researchers that heavy metal music primarily attracts, rather than produces, troubled teens.” (in Scheel, Karen & Westfeld, Heavy Metal Music and Adolescent Suicidality: An Empirical Investigation).

Societies have always tried to find scapegoats for their problems. If a kid kills himself it is easier to blame Marilyn Manson than to analyze the societal problems that might have lead him to do it, as the truth is often a bitter pill to swallow. People like easy solutions to complex problems, and convincing yourself than the growled lyrics coming from your son’s headphones lead him to become violent is easier than questioning how well you act as a parent, or how well all of us, as a society, lend a hand to those struggling with mental disorders.

If you, or anybody you know, is struggling with depression or suicidal ideation, please seek help. I can’t promise you things will get better, but I can assure you there will always be a song for you.

See you at the mosh pit.

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