The unfolding of Dead’s mental illness, in the early days of Mayhem, tragically leading to his eventual suicide, is the central rupture within the film and is echoed throughout, frequently recalled as a moment of trauma that has never been fully dealt with. Although undiagnosed in his lifetime, it is generally believed by many today that Dead suffered from Cotard’s Syndrome, “a rare mental illness in which the affected person holds the delusional belief that they are already dead, do not exist, are putrefying, or have lost their blood or internal organs.”
Named after the neurologist Jules Cotard who first observed this delusion in his patients, Cotard initially described the syndrome as “the delirium of negation” — a seemingly vague umbrella of a diagnosis that also perfectly describes the intoxication of this music scene as a whole. However, despite the Black Metal scene’s performative obsession with death and destruction, Dead’s suicide lingers in in the scene’s history, as it is presented in the Lords of Chaos film, as a most traumatic and all too real example of the extreme behaviours they proclaimed to admire but routinely avoided and glossed over; made light of and ignored by those at its centre.
Early on in the film, for instance, during the early days of Mayhem’s meteoric and near-mythic rise to fame and international notoriety, during an infamous gig the band played in Leipzig, we see Dead (played by Jack Kilmer) mutilate himself on stage. With blood from his arms cascading over the braying front row of the crowd, mouths open to receive his sacrifice, the scene is as sensationalist and cartoonish as you might expect from a music scene high on its own self-image.
However, in a post-gig scene which takes place in a local kebab shop, in which we see Euronymous (played by Rory Culkin) telling all present — with a tragic lack of self-awareness and an overinflated and performative sense of grandeur — that he’s going to take over the world, Dead, in stark contrast, gaffer tape holding together the lacerated skin of his forearms, stares blankly into space, his face stricken with a look of horrified depersonalisation — an look that will no doubt be traumatically familiar to anyone who has struggled with the abject reality of self-harm.
Whilst Euronymous thinks he’s the only person in the room, Dead is instead mentally absent, his seemingly empty shell, already dead, violently perforated. We see his expression for a few fleeting frames but it is a moment that sticks in the mind, right before it is quickly buried underneath the film’s internal psychology of affective repression.
Later, Dead’s incredibly graphic death scene only hammers home the abject disconnection between tall tales and the reality of suicidal mental illness. It is, again, incredibly melodramatic and hyperviolent, whilst at the same time being brutally realistic, even forensic, allowed to play out with a level of detail that suggests whoever wrote this script was drawing inspiration directly from the post-mortem.
Euronymous’ discovery of Dead’s body — which he infamously rearranged in order to stage a photograph which later appeared on the cover of the bootleg live album The Dawn of the Black Hearts (link note: reader discretion advised) — is presented as a central moment where the veil of his cloistered adolescent ego is ripped open.
There is a split second as Euronymous, in an obvious state of shock, descends the stairs to the attic in which Dead has killed himself, where we see the same blank and depersonalised look in his eyes that Dead had demonstrated only a few scenes earlier. There is a glint in his eye that is, throughout the rest of his short life, resolutely repressed, but this moment nonetheless lingers. In exercising a certain poetic license, the film goes on to show Euronymous revisiting this moment again and again in his mind.
There are repeated suggestions that his steely external demeanour is a performance. (And we can only hope that this was true for the real life Euronymous, antithetical as it is to his own cultivated self-image.) In one brief instance, towards the end of the film, recounting the myth of Dead’s death one more time, we are offered an alternative and unspoken version of Euronymous’s discovery of Dead’s body: a scene, a mental image, in which he breaks down in front of Dead’s corpse, panicked and horrified, appearing child-like in his abject horror, terror and grief.
This is the tragic irony that is central to the film, and perhaps to the “real” story as a whole, although it is one that is seldom discussed out in the open. Although these kids were obsessed with death and the evils of this world, they all too often failed to comprehend, process and deal with death and evil when it abjectly reared its head before them. Whilst they performatively open themselves up to such experiences, the reality of life and death is routinely repressed in the music scene’s collective unconscious. At every turn, these young men are presented with moments where they find themselves face to face with that which they have fantasised about and yet they don’t let themselves feel it — or rather, they don’t allow themselves to show that they have felt it; to show its impact on their adolescent humanity.
At no point — outside the film’s poetic license — do they don’t stop and reflect, taking a moment to live in the rupture within which they superficially ground themselves. Instead, they ignore all signs of trouble ahead. Their true “evil-ness”, then, is not performative but negligent and at every turn it is their adolescent egos which get in the way of reaching the abyss they devote themselves to. In deploying evil as a tool to rupture their surroundings, they refuse to let it act upon themselves from within. There is no self-overcoming or libidinal revolution. There is only chaos and, contrary to their own assurances, it is off the leash.
This is not to say that such an egotism is integral to adolescence. It is, rather, a by-product of adolescence’s attempts to arrest itself. In the midst of the process of becoming-adult, the temptation to performatively be-adult is ever-present, tripping up the process of becoming-adult that has begun within them. As such, it is the preemptive closure of their own adolescence which is their downfall.
This is the eternal tragedy of the classic coming-of-age story — and, indeed, there are infinite Hollywood movies which reveal the reality of adulthood to be the successful embodiment of a becoming which does not end when you can legally buy booze. I’m thinking of Stephen King’s IT here, for example, where the traumas of childhood do not simply disappear following the enclosure of adulthood and its responsibilities.
In line with this, as the narrative arch of the film progresses, Euronymous is shown to have second thoughts, haunted by the death of his friend. He comes to settle on a promised rather than an actualised maturity. At one point, in an intensive but fleeting moment of paranoia and remorse, Euronymous’s internal monologue declares: “I wanted out but couldn’t find the door.” Then, in an apparent moment of reprieve, when Euronymous’s self-doubt has reached its narrative peak, we’re presented with a romantic and sexual montage wherein Euronymous and his girlfriend Ann-Marit (played by Sky Ferreira), spent exclusively in each other’s company, as if he finally finds his exit in the form of his love for another, seeing glimpses of a life beyond that which he has so far built up for himself as the leader of Mayhem. In opening himself up to another, as he previously failed to do with Dead or Varg, Euronymous finds the seed of a maturing inner peace.
Previously, we have seen how Euronymous repeatedly denies himself this peace, instead favouring the “bad boy” scaffolding he constructs around his ego which looms large over the Black Metal scene. For instance, when Varg (played by Emory Cohen) becomes the new unofficial leader of the movement as its most transgressive individual, Euronymous responds by declaring himself to be the aged master to Varg the violent young up-start and former apprentice, claiming he gave him the push and inspiration to begin his reign of terror.
However, the reality is that Varg has reached this position within the scene because he has repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to be the first to act, seeing Euronymous’s ego for the hot air that it is and instead taking their collective fight against church and state to terroristic ends as well as musical ones. Euronymous, afraid of being outshone, continues to run his mouth, occasionally taking part in some church-burnings, and spreading a rumour he intends to kill Varg, his unruly Frankenstein’s monster.
Eventually, Varg, likewise suffering from paranoid delusions and sensing his run as Norway’s church-burning infant terrible is about to come to an end at the supposedly murderous hands of Euronymous, opts to strike first, as he always has done, and travels to see Euronymous at his home, stabbing him to death in a stair well.
From here, the film ends with Euronymous as disembodied narrator presenting himself as posthumously wistful but victorious. He always said he’d change the (music) world and, from his newly omniscient narrative pedestal, it is clear to him now that he succeeded. However, things are not quite as they seem. Whilst the film ends on a point of stalled maturation, as if Euronymous found his escape from adolescence in death if not in life, we should note that much of this character arc is invented for the sake of the film’s Hollywood anti-hero ending. In paricular, what is worth noting here is that Ann-Marit, the girlfriend who offers him a symbolic way out, does not actually exist. She is an invention, little more than a plot device, aiding Euronymous’s narrative (if not actual) redemption. In the real-life story of True Norwegian Black Metal, there is no such person as she and no such promise of release and escape. It is an invented glimpse of a post-adolescence that ties an all too predictable knot in the end of a story that has been anything but.
The invention of Ann-Marit becomes an even more interesting addition to the story here. Every retelling of abject reality seems massaged with narrative additions, but such is the Black Metal way. It is a music genre born, in each instance, Norwegian or otherwise, from a reckless myth-making and so, in some ways, it is perversely fitting that the film would extend this approach, even playing with it for the viewer, seeding doubt as to what really happened, knitting together different realities, times and perspectives.
We can consider, for instance, the rumour that Euronymous made necklaces for his bandmates and major acolytes out of the remnants of Dead’s exploded skull, collected from the scene of his death, as another example of this myth-making. This rumour has long persisted somewhere between fact and fiction. In the film, it is suggested that Euronymous lied about this, confessing the lie to Varg in their final encounter, declaring that the necklaces were made from a pig skull — perhaps one of those used by the band as stage dressing during their notorious live performances — but this dialogue is very obviously invented. It is a rumour that, to my knowledge, has not been proven or disproven either way. But what does it matter? The truth becomes irrelevant in the face of the lasting affect of the tall tale itself.
In this way, the mythology of Black Metal is something which — even today — cannot be overstated. It will always remain under contention, such is the very nature of myths and legends. We see this tendency challenged in another scene in the film, in which Euronymous’s worldview is taken to task by Ann-Marit, who declares that the Satanism of Newcastle band Venom — a love of whom first connected the Mayhem boys; whose second album, 1982’s Black Metal, gave the genre its name — is nothing but a performance, a plot device in their own occulted and anti-establishment origin story, even a marketing technique.
Euronymous, at first, does not believe her and yet, in return, she cites an interview in which they confess their lie.
This de-mythologising retcon is uncomfortable, for much the same reason that a retroactive dismissal of adolescence as such demonstrates fans of True Norwegian Black Metal cutting off its nose despite its face. There is no excusing the crimes committed by these young men but we must be wary of tendency to shutdown the inchoate and adolescent under the glare of today’s particular moralism; to neutralise the influences for the sake of what they have, in one corner of the world, produced.
This is to argue for the potential reemergence of such a scene once again, a scene which might learn from the mistakes of its predecessors whilst still holding firmly onto that great adolescent challenge of coming to terms with the insufficiency and fallibility of the human subject in the midst of its own pubescent psychosexual emergence.
So, rather than invent a moral reprieve, is it still possible to take this scene at face value, leaving its mythology and its adolescence in tact, drawing lessons from its aftermath rather than burying them disingenuously in the scene’s inchoate development? To see their becoming, and the scene’s becoming as a whole, as something traumatically arrested from within and to respond to this, sensitively, with a return to an auto-mythologising tendency?
After all, refusing to contend with the truth is precisely how these boys failed each other.
To be continued…
 It is unlikely that such disavowals existed at the time. Venom’s subsequent distancing from their own performative Satanism seems to have come after the founding events of the True Norwegian Black Metal scene. For instance, in an interview with Dayal Patterson which opens his own oral history, Black Metal: Evolution of a Cult (Port Townsend: Feral House, 2013), Venom’s guitarist Conrad “Chronos” Lant explains:
People hear about witchcraft and Satanism and they automatically assume murders and child molesters, and it’s like, wow. It’s incredible, really, since the church has such a black mark against it with priests interfering with children and so on… [W]e were hell-bent on using [people’s own ignorance] against them, to create something that would shock people, the same as punk shocked people or [Black] Sabbath shocked people. What we do lyrically is anti-Christian, what we sing about is the opposite of what the church says. We’re not really preaching Satanism, we’re just writing fantastic rock ‘n’ roll lyrics about anti-Christianism, lyrics that would scare the ignorant deliberately.
Whilst the anti-Christian message obviously resonated with the Norwegian scene, the suggestion seems to be that they were as ignorant as those who Venom were positioning themselves against, taking on the performative Satanism of their musical heroes and embodying everything that the ignorant associated with it rather than seeing the apparent joke.