The Spectacle of the Occult: Symbolism and Ritual in Contemporary Music

Curator's Note

Occultism has always provided a counter/alternative to prescribed organized religion – whose failure to prevent/console in times of war/strife, frequently exposed hypocrisy/corruption and charlatanism, and its tyranny/oppression of the (gendered, racial, class-divided) masses – is frequently the target of backlash/dissent. Its 20th century revival – Rosicrucianism, The Golden Dawn, Ireland’s Celtic revival, personality Aleister Crowley, writers like H.P. Lovecraft – has resurrected occultism in modern media.

Music as social dissent has harnessed the occult to express dystopic “realities.” Image is everything in heavy metal – just as in occultism. In contemporary rock/metal, bands often exploit the symbolism of LaVey’s The Satanic Bible. Music, as a post-war counter-culture movement branching into thousands of anti-establishment pastimes (radicalism, psychedelic drugs, cults, religious revisionism), has been a central pillar of western culture since WWII. From Robert Johnson to Elvis, Sabbath to The Stones, BOC to Slayer and Marilyn Manson, occultism is a fairly mainstream rejection (or celebration) of temptation (hypocrisy, corruption, lust, consumerism).

Ghost, a melodic Swedish [doom] metal band, capitalizes on imagery of the occult in a parody of organized religion – concerts are “rituals,” announcements “messages from the clergy,” fans “members of the cult.” Visually, the band is rich with imagery: full papal regalia and corpse paint; five Nameless Ghouls (representing fire, water, wind, earth, ether); an inverted-cross logo; “stained glass” banners recast narratives from Biblical stories; portions of the “service” replicate the rituals of mass – incense, chanting chorales, mock communion. Songs emphasize man’s common struggles and needs – “He is,” “Stand By Him,” “I Believe,” “Secular Haze” – and present an alternative deity ready to fill the void.

Rhetorically, Ghost’s success is predicated on its audience’s understanding the symbolism. Their performances and lyrics humorously reject Christianity’s hollowness, mysticism, and core beliefs. Embracing modern imagination, writing music celebrating Lucifer’s power and love, Ghost offers a new (dystopic) faith. While the trappings of occultism have certainly become innocuously mainstream over the last 50 years, Ghost’s performances – their repurposing of symbolism and appropriation of the rituals and mysticism of Mass – are a unique revitalization of faith in the modern age.


I like your analysis. It seems like occult imagery in music has never really left popular culture since the life and times of the Beatles, Page and Plant--and the ilk though it was often more subtly presented then. Do you think there is still a connection between these anti-war forces and Ghost's performances? Do you think some of it might be a cry for decolonization in the same way goddess worship and paganism grew out of the explorations of third wave feminisms and the "call" given to explore this type of symbolism by second wavers like Luce Irigaray? Those might be complicated questions, I suppose. It might be just enough to enjoy the music and the deconstruction of institutions that people identify with some of the less authentic aspects of humanity. Thanks for your thoughts.

I think the focus is contemporary has shifted from anti-war rhetoric of the 60s to the global spread of consumerism, poverty, inhumanity, political corruption. Allows for the same type of critique, but the targets have changed. I like your use of decolonization - yes, in a sense, I think western Christianity's influence has oppressed new legions of people - through the same strategies of cultural, educational, and linguistic dominance. It's a good analogy.

I really enjoy the discussion here on occult imagery as inherently subversive. Hanging on my wall, I have indie pop band of Montreal's album False Priest. It features a fish-headed man with a gas mask in presumably religious garb, all surrounded by images of religion (books, flaming hearts, stained glass, &c.), and war (guns and an army of other fishmen). Similar imagery appears on the cover of their album Satanic Panic in the Attic and onstage in performance. These inversions sound really similar to Ghost's. I'm curious your thoughts on genre in particular. As Ghost is doom metal and of Montreal indie pop, I find it interesting that they tackle the same thing to some extent. Obviously, different genres can achieve similar ends. Do you think that Ghost's image is contingent in some part on the genre itself? Along the lines of Marshall McLuhan, is the genre/medium itself the message in this case? I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this.

I'll check out Montreal tonight. I think "doom metal" is pretty diverse in itself, and what Ghost is doing is a definite departure from the established schtick. I like the link to McLuhan; yes, the medium (music, occult, spectacle) influences how the message is perceived, to an extent, but I think on the level of parody. And (give word limits) - I don't think that Ghost is just about parody. They're really doing something unique in the genre, but not just to satirize organized religion. Their music is, by and large, inspirational and positive, and celebratory. It's hard to fit them in to the more image-based micro-genres of metal because lyrically and musically they're pretty "abby-normal" for the doom metal subset.

funny that Of Montreal came up as Satanic Panic in the Attic was the inspiration for my title for my piece. Indeed, with Pizzagate an indie dance band has gotten wrapped up in this inadvertently and is being attacked nonstop as occultism, showing a larger sense of how the inncouous mainstreaming of occultism does not displace a panic and attempts to root out its presence elsewhere

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