2016 is the twentieth anniversary of the two most important pieces of media from my adolescent years: the motion picture Scream and Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar album. I have already commented extensively on Wes Craven’s film for Sounds of Cinema in which I discussed why Scream was such a key artifact of the 1990s. For Halloween I turn my attention to Antichrist Superstar.
The art and media of our adolescent years holds powerful sway on our psyche. Whatever music we listened to in that period of our lives has the ability to transport us back into that adolescent frame of mind or at least a middle age reconstruction of it. Different people respond to different musical genres for different reasons. But for me, the essential music album of that period of my life is Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar. Throughout my late teens and early twenties, songs like “The Beautiful People” and “Cryptorchid” and “The Reflecting God” played constantly on my CD player. Looking back at this album, and doing so in the shadow of Halloween, I see why I responded to Antichrist Superstar as strongly as I did and why so many other people responded to it as well.
It is important to remember where mainstream music was in the mid-1990s. At the beginning of the decade the gritty street rhymes of NWA and Public Enemy had been a genuine countercultural presence but by the mid-1990s much of mainstream rap and hip hop had been coopted by MTV (back when the network still gave a shit about music) which reduced the genre to stupid gangster posturing. Grunge rock, which had been a reaction against the coked out glamour the 1970s and 1980s, had a more restrained and introspective aesthetic. But whatever subversive potential either of those musical movements possessed came to a halt with the violent deaths of Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur in 1994 and 96, respectively. The subsequent pop cultural scene of the 1990s was generally tame and very little of it was threatening to the establishment.
It should not be underestimated just how important a subversive presence is for the culture. It is the antagonist who drives the action of every story and a culture needs a figure or two who challenge the status quo. Even if, in the end, traditional norms are reaffirmed the culture still benefits from putting its values to a stress test. But outmoded moral values are frequently a source of social decay and those who enforce them work against the development of culture and the expansion of freedom. The countercultural villain puts the self-appointed guardians of decency and morality on notice while forcing society to examine itself. This is especially true of the culture’s youth. Artistic social pariahs allow young people to experience transgression in a way that opens up creative, political, and moral possibilities.
Enter Marilyn Manson. Influenced by KISS and David Bowie, among others, Manson had caused a minor stir with the band’s first album, Portrait of an American Family and the single “Sweet Dreams” from their Smells Like Children EP. But it was the 1996 concept album Antichrist Superstar that really made a cultural dent. Like Pink Floyd’s The Wall and The Who’s Tommy, Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar was a narrative presented through music. Channeling the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche by way of Ozzy Osbourne, the album was the story of The Worm who overcomes oppression and self-doubt to become the Antichrist Superstar. It was an expression of self-actualization presented through a gothic industrial sound.
Landing in the cultural context that it did, Antichrist Superstar was the right album at the right moment. Marilyn Manson (the band and the front man) gleefully provided the antagonist that the culture needed at that time. The band’s music video for “The Beautiful People,” the breakout hit of Antichrist Superstar, featured strange imagery set to an aggressive anthem that raged against mainstream, corporatized standards of beauty. The “Dead to the World” tour that supported the album was an impressive spectacle that included desecrations of the Bible, the American flag, and ultimately Manson himself who routinely cut himself on stage. Youth seized upon the rebellious imagery (although not necessarily understanding it) while media watch dogs decried the lyrical content (often without actually listening to the music) and conservative religious organizations protested the band’s play dates (which only made them more popular).
Looking back on the controversy over Antichrist Superstar two decades later, it all seems a bit silly. Youthful rebellions and middle aged moral panics usually do. It’s easy to sneer at images of teenagers dressed in black and caked in gothic makeup and it’s even easier to roll our eyes at the protesters who got so worked up over a music CD.
But that should not obfuscate that something very powerful was happening. Antichrist Superstar touched a cultural nerve. Within American culture of the 1990s, and among the youth in particular, a decline in religiosity had begun to take hold. This was indicative of a larger sense of alienation from American institutions that would snowball over the next decade. The Antichrist Superstar was the icon for a post-religious age. It was something to believe in when faith in everything else was eroding.
The declining faith in both religious and secular foundations was important to the cultural moment of Antichrist Superstar. This is especially true of white suburban teenagers who were the main audience for Manson’s music. The image of the Antichrist Superstar, the narrative within the concept album, and indeed the biography of Manson himself—an average middle class white kid who reinvented himself as a rock star—spoke to a desire to escape the mundanity of our lives and to transcend our existence. This is the appeal of religion but religion does not have a monopoly on it. And when religion began to fail to provide that spiritual experience (for lack of a better term), Marilyn Manson stepped in to provide it.
And this brings me to Halloween. Many of the same appeals active in the success of Antichrist Superstar can be found in the rise of the holiday season. Halloween’s rise occurs against an ever declining faith in our institutions and traditions and a dearth of outlets for a meaningful spiritual experience. The opportunity to dress in a sexual or violent or silly costume, usually in the context of inebriating drinks, is a sacrament of transgression and transcendence in a secular world. So is experiencing “controlled fear” by ritualistically watching scary movies, reading scary stories, or visiting a haunted house. Fear has a way of putting us in touch with the unconscious and subconscious parts of ourselves which is an important psychological exercise that can also lead to a spiritual boon.
Antichrist Superstar was a musical Halloween party that could be played at any time. It’s ideas and imagery were frightening especially to the concerned parents of America. And to associate with the source of that fear was empowering or at least created the illusion of empowerment, which is often the best that art can do.
It has been twenty years since Antichrist Superstar first invaded the culture. In that time Marilyn Manson has produced better work (see: Mechanical Animals and The Pale Emperor) but nothing that has created the same cultural moment as the 1996 album. Looking at contemporary culture, it’s not difficult find Manson’s influence (see: Lady Gaga and Rihanna) but there’s no one who has been able to penetrate the mainstream and terrorize the culture the way he did in the Antichrist Superstar era. Maybe we’re all too jaded now. Or maybe fears of terrorism and mass shootings make the theatrics of a rock star irrelevant. Or, to paraphrase Nietzsche, maybe we’re just waiting for the next antichrist who breaks through the mendacity of life and awakens the culture from its malaise.