Death and Dystopia in Popular Culture

A short while ago I attended a talk by Jeffrey S. Podoshen, PhD, a marketing professor at Franklin and Marshall College, PA. He spoke on the recent surge in the consumption of evil, death and dystopia.

Podoshen argues that because of the profound disconnect people are now experiencing, such as being caught for hours in traffic jams and spending more and more time on computers, this isolation has led to an increase in the desire for violent experiences. Of course, the length of the current US war in the mideast — the longest in their history, is not helping; the spectacle of violence may have become the new norm. Podoshen’s discussion focussed on three examples of extreme consumer experiences: the Inferno Music Festival in Lausanne, Switzerland and Oslo, Norway, the Charles Manson “Helter Skelter Tour” in LA, and the H.R. Giger Museum in Gruyeres, Switzerland. By far, he spent the most time discussing Black Metal, the music driving the Inferno Music Festival.

Above on the right is one of Black Metal’s leading forces. The gothic influence is evident, although gothic horror would probably be a more appropriate moniker, as blood is often part of their performance. The photo was taken on a charming side-street in Oslo. The contrast to the proper white middle class is obviously deliberate with Black Metal representing the return of the repressed. Black Metal are almost anti-everything and have even offended neo-nazis with their anti-Christian stance and ritual church burnings. Black Metal is neo-pagan; they stand for the renaissance of Norse mythology. They view the church as an intrusion as some quaint Norwegian churches were built on pagan sites. Black Metal are nationalists, so of course they are anti-immigration.

Although I had never heard of Black Metal, this is no obscure trend. In terms of marketing, Black Metal is the number one export of Norway. They have a substantial following. When the Infernal Music Festival hits town, Oslo closes up for a week. I guess those who can leave; others probably hide in their homes while all hell quite literally breaks loose. And we were shocked by the Anders Breivik massacre? Really, we just weren’t paying attention.

Podoshen also commented on the general feeling that we (westerners) now expect something bad to happen. From his American perspective, he sees that socialism has failed and that now capitalism is failing, leaving nothing to believe in. Consumerism itself seems to be at the root of the problem, encouraging some (presumably those with money) to imagine they can safely buy an extreme experience — something to fill the void we have been left with.

The talk then turned to the renewed interest in Charles Manson, who is now the 2nd most famous murderer after Jack the Ripper. There is now a Manson “Helter Skelter” tour in LA in which you can retrace the steps leading up to the blood bath. It lasts 3 hours and is apparently a big hit. A video of the tour is available on CNN.

Podoshen then talked about the Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger who created the special effects and monster for Ridley Scott’s Alien. Although Giger died last year, there is a film about him that has just been released entitled Dark Star: H.R  Giger’s World. I don’t know if I could bear it. Below is a sample of Giger wallpaper. Even video games are now becoming darker.

The fascination with death is evident. The dark message in Alien also seems to be becoming a reality: kill to live.

We may be driven to kill each other because of overpopulation. Podoshen recommends learning how to farm.



5 thoughts on “Death and Dystopia in Popular Culture

  1. I agree we are seeing the intersection of the results of political, economic and social disenfranchisements (deliberately engineered by a ruthless elite who have discovered they can get away with it when backed by a military armed with new brutal weapons) with a rise in acceptability of violent, cruel, amoral art, that the latter arises from the former. Ellen


  2. Elaine,

    I particularly resonate with the the idea that we all expect something bad to happen, and I agree that it comes from a breakdown in both socialism and capitalism. To me, it seems obvious that democratic socialism, a state freely elected, run by the people, with minimal surveillance and little militarism along with strong social welfare components imbedded is what people long for and what the elites most fear, as it would curtail them. I know South Africa has in the past, at least during its period of change, had a lot talk about imbedding in a Constitution not just abstract liberty but the right to food, shelter, freedom from want, etc. As for metal, I think it does reflect some interesting things about our culture but having watched first, my younger brothers, and now my sons embrace it (one son has his own heavy metal band, Abdominal Residue, that performs at his college) I see metal itself as largely a harmless way for adolescent males in particular to express their angst and aggression, break from their parents, forge an identity. Lots of it is just silly marketing stunts. My brothers and my sons are kind hearted, caring souls who simply need an oulet to burn off the hormones through a mosh pit and some head banging. What most disturbs me about it is that it siphons off and dissipates communal energy that would be much better deployed in working for social change. That is the evil I see.


  3. I see I read this before. Another thought; people often turn to the Net as an isolating force. I disagree. To say that is to suggest that most of the people or many many (that’s a lot) would otherwise have friends in physical space, be going out, interacting, make friends. Nothing could be further from the truth. The analogy for the Internet is the railway: it brings people together. Many many people lived far more isolated lives before: they were constrained by time, space, money; everywhere they turned there were thresholds, exclusionary practices. While this kind of communication is not ideal; it omits important information about the people we contact — though this can be made up for if you write e-mail letters over a period of time and see one another reacting on list-servs, blogs and other venues. It enables people to have important information as a matter of course they couldn’t otherwise. And I know so many people who go on to make friends off the Net — by visiting if the person is not too far (sometimes traveling far), phone, conferences. Jobs open up; paid jobs on the Net. The writing self is a different self but it is a real one. The Internet does favor the articulate and people willing to reach out: but many are off-blogs, off-lists, and each medium favors different people’s different talents. There’s a lot of phonyness it will be said (face-book is such a place in some ways, not in others) but is that not so in spades in real life. The worst thing is when people take advantage of lack of physical presence and present a fake identity; accountability is lacking in certain kinds of places so there are more dangers but that’s because there is more contact. For that some people have to be warned — as in life. At least you are spared most direct harassment; if your character is impugned by flaming, trolls, &c, the person has to have the strength to get off whereve he or she is; in a real playground I remember this was much worse, if localized.

    There’s an article in the recent NYRB by David Bromwich, this super-respected person, inveighing against the Internet as a machine and he makes good points in favor of luddism — some of which I agree with .My real and gut feeling though is like those who have succeeded in the publishing world before the Net through his social abilities, where he born, his parentage, schools, he is prejudiced against what others can enjoy without needing him. They can reach each other outside of him.

    On this satanic metal, note that everyone actually acting it out is male. Like ISIS, so many super-violent groups, the one group they can take out their rage at being left out of what they want by punishing women.

    I don’t think rap is harmless. In the Dance Fusion workshop where I go the woman in charge wants us to see the gestures of this kind of music as harmless, as sheer metaphor: but as a literary person who studies culture even if the people using this seem unaware of its meaning, and are joining in by doing this, its insidious pro-violence is harmful. It inures. I know we want them to be part of their group, but i wouldn’t have pornography in my home at least if I had sons, and I wouldn’t endure certain kinds of TV shows on my central TV. Nowadays many houses have several TVS and computers so the young person can watch and listen on their own. Then I probably would not stop them. That would be going too far: but I would say what I thought of it.


  4. Yes, the internet does have many positive uses, but it also has some very real, negative effects. In the talk it was used to illustrate how people are cut off from actual physical human contact and left isolated, as the example of individuals stuck in traffic jams alone in their cars was meant to illustrate. Think too of couples at dinner checking their cell phones rather than talking to each other. I have actually seen families do this. The result must encompass some erosion of communication.

    I think the point the speaker was trying to make was that technology has to a large extent enabled increased isolation and alienation from, let’s say, the actual effects of real experience. Hence the craving for these extreme experiences, to fill the void. Of course, the constant barrage of violent images on TV, video games, and in films has added to this. It’s as if there has been a deadening of feeling, rendering humans insensitive to the suffering/pain of others. This too adds to the need/desire for extreme experiences.

    You are right to point out that black metal is male-centered. The neo-nazi aspect emphasizes white male supremacy. The paganism points to the cultural myths I brought up in the discussion of nationalism.

    The most interesting part of the talk came at the end of the discussion that followed it. While the racist, homophobic, male-supremacist and misogynistic aspects of popular culture are indeed disturbing, the real horror is that they reflect aspects of our culture that the populace tend to deny.


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