8 min read

Man That You Fear: Lords of Chaos (dir. Jonas Akerlund, 2018)

When I was in seventh grade, every boy I knew started worshiping Satan. This was 1995 or 1996, right after Marilyn Manson released Smells Like Children, right before Antichrist Superstar. Central Ohio was a ‘90s Goth vortex — just downwind of Cleveland, where Trent Reznor formed Nine Inch Nails, and Akron, where Brian Warner became Marilyn Manson. Though we were too young for the early NIN gigs, I knew kids who’d seen Manson in shitty dives, pulling himself around on the floor wearing adult diapers, trying in vain to horrify the ten or twelve people who’d made it out to the show.

So all the boys transformed, one day, from tiny Cobains to tiny Mansons, showing up in clompy black boots and baggy metal T-shirts, their Jordan Catalano pageboys suddenly black from bad box dye, passing around a worn paperback copy of The Satanic Bible. I find it so adorable now; little boys, whose voices hadn’t cracked yet, some of them shorter than I was, looking up at me through eyeliner and stringy hair and smoke, saying Lucifer is about freedom, you know? I remember lying on the floor of someone’s basement in the dark, trying to feel stoned on thin, shitty weed, while around me, people whispered about whether Trent and Marilyn were fucking (yes, was the universally acknowledged answer) and how, if you cracked the code in Smells like Children, it told you when Marilyn was going to kill himself on live TV.

I call it Goth, but it wasn’t Goth. There wasn’t anything romantic or gauzy or 19th-century about it. What we did was metal. We were burnout metalhead kids — headbangers, was the slang at our school — trying to feel tough, and in a respectable, Republican, heavily Evangelical suburb, nothing was tougher than Satan. It was innocent; it was sweet; it was little kids telling spooky stories in the dark.

Lords of Chaos starts as a movie about that kind of sweetness. It ends as a movie about all the ways sweetness can spoil.

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I am more or less alone in liking Lords of Chaos. It’s a movie with wild tonal swings and no clear genre; it starts as a comedy about suburban teen headbangers, ends as a tragedy about neo-Nazi terrorists, and along the way, purports to be a horror movie, a true-crime movie, and a biopic of a real band and musical scene (the band is Mayhem; the scene is Norwegian black metal) without ever really talking about the music.

There’s no-one this movie is for, is my point. People who want a horror movie will be confused, people who want a movie about metal will be very confused, and people who enjoy poking gentle fun at the silly teens in the first act will probably feel implicated and angered by the third act, when those teens are Nazis who brutalize women and commit graphically portrayed hate crimes, up to and including stabbing a gay man to death.

I’m not sure all of this works — in fact, given how much critics hated the movie, I’m sure it doesn’t — but at its core, Lords of Chaos is asking its audience a very important question: Where do the sweet boys go, when they grow up? How is it possible for someone’s kid to walk into a Black church or a synagogue or a high school and kill dozens of people? Why does this happen over and over; in early ‘90s Norway, in mid-‘10s America, in ‘40s Germany, anywhere?

There’s something funny and cute about a thirteen-year-old boy trying to seem spooky. He’s disguising his helplessness, like a pufferfish, trying to make himself look big and poisonous so that he doesn’t get eaten. Yet we’ve seen over and over that at some point, some harmless-looking artifact — a YouTube video, a message board, a guide on how to get dates — can catch on that insecurity and curdle it, until the boys who were spooky become scary. Not shocking or “edgy,” but an actual, violent threat.

Lords of Chaos is a movie about a boy who loses his soul. By the time he realizes he’s lost it, there’s no way to get it back. We begin the movie loving him, and wind up unable to even pity him. It is, in other words, a complete downer, with no uplifting message outside of “don’t do Nazi shit.” How well you tolerate it depends on how much this is a message you need to hear.

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The sweet boy in question is Oystein “Euronymous” Aarseth, who, when we meet him, is a sweater-clad #teen whose quest to make “dark, evil music” is perpetually foiled by his little sister barging into the practice room to tell him he sucks. He chases said little sister through the house while doing a spooky Devil voice, which is intensely adorable. He holds auditions for a lead singer in which the winning candidate (a man who goes by the name “Dead”) mails him a crucified rat. The band members move in together only to find that Dead insists on sleeping in a coffin.

This is high comedy, or at least it seems like it, until we realize that Dead’s Goth affectations — the coffin, the nickname, ritualistically cutting himself on stage — are, in fact, deeply sincere expressions of a wish to die. We only learn this when Dead slashes both his wrists, and his throat, and then blows his brains out with a rifle when bleeding out seems to be taking too long. It’s gruesome, and awful, and it takes forever, and it all actually happened.

So does the part where Oystein takes pictures of the freshly dead body, uses them as marketing materials for Mayhem, and makes all the other band members wear necklaces that he claims he made from fragments of Dead’s skull. It’s a coping mechanism, a way to turn a real-life trauma into a part of the band’s mythology; they are, after all, always singing about death and naming themselves things like “Necrobutcher.” Blurring the line between real and imaginary death makes grief feel imaginary, too.

The air goes out of Lords of Chaos after that suicide scene — there are jokes again, but they’re never funny — and what’s left is chilly, weird, uncomfortable stuff about deeply unlikable young men trying to prove how hard they are. It’s not long after the suicide that an off-putting loner, Kristian “Varg” Vikernes, infiltrates the group. When the other boys are gathered around the table at the bar, joking about how much they hate humanity, Varg calmly says that he’d like to send certain people to the gas chambers. Everyone laughs at what feels like another empty provocation — Hitler! That’s scary, right? — but Varg isn’t smiling.

You know where this goes. Nazi flags; church bombings; women sexually subjugated; gay men killed in cold blood. It goes that way every time, in that time or in this one. Lords of Chaos posits Oystein as some kind of moral center, the one member of the group who retained enough humanity to notice how fucked things had gotten. Rory Culkin, as Oystein, is fantastic; even as Euronymous shuts down and lapses into a joyless, tough-guy monotone, Culkin radiates childlike vulnerability, so that you never quite stop seeing him as a dorky little kid. Watch the moment when Oystein first learns about the stabbing. His face expresses pure, silent horror for half a second — he’s almost screaming — before he realizes he’s supposed to be impressed and snaps the Nazi mask back on.

It’s good acting. But it may also be the movie’s most morally inexcusable decision, because the fact is, Oystein was a Nazi, too. All of these people were. Oystein may have been in over his head, and he undeniably paid a price for it, but even if he was secretly horrified, even if he was only pretending to be a fascist to shock people, the effect is the same as if he’d meant everything from the bottom of his heart. Lords of Chaos is an uncomfortable movie precisely because it suggests that there’s no way to be ironically evil. Authenticity and sincerity don’t matter; outcomes do. Ironic bigotry is still bigotry, fascism for the lulz is still fascist, being a dirtbag to own the libs is still just you being a dirtbag, and the difference between acting like a Nazi and being a Nazi is no difference at all. Whether you mean it or not, people die.

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I saw Marilyn Manson in a Nazi costume a few years ago. It was something he got into after I stopped listening to him; in fact, he got into it in 2003, after more or less everyone had stopped listening to him, making it read more like a fulfillment of the old Onion headline than anything else. I was repulsed, and then I remembered that I was supposed to be repulsed; he was trying to disgust people, no different than when he was an adult man who used to crawl around dive bars in a diaper. By responding with anger to the violation of a taboo, I was proving myself to be a person who had taboos — someone old and square and shockable. Someone who didn’t get that it’s about freedom, man.

I don’t care. I think “don’t do Nazi shit” is a pretty fucking good taboo to uphold, all things considered. I look around, at the very high percentage of unironic Nazis in America in 2020, and I cannot disentangle that from the fact that one of America’s biggest rock stars screamed the N-word over and over on the first track of his biggest album, and that on his career-defining single, he talked about “living with apes” and promised that “old-fashioned fascism will take it away.” My friends and I thought he was pretending, that he was punching up at racists or “offending everyone equally,” as if that’s a thing one can do; we thought he was a queer presence in the mainstream, the first man we’d ever seen wearing skirts and lipstick, or we thought he was a lefty doing a bit, since he also had songs condemning anti-abortion terrorism and said “capitalism has made it this way” right before he got into the fascism part.

We saw what we wanted to see. We found ways to call the racism ironic, and whether or not we were right — we evidently weren’t — we forgot that ironic racism doesn’t exist. There is no way to insincerely go Nazi.

I know why the burnouts clung to Satan: We had abusive parents, or addicted parents. We were queer kids in homophobic families, or kids of color adopted by racist white people, or sexual assault survivors in a world that never cared. We were the girls who threw up their lunches and the boys who cut themselves. We hurt, and in the face of that hurt, it mattered more than anything that defiance was possible. If Fred Phelps and your drunk Mom and the youth-group counselor who groped you all marched under God’s banner, it made sense to join the opposing team. If Jesus didn’t want you for a sunbeam, Satan would gladly claim your soul.

I still have a soft spot for the boys who loved the Devil. Their newness and vulnerability and awkwardness, their voice cracks and growth spurts, the way they were stranded halfway between childhood and manhood, knowing that one day they would wield power, but feeling completely powerless in the moment, scared and lost and trying to puff themselves up to twice their natural size. But I also know that one of them eventually came to school with white laces in his Docs — for white power, he said— and though I don’t know how far he went, or who he hurt, I know that by the time we left middle school and I lost track of him, he was already on his way.

The boy that you loved is the man that you fear. That’s a Manson song, too, one of the better ones; whether you think he’s mourning that transformation, or hailing it, depends on you. Lords of Chaos sticks with me in its little, human moments; a teenager goofing off with his sister, a man putting his glasses on when he’s alone with his girlfriend, a boy who’s cut himself staring off into the distance, gray and sick, trying to look like he’s not in pain. There will always be people like Varg Vikernes — now a popular white supremacist YouTuber, because of course he is — who are just broken. But those broken people have power because of boys like Oystein, trying to lose their ordinary human vulnerability by hiding inside of something bigger. There will always be people ready to find those boys, and harness their insecurity, and drive them toward the unthinkable. There will always be someone out there ready to steal a sweet boy’s soul, and when he wants it back, he will find that the people who took it don’t do returns.

Lords of Chaos is available to stream on Hulu.

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