When death metals fans listened to bands like Cannibal Corpse who sing about, for instance, “violently reshaping human facial tissue,” these were the top three emotions they reported feeling: Power, joy, and peace.
Earlier this year, researchers from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, published a study titled, “Who enjoys listening to violent music and why?” The researchers asked 48 fans and 96 non-fans in their 20s to listen to death metal songs and describe their emotional responses and speculate why they felt that way. (Death metal is a subgenre of metal music that took off in the 1980s and explores themes like death and torture.) The researchers also assessed the participants’ personality types using psychological measures, such as the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, which analyzes people’s empathy.
“The ubiquitous stereotype of death metal fans…[is] that they are angry people with violent tendencies,” William Thompson, a psychology professor at Macquarie University and one of the study’s authors, told Scientific American. One of the most notable discoveries of the study, Thompson said, was that “[fans are] not enjoying anger when they listen to the music, but they are in fact experiencing a range of positive emotions.”
Extreme acts, like former Black Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne biting the heads off live birds and bats, or metal musicians helping to burn down churches in the 1990s, have helped typecast metal fans as aggressive and inextricably linked to many songs’ violent lyrics. But Thompson’s study, in which fans describe feelings of peace, empowerment, and transcendence (not unlike a zen state), showcases the positive effects of death metal. (Metal music has also long been a way to express political dissent and fight conformity.) On the other hand, self-proclaimed non-fans reacted mainly with tension, fear, and anger to the same type of music.
Notably, all reactions were self-reported through an online survey. The study acknowledges the limits of self-reporting, and Craig Anderson, a psychology professor at Iowa State University, told Scientific American that self-reported results “may not reflect reality” because people cannot fully assess exactly how media affects them. And as with some previous studies, like one that found death metal could help listeners come to terms with mortality, or another that concluded listening to extreme types of music could promote calm, the sample size for Macquarie University’s research was small.
But the researchers still say there is a significance in how death metal fans react to the music compared to non-fans. In an article for The Conversation, Thompson and Kirk Olsen, also a psychology professor at Macquarie University and co-author of the study, highlighted some reasons why fans are able to feel positive in light of disturbing songs.
Drawing on research that people can experience “cognitive distancing” to enjoy negativity in media and art, the Macquarie professors speculate that death metal fans can do the same with violent lyrics because they view it as just that—lyrics in a song. Moreover, shocking lyrics might intensify any “visceral experience” that listeners seek, whether that’s to feel energized or joyous. And since the explicit content might dissuade non-fans, the intensity of death metal also cements a sense of identity and community for those who aren’t deterred. (Metal, in general, has the most loyal music fans.)