The Strange, Bloody History Of Corpse Paint And Black Metal

This is a story about Paris theatres, violence, and dead people.

metal corpse paint history photo

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Partway through In the Dust of This Planet, his treatise on religion, art and the end of the world, philosopher Eugene Thacker refers to the metal sub-culture as a kind of religion. His proof? The ritual of corpse paint.

After all, as Thacker notes, daubing yourself in paint while performing precise ceremonies is the cornerstone of many religious practices, not just your average King Diamond show. Corpse paint’s purpose isn’t merely decorative. It’s also importantly unificatory. Corpse paint is a symbol, a way of drawing people together under a common purpose.

These days, the practice has diversified and changed in all sorts of different ways, both cosmetic and thematic. But there is still always some static sense of performative ritual under its new modern layers — the echo of the old High Priests and Priestesses of the artform, howling in the bones of metal’s new face.

But where did corpse paint start? Who are its most essential practitioners? And where will it go from here?

The Roots of Corpse Paint: Grand Guignol And Bloodied Theatre

The history of corpse paint in rock actually pre-dates the practice’s adoption in metal communities. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the charismatic and flamboyant shock rocker behind ‘I Put A Spell On You’ was daubing his face in make-up many years before Alice Cooper took up the ritual, painting himself in eerie, hollowed-out white and surrounding himself with staffs and human skulls.

Less influential, but no less committed to the bit, Arthur Brown was also an early pioneer in shock tactics. His shows were full-on theatrical affairs, populated with make-up, complicated costumes and pyrotechnics. It was Brown in particular who lit the brain of the young Alice Cooper on fire, laying down a template of wailing screams and oversized, gothic lyrics that Cooper would make his chalky bread and butter.

But even Hawkins and Brown were playing into a tradition much older than themselves. Their style of performance has its roots in the tradition established by Grand Guignol, a Paris theatre company that operated in the early 20th century and specialised in “naturalistic horror performances.”

Those shows were proto-slashers, often brutal in their violence and deeply pessimistic in their outlook. Audiences would flock to see heads chopped off, bodies mutilated, and blood sprayed up to the theatre ceiling. Importantly, the performers would also daub themselves in exaggerated face paint, contorting and twisting their features into horrible grimaces.

These effects were usually extremely cheap and chintzy-looking, but that became their defining vibe. They didn’t mimic reality precisely. They created their own vibe, a kind of heightened, brutal magic that established everything that black metal performers would later attempt.

The Grand Guignol tradition would later die out, with a new director of the theatre moving away from horror and towards comedy, killing the troupe’s momentum in the process. But while the theatrical tradition disappeared, corpse paint found new life in the world of metal and hard rock. And that explosion in the ’70s was all thanks to one man.

Alice Cooper And The Explosion Of Ritual

By 1968, a young rock and roll performer named Alice Cooper had dropped the straight-up-and-down riffs of his early career and decided to lean into the theatrics he had nabbed from Brown and Grand Guignol. On-stage explosions, puppetry, and just about every sharp-edged weapon that you can imagine became not just part of his live show, but his entire worldview. Brown had merely dabbled in theatrics. Cooper made them his entire bag.

Corpse paint also became an important part of the proceedings. Cooper’s was more subtle than the make-up that had come before and after him — he’d usually apply nothing more than dripping black circles around his eyes. But he was popular enough to spawn dozens of imitators, who took his look further than he could have imagined.

Of all those early followers, KISS were undoubtedly the most famous. From 1974 onwards, they coated themselves in white and black make-up that put Cooper’s subtle look to shame. Of course, their music was less morbid than his — more concerned with good times and good music than guillotines and haunted houses. But they had their Grand Guignol side too, and did a great deal of work to bring face paint into the mainstream.

And then, a few years later, the trend changed again, becoming all the more dark and serious.

The Black Metal Scene Arrives

Throughout the ’80s, the European metal scene exploded — not just in popularity, but in terms of sheer, oftentimes criminal intensity. The inner-circle of the Norwegian scene was a mess of murderers, sociopaths and actual Nazis, with multiple feuds leading to burnt-down churches and a string of homicides.

Sonically, the scene took what they liked about American metal — the fast, ornate riffs of a band like Death; the colour and experimentation of Morbid Angel — and made everything weirder and more serious. Death had long made music that shared the sense of winking fun and invention of Alice Cooper’s work. But European bands like Celtic Frost and Mayhem took that comforting energy out of the mix, creating music that was more terrifying than inviting.

They also did the same with corpse paint. Mayhem’s early vocalist, Per “Dead” Ohlin, wore the make-up in order to resemble an actual corpse. His face daubings shared nothing with the arch theatricality of KISS, and everything with old European folktales about lost and haunted spirits. “It wasn’t anything to do with the way Kiss and Alice Cooper used makeup,” Mayhem’s bass player explained in an interview. “Dead actually wanted to look like a corpse. He didn’t do it to look cool.”

Dead’s look became one of the most influential fashion statements of the European metal scene, inspiring everyone from heavy metal duo Darkthrone to Immortal, the outfit fronted by the legendary Olve Eikemo. But on the other end of the corpse paint spectrum, another performer was making his mark, combining the theatricality of the American scene with the archaic flourishes of the European metal-heads.

His name? King Diamond.

All Hail King Diamond

King Diamond, the one-time lead singer of heavy metal icons Mercyful Fate, is one of the most influential figures in the history of corpse paint. After all, the musician — real name Kim Bendix Petersen — is as famous for his complex and beautiful face paint as he is for his falsetto voice and his complex, heavily thematic records. All those before him in the metal scene had merely dabbled in on-stage theatrics. King Diamond took things to the next level.

In particular, Diamond took great care in linking his make-up with the music that he made. These were not just lashings of white paint, applied at random. Diamond coated himself in complex pictures, his cheeks stained with upside down crosses and thick, wavy lines that were deeply indebted to the signs and symbols of his most famous albums.

In particular, Fatal Portrait, his masterpiece, is riddled with the dark omens, calls to Satan and promises of violence that he would also daub all over his face. The make-up wasn’t just empty theatrics, as it had become thanks to bands like KISS. It was an integral part of a complicated and dark creative world.

Every inch of Diamond’s aesthetic and sound went on to influence an entire generation of performers — bands as varied as Slayer and Cradle of Filth have acknowledged the debt that they owe to him. His inventive and beautiful albums are part of that debt. But so is the striking white face paint that has become his trademark.

The New Extremity

Throughout the ’90s, interest in corpse paint began to wane. Bands like KISS had themselves started to become something of a proto-internet meme, and for a while there, the trend appeared to have been run down into the dirt. It was an easy catchphrase, rather than a serious form of artistic expression.

By the time face paint became an opening joke in the Adam Sandler film Happy Gilmore, the trend was already pretty much done. In time, the theatrics of the time were traded for a different kind of spectacle — the huge scale of stadium tours launched by the like of U2.

But corpse paint was not out for the count entirely. By the early 2000s, theatrics of all kinds had begun to creep back into the scene. Slipknot, a band of horror movie aficionados like Alice Cooper before them, sculpted their now infamous masks, elevating the ritual of paint to a new level. A few years afterwards, that aesthetic was perpetuated by pop metal icons Ghost, who combined Grand Guignol theatrics with the imagery of the Christian Church in a deeply ironic, deeply disturbed way.

But perhaps no band was as extreme with such theatrics as Gorgoroth. The black metal band, based out of Bergen, had been releasing albums since the mid-’90s, but it was only when the new millennium hit that they really began to experiment with shock tactics.

Taking the Satanic imagery of King Diamond and the complex onstage theatrics of Alice Cooper further than either performer would ever have imagined, Gorgoroth became known for their enjoyably vile behaviour. They pretended to crucify audience members, drained sheep of their blood, and hung crosses all over their stages. And yes, they painted their faces, transforming themselves into heaving, wild-eyed demons. Corpse paint was back — and in a big way.

The Future

But Gorgoroth weren’t doing the work of bringing make-up back into vogue one-handedly. They were also helped by a generalised nostalgia. Cringing away from the sometimes excessive aesthetics of the ’90s, metal bands began to self-consciously ape the European scene of the ’80s once more. The ghoulish look of a band like Mayhem was revived, with contemporary black metal legends 1349 doing their bit to popularise daubed white faces once more.

It’s a good trend to have revived. After all, underneath the mere shock factor, corpse paint is a powerful reminder of metal’s roots in theatre, its emphasis on ritual, and its habit of bringing together multiple acts from all over the world under one common, chaotic cause. Here’s to hoping for 40 more years of corpse pain. At least.

Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @JosephOEarp.