Cannibal Corpse and the Limits of Carnographic Pleasure

Alex de Borba

Alex de Borba

Gore and pornography is by no means a new combination in entertainment. Despite the wealth of literature examining this union in cinema, however, relatively little exists in regard to the blending of carnage, gore and pornography within music. Nonetheless, this “carnography”1 has played a formidable role in the lyrical and artistic content of many musical acts, often manifested in horrific depictions of sexual violence that far exceed anything that could be represented on screen.

For North American death metal band Cannibal Corpse, this combination of sexual pleasure and bodily trauma has proven the major focus within their music. As proud owners of a twenty-five-year-old back-catalogue boasting song titles such as ‘Fucked With a Knife’, ‘Entrails Ripped from a Virgin’s Cunt’ and ‘Stripped, Raped and Strangled’, Cannibal Corpse’s visions of brutality offer a complex and problematic exploration of the simultaneous disgust and desire represented by the human body. This article argues that Cannibal Corpse’s imagining of the female body — as a theatre for perverse and grotesque entertainment — has allowed a sexualised gaze to extend to the mutilated interior of the human body. Their music affirms both the forms of power that would repress female bodies and the boundaries of masculine violence. Moreover, Cannibal Corpse’s narratives of mutilation and torture also reveal confronting realities about the human attraction to gore. This morbid curiosity with looking raises questions about the insatiable fascination represented by a body split wide open.

Despite having little radio or television exposure, the band has become the best-selling death metal act in the United States of America. Nevertheless, while their music itself has received very little airplay, its themes have attracted a great deal of attention within political spheres. Cannibal Corpse was specifically targeted in 1995 when then-senator Robert Joseph Dole accused death metal bands of “undermining the national character” by producing “nightmares of depravity” that “[slashed] the social fabric of the nation” and “[threatened] our children”.2 Only a year later the band was charged with endangering the welfare of children and the community3 when a campaign led by conservative activists and senators called upon major record labels to “dump twenty recording groups […] responsible for the most offensive lyrics”.4 More recently, Western Australia’s then shadow police minister Robert Frank Johnson was joined by community groups in calling for the cancellation of a 2006 Cannibal Corpse concert in Perth, suggesting that the band encouraged youth suicide and violence.5

While Cannibal Corpse’s lyrics (if not their music) have been repeatedly called into question regarding their allegedly threatening content, the band’s album art has proved just as controversial. Album covers, frequently designed by North American comic book artist Vincent Locke, depict scenes of gore and horror deemed unsuitable for sale. As such, reactions to this cover art, coupled with wider concerns over their lyrical content, have led to perhaps the most tangible attempts to prevent Cannibal Corpse’s attack on the moral vanguard. From October of 1996 until 2006, the sale of any Cannibal Corpse recording was banned in Australia; upon their re-release in 2006 and 2007 the band’s albums were given an R rating and sold only to those over eighteen-years-old, often with alternate or censored covers. Similarly, Cannibal Corpse’s first three albums were prohibited from sale and display in Germany and the band were not permitted to play any songs from these records in concert, a ban that lasted until June of 2006. These acts of censorship fit within broader attempts to repress the subversive interests of heavy metal.

Throughout the genre’s history, metal has come under attack precisely because it engages with the “dark side”.6 This engagement needs to be explored not as a form of dangerous transgression, but rather as a means of opening up humanity’s morbid fascination with the “abject”; that which disturbs and threatens social reason. Cannibal Corpse have made a career of finding distinction in transgression. Their music, lyrical content and album art is unabashedly violent and frequently misogynistic, pushing at the boundaries of social acceptability. However, the association of gore with pleasure is by no means a new phenomenon. The term “carnography” (excessive violence, bloodshed and gore) had been deployed as early as 1972 in reviews of David Morrell’s book ‘First Blood’.7 This interest in carnage as entertainment, though, has a much longer history. Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin applied notions of the liminal and grotesque to the medieval carnival, suggesting that the “carnivalesque” operated as a challenge to the structural and moral orders of everyday life. The grotesque nature of the carnival allowed for an “exaggeration of the improper”8,  a transgression of all limits within which “the world is destroyed so that it may be regenerated and renewed”.9 These moments of destruction define the boundaries of humanity — between human and animal, life and death, proper and improper — and allow people to locate their own place within such binaries. This violent transgression of boundaries — “leap[ing] into the unknown”10 initiates the engagement with the abject, an embrace of the rejected, occult world. For author and philosopher Georges Albert Maurice Victor Bataille, the “two complete contrasts”11 of divine ecstasy and extreme horror are then, in fact, twin poles, underpinned by the same sensations.

Georges Albert Maurice Victor Bataille’s correlation between divine ecstasy and extreme horror is an important one for understanding the significance of carnography’s relationship with pornographic gore. Skow wryly observed the similarities between lust and coercion, noting that carnography’s adrenal rush and blocking of intellectual senses was remarkably similar to the “sexual flush” of pornography.12 Certainly, both passions involve physical contact: “one must touch the body of another, whether to caress or assail”.13 The combination of these actions both in pornography and other forms of cinematic entertainment underpins much literature on carnography, particularly as it relates to gender. Pornography’s mainstream success in the late 1960s and early 1970s coincided with increased concern from feminist academics concerning the use of female bodies as exclusively sexual objects.14 Such representations of women demonstrated the centrality of male domination and female subjugation within society at large. Gloria Marie Steinem argued that “Pornography’s basic message is domination”, suggesting, therefore, that pornography contributes to a climate of ‘psychological degradation and physical danger’ for women.15 The rumoured rise of the pornographic “snuff” film (i.e. that which depicts an actual murder) in the 1970s is perhaps the most graphic example of the eroticised element of carnography — that is, hyper-sexualised violence towards female bodies in entertainment. Horror, in this regard, is “culturally gendered”16; it works to enforce the differences between male and female bodies. Within these mediated glorifications of feminine allure, we then see a “celebration that also dismembers the body it desires”.17 To possess the female body sexually is one aspect of masculine domination; to mutilate, torture and ultimately kill, however, subsumes all other forms of control and becomes representative of total power. It is this desire for power that underpins Cannibal Corpse’s approach to the female body and subsequently announces their morbid fascination with the violated corpse.

Scholarly approaches to carnography have rarely been extended to media other than cinema. While the carnal nature of “splatter films” has been widely explored within academia, those same themes have been visited only briefly by literature exploring heavy metal. Just as the focus on the body within such films has led to representations of these niches as “low culture”, so too has death metal been forced to exist on the peripheries of entertainment. Frequently, this marginalisation emerges from within the metal community at large — Cannibal Corpse were the first death metal act to trespass into the Billboard Top 20018, a notable achievement given that fellow artists felt that the band was the vilest that the genre had to offer.18 Music’s engagement with gore and pornography, however, offers an experience which differs from cinema’s. Much of cinema’s power rests on its ability to make us look at what we cannot bear to see — “music audiences, though, possess the ability to refuse this ‘invitation to horror’19  and create their own means of “looking”. Furthermore, the overwhelmingly aural nature of music allows for depictions of sexual violence that would not be permitted — whether physically or morally — by the visual constrictions (and regulations) of film.


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