The Covert Social Satire of Cradle of Filth, and Other Horrors

The Covert Social Satire of Cradle of Filth, and Other Horrors
© Photograph by Peggy Cremin

Cradle of Filth are the United Kingdom’s most successful underground metal band, having sold over a million records in the first ten years of their existence alone (Fielder 2001: 49). Over a career that has progressed through ten albums and three decades of touring, the band has acquired a reputation for shock and controversy.

This ranges from its infamous ‘Jesus is a Cunt’ T-shirt (Snow 1997) to claims of having “sold out” from angry metal purists and an ever-rancorous, ever-changing line-up, with founder Daniel Davey or Dani Filth to use his stage name, being the only continuous member since the band’s formation in 1991.

Throughout this time, Cradle of Filth has both courted controversy and revelled in it. Certainly, the band’s lyrical content is meant to shock — its first demo, ‘Total Fucking Darkness’ had songs like ‘The Rape of Faith’ and ‘Spattered in Faeces’.

In a similar vein, other tracks throughout their career have included ‘Gilded Cunt’, ‘Of Dark Blood and Fucking’ and ‘Succumb To This’. One song from their album, 2012s ‘The Manticore And Other Horrors’, ‘For Your Vulgar Delectation’, leaves little to the imagination lyrically: “Virgin cunts aquiver at this foreplay for the spiteful”, Dani shrieks, while in another track on the album, ‘Pallid Reflection’, the lyrics are more subtle but no less unpleasant: “Of dutiful victims I beautifully take / With delicious malicious intent”.

This, combined with often shocking album art that verges on the pornographic — a naked woman smearing her breasts with (presumably) fake blood in the inlay art for Cradle of Filth’s 1996 EP, ‘V Empire’, being a case in point — certainly marks out the band as purveyors of shock.

That said, they are neither unique in this regard, nor uniquely sacrilegious. Swedish black metal band Marduk had a 1991 demo called ‘Fuck Me Jesus’ which featured cover art of a woman inserting a crucifix into what is either her vagina or anus.

The cult Norwegian band, Gorgoroth, meanwhile has featured naked models tied to crosses, rotting sheeps’ heads and gallons of blood as part of its stage show (Wuensch 2008) alongside its lead former singer, Gaahl, being imprisoned for abducting and torturing a neighbour (Blabbermouth 2005) before coming out as gay (Hansen 2008) and diversifying into a career in fashion design (Isdahl and Falkenberg 2011) all of which makes Cradle of Filth look relatively pedestrian — not to say unadventurous — by comparison.

What marks Cradle of Filth out, however, is the strong undertone of dark humour that underpins its work. There is the constant use of wordplay — songs like ‘The Nun with the Astral Habit’, ‘Shat out of Hell’, ‘Suicide and Other Comforts’, ‘Malice through the Looking Glass’ and ‘The Byronic Man’ all hint at a delight in language as well as gallows humour. Meanwhile lyrics such as ‘I saw the silver lining hidden in a mushroom cloud’ from ‘The Foetus of a New Day Kicking’ and “A fresh horror blows but ten billion souls / Are blind to see the rotting wood for the trees” in ‘From The Cradle To Enslave’ suggest not only a keenness for lurid imagery but a playfulness with language that neither mitigates the horrors it describes, nor take itself too seriously.

The band’s naming its own label imprint, Abracadaver and instrument endorsements being listed as instruments of torture (Cradle of Filth 1996a) are also cases in point, as is the declaration at the start of the acknowledgement section in the ‘Cruelty and The Beast’ lyric booklet that “Cradle of Filth will now thank [sic] you off, one by one [..]’ (Cradle of Filth 1998).

Even during interviews and public appearances, the band maintains this self-mocking yet still “in-character” tone. In one 1997 interview, then-guitarist Stuart Anstis complained bitterly that the funeral of Princess Diana had “cancelled a horror show I was going to see that night” (Moerkegard 1997).

More recently, Dani Filth told hecklers throwing bottles at the band during a Download Festival to instead “throw them at our drummer, he’s from Yorkshire, he’s used to it” (NME 2011). He also informed one publication that he had murdered his girlfriend “in the office of my East End club with an ashtray” but avoided prosecution due to him having “one of those sparkly grins that people fall for” (NME 1999).

In part, this self-mockery is an effective survival strategy, in that it wards off more serious criticism and controversy by emphasising the inherent irony of the band. Yet I argue this satirical quality is intrinsic to Cradle of Filth’s output and theme, and that this belies the apparently gratuitous tone of the music and imagery.

Two particular examples of this are 1998’s ‘Cruelty and The Beast’ and 2008’s ‘Godspeed on the Devil’s Thunder’, which are not only both concept albums, but can also be said to be companion pieces as Dani has stated they both emerged from the same preliminary research and interest in notorious historical figures (Florino 2008).

Furthermore, they both focus on the nature of power and how it utterly corrupts both individuals and their societies. While ‘Cruelty and The Beast’ is about Countess Elizabeth Bathory, the sixteenth–seventeenth-century Hungarian aristocrat who, it is claimed, murdered young women and bathed in her blood to maintain her beauty, ‘Godspeed On The Devil’s Thunder’ focuses on Gilles De Rais, the fifteenth-century French nobleman and companion of Joan of Arc, who subsequently descended into devil worship, sexual depravity and mass infanticide.

Obviously, both depictions are fictionalized and do not take into account the political context and intrigues that may have been the real cause for these figures’ downfall. Nonetheless, both albums explore how these individuals are corrupted by their elite social status and how these notions of class and social privilege help make them monstrous.

In order to discuss this further, I would like to demonstrate that Cradle of Filth exists within an ongoing tradition of transgressive satire, where elements of horror and the pornographic are combined with social commentary.

Most recently, the trend in modern British satire has been on the one hand deeply critical of social conditions and yet ambiguous in nature; we are shown the flaws and foibles of society and the individuals it is made up of but we are not then mollified by pat moral bromides or easy solutions: “This view opens a way for examining a new, darker, form of social satire that moves away from corrective critique and the comfort of stable values. Though mechanical repetition and inelasticity may still be a source of humour, the focus of the comedy is now the rigid and mechanical ordering of society, and it does not attempt to correct individuals’ behaviour as much as it reveals the way complex individuals negotiate the various roles they perform within the social structure.”

In both albums, we are simultaneously revolted by the behaviour of the main characters and yet inclined to sympathize with them. Elizabeth’s one true love, a fellow bloodthirsty aristocrat, is “cruelly slain in war” while Gilles’ great tragedy, and arguably the point where his downward spiral into depravity begins, is the martyrdom of Joan of Arc.

After their downfall, Elizabeth suffers a terrible fate — doomed to spend the rest of her life sealed in a room, while Gilles repents after a vision where he is implored by Joan to redeem himself — “like Christ to Golgotha, his face to the sun”.

Both figures are fundamentally Shakespearian in their tragedy — like Macbeth, they are damned by their actions, yet like him we are never granted the luxury of completely despising them. We are presented with figures who are corrupt and wicked, but are enabled in this regard by their social standing and who remain, disturbingly, human and sympathetic despite what they have done.

This reflects a satirical tradition that is older still. In the violence and cruelty employed by both characters, and how this is used to demonstrate the corrupt nature of their societies, we are reminded of Roman satire, which was used as a means of sublimated violence and so employs extreme imagery to make its case.

While the poet Horace argued that satire supplants the violence that was society’s original means of mediation, Juvenal claimed that it was in and of itself an indictment of society, where violence — literal or metaphorical — exposes its innate fragility (Keane 2006: 43–44). This is certainly the case where “the tortured cunts of accomplices” are put to the flame in Elizabeth’s case and where Gilles is hauled before a church court that he is able to befuddle and openly mock: “He thought the court a farce / His tongue as sharp as glass […] Flexing vexation at clerics aghast / In uproar he caused the cross to be masked”.

The very physical and grotesque nature of the characters’ crimes is also reminiscent of Roman traditions. When Elizabeth “fell / to masturbating with a dagger/ as the witch dabbled spells” in ‘The Twisted Nails of Faith’ or has “virgins forced naked / To defile on rent knees / Hacked and racked backwards / Menses choking their pleas” in ‘Cruelty Brought Thee Orchids’, we see the body defiled and made corrupt, the horror of sexual depravity and the corruption and tainting of flesh made only too clear.

Likewise, with Gilles De Rais, who has “fingertips […] scented with / the tears from seraphim cheeks / Part glamour and a hammer / Cadaverous and glib” in ‘Tragic Kingdom’ and a “torture garden rules of thumb apply / To sacred flesh and the naked eye / Golgothic this erotica / Stinking of honey and worse, sulphur” in ‘Honey and Sulphur’. The horror here is that of the body, reeking, corrupt, erotic and defiled.

Roman satire was both disgusted and fascinated with the tainted body. Genitals, oral sex, armpits and contaminated mouths were all potent metaphors for spiritual and physical decay, underlying deeper fears of contamination and “dirty” sexual acts such as fellatio and cunnilingus. “The foul saliva of a pissed-over whore” as one Roman writer put it, in a fashion a Cradle of Filth fan might be surprised to find familiar, alongside a similar morbid fascination with oral rape and violation, degradation, taint and anal sex acts (Richlin 1992: 26–27).

Perhaps, then, it is fitting that Gilles is described as being inspired by Roman writers: “Suetonius and ovid / filled the moonstruck dreams / with the purple of Rome” says a song that reveals his desire to become ‘The Thirteenth Caesar’. More fittingly still, the Latin word “Morbus” was used by Roman authors to signify both disease and perversion, often at the same time (Richlin 1992: 109). For the Romans and the depraved physicality of both Elizabeth Bathory and Gilles De Rais, the two were assuredly the same.

Naturally, one may well accuse both the Romans, whose self-righteousness rivalled their prurience, and Cradle of Filth itself of hypocrisy — showing us horror and yet encouraging us to dwell upon it with morbid joy. After all, while it may shock many, extreme satire and extreme metal are both ultimately forms of vicarious entertainment, like pornography and horror, for all their posturing, but once again Cradle of Filth follows in an established historical tradition.

In pre-early modern popular satire and parody, obscene language and open mockery of public figures, both feudal and ecclesiastical, were tolerated and even encouraged as part of festivals and folk traditions. While this provided a pressure valve for social tensions, and a controlled means of expressing and discussing concerns about society itself, it was also openly aware of its own hypocrisy — the satirists freely acknowledged and even celebrated their being part of the bigger picture they were attacking (Ndalianis 2012: 111).

In that sense, Cradle of Filth is gleefully aware of its own vicarious delight in the grotesqueness it portrays, and its own ridiculous nature. The centre spread of the ‘Cruelty and The Beast’ lyrics booklet sums the band up as “wall-eyed, vain and insane” and the rest of the booklet describes the band’s vile (and fictional) extracurricular activities in ever more obscene, lurid and — most significantly — absurd terms: “This libertine poses as a priest, first cataloguing sordid confessions from his flock before showering his seed into their cold dead eyes. Another of his manias is to have a naked nun sit astride a huge crucifix whereupon he plunges his priesthood into her cunt up to the hilt: his thrusts making her clitoris grind upon Christ’s beard.”

Such a self-portrait is so extreme and obscene that its self-parody is evident. Good satire must make it is irony self-evident in order for it to be identified as such by its intended audience. Like Swift’s Modest Proposal, whose satire is evident the moment it first suggests the eating of surplus children, the intrinsic sarcasm of Cradle of Filth is both its alibi and its license.

The band and its audience are both in on the joke and part of it, and it is this that shields them from anything but the most po-faced criticism. It also allows them to say the unsayable — Elizabeth and Gilles are both grotesque products of grotesque societies, whether it is her and her husband’s aim “to tease dynastic union / And beget them further maniacs” or Gilles’ “frightening wealth” and “his tightening grip on the weak”.

Sometimes extremity is required to expose extremity, and Cradle of Filth demonstrates the effectiveness of this approach.

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