It’s been more than two decades since the Columbine murders, and Marilyn Manson (aka Brian Warner) is no longer the literal devil of pop culture as he was once portrayed, but rather a boomer rockstar in his fifties facing accusations of rape, torture, and abuse from at least 15 women. Whatever anyone may have thought before, he is now regarded as a sort-of incl-adjacent edgester long past his prime and relevance.
Speaking of Columbine, it’s painfully ironic looking back how Manson was connected to the shootings in the first place. In those days his image as a satanic media personality fit perfectly into the religious right’s perception of all that was wrong with culture. Despite his obvious intention to fit that mold, he was also given a fair amount of sympathy and support from other artists and media personalities. Controversy was the brand, after all, and as his lyrics soon after stated, “the more that you fear us, the bigger we get!”
“Holy Wood: In The Shadow Of The Valley Of Death,” is Manson’s 4th studio album and his response to the Columbine murders. In light of his accusers’ revelations, it might be worth revisiting his message regarding the tragedy. 20 years ago, he made a case for artists like himself accused of being responsible for mass violence. Given the dramatically violent nature of his alleged crimes, what he has to say about violence, manipulation, and abuse in general, is quite revealing.
Holy Wood: In the Shadow of Death Valley
Before anything else, I’d like to properly review the album. Holy Wood was Manson’s first release following Columbine. As two armed students at Columbine High School massacred a handful of their peers, initial news reports told viewers that the killers were wearing Marilyn Manson T-shirts or were dressed as Marilyn Manson. They were actually dressed in black trench coats in association with their High School clique and were ultimately mistaken as Manson fans. Still, some damage had been done to Manson’s reputation and such heavy implications could understandably wound an innocent person. Manson went mostly quiet following the shooting but returned in 2000 with a message for the world.
On its surface, Holy Wood might seem like an almost stereotypical proto-emo rock record from the 2000s, mixed with the kind of imagery that would fascinate rebellious Christian kids from the Midwest. To its creator, it’s more like a dark and satirical dystopian novel, tying together much of his ideals and previous work. It is, also, a deeply fascinating album.
Imagine a metropolis combining the aspects of Hollywood, Disneyland, and Washington DC. According to Manson, “I thought of how interesting it would be if we created an entire city that was an amusement park, and the thing we were being amused by was violence and sex and everything that people really want to see.”
Adam is a teenage rebel living in Death Valley, the land of Holy Wood’s disposed children, left to rot in an inhospitable wasteland. Just beyond Death Valley, Holy Wood stands as an authoritarian entertainment Mecca, broadcasting all the sex and violence the world wants. The elites of Holy Wood rule their citizens with a militarized police state, as well as by propagandizing narratives around religious, political, and entertainment martyrs. This enables a system of celebrity worship known as Celebritarianism, blinding the masses with the splendor of fame and theatricality while the elite reside in a world of amoral luxury.
What happens when Adam leads a revolution of forgotten children against the Holy Wood establishment?
Holy Wood: The Album
- God Eat God — The album opens with a series of clicks, the sound of cameras, fireworks, and a solemn minor chord progression on piano. In this song, Adam laments the death of God, personifying him as both Jesus and JFK, making pointed references to the type of violence that was done to them. It’s the first of many Kennedy references on the album, who along with several other people made famous by death, are frequently represented in this way. “The only smiling are you dolls that I’ve made, but you are plastic and so are your brains.”
- The Love Song — Drums crash in loudly, followed by bass, Manson’s voice, and quiet sinister guitar. The song goes hard into the 1st chorus, building up each time. We hear the first of Adam’s slogans, singing sarcastically “Do you love your Guns, God, the Government?!” to which his audience vehemently replies, “fuck yeah!” Throughout, Adam sings about his desire for his teenage girlfriend, Coma, analogizing that he is the bullet to her gun, as well as a Christ-figure and celebrity to her. Their parents disapprove, but Adam believes more in the Love songs in his head than anything, igniting a rebellion in their name despite their superficiality and meaninglessness.
- The Fight Song — Catchy 2000’s rock anthem. Adam is alienated and dissatisfied with daily human events. Craving the beauty and excitement he’s come to expect from media, he throws himself into the role of a rockstar and leader of the youth rebellion. He leads a hollow anthem rebelling against everything and nothing, rejecting the beliefs, values, and traditions of his childhood. “You’ll never grow up to be a big rockstar, celebrated victim of your fame.”
- Disposable Teens — Another anthem, this time with a bit of Adam’s true feelings. He repeatedly laments the dispensability of youth, and evokes the “end of history” response, which is to be a “Rebel from the waist down,” that is to say, a self-destructive pleasure seeker, intent on screaming his anger into the void. Ironically, this sells, as the more attention he attracts with this behavior, the larger his movement becomes. “The more that you fear us, the bigger we get.” At this point, Manson also reveals a bit of himself by calling out the hypocrisy of the revolution to begin with. “You say you want a revolution man, and I’ll say that you’re full of shit!”
- Target Audience — Things finally slow down, mournful electric guitar leads into a slow and steady rhythm. Now that he has attained the power he has, Adam begins to see the reality behind the veil of entertainment and celebrity. He sees how the deaths of famous media figures are capitalized on, and how their ideals can be used to manipulate an audience. Kennedy and Oswald, among several others, are used as examples, both killer and victim being killed before an audience and used to suit the narratives of those with the cameras. The chorus arrives loud and quite crunchy. Adam points his finger at those in charge, later on encouraging his fans to recognize the patriarchs or “fathers” who’ve trapped them in this system. “Valley of death we are free, your Father’s your prison you see.” As the song winds down, Manson chimes in, “You’re just a copy of an imitation,” referring to Adam.
- President Dead — High tempo swing beat with bendy, heavy guitar. “President Dead,” Holy Wood’s celebrity leader, is an actor like everyone else, portraying a patriarchal authority written and directed by other minds. He is portrayed as Godly, and he is militantly authoritarian. He is also very childish and stupid. State violence is glorified like any other violence on tv, and the president’s fans have their own slogan. “And we don’t want to live forever, and we know that suffering is so much better.” As a celebrity, President Dead is marketed in much the same way as Adam, JFK, or the image of Christ. He is a savior adored by his people, whose fame can be used to influence his audience, alive or dead. The president’s team also has another slogan, “Getting high on violence, baby.”
- In The Shadow Of The Valley Of Death — Sad, downtempo guitars, crying infants, quiet synths blending into Manson’s melody. Reflecting on his fans, his girlfriend Coma, and himself, Adam recognizes that burning out to enter hell as quickly as possible is worthless. Maybe, if he was somehow famous or powerful enough, he could change things and wouldn’t feel so alone. In the media, religion, and everyday life, death is everywhere. Coma is his muse, and he imagines her burning out like a string on fire while he is reborn in the ashes, her faith in him transforming him into a God-like superstar persona.
- Crucifixion In Space — Muted, distorted guitar plays repetitively over a steady clicking beat as synths bend and the bass drops ominously. Adam chants “This is evolution, the Monkey, the Man, then the Gun.” He evokes several signs including the hammer and sickle, the only son, Jack Kennedy’s skull, and Atom bombs. Another punchy chorus and Adam continues to repeat his mantra. Knowing how the powers that be will use his movement for their own ends, he sacrifices himself to become an even more powerful and influential entertainer, allowing his message to spread but causing him to become nailed into the Holy Wood system. “We are dead and tomorrow’s canceled, because of things we did yesterday” his fans lament. Adam and his followers are now a weapon aimed at the top of Holy Wood itself. Flies are waiting.
- A Place In The Dirt — “Put me in the motorcade, put me in the death parade, dress me up and make me your dying God.” Adam sings a ballad, knowing he and his followers are condemned to die and that he has led them to this point. He also knows that Holy Wood will likely resurrect him afterwards and, like JFK and Christ, distort his message to suit their own ends. He accepts this, only hoping that he can become powerful enough for his message to make a difference and change the world.
- The Nobodies — Manson’s most direct reference to Columbine, in which he imagines two fans of Adam commit an act of mass violence and suicide, which is broadcast on TV. Feeling worthless and destined to be worthless, they take out their rage on everyone around them. The sensationalism of Holy Wood turns the event into a media spectacle, the scope of the tragedy and its celebrity connection proving well for ratings. “Two children died the other day, we fed machines and then way prayed, puked up and down in morbid faith, you should have seen the ratings that day.”
- The Death Song — Gentle rhythm leading into a catchy rock song. The rituals and beliefs of the past have become mere tools for marketing in Holy Wood. The mourners, the hopes and prayers, that follow violence are made hollow by spectacle. God is just another way of numbing one’s material condition, the same as psychiatric medication or the pursuit of beauty/pleasure, “We take a pill, get a face, buy a ticket, and we hope that heaven’s true.” Under such conditions, Adam’s fans perceive futile violence as their only outlet of rage against this system. “We write our prayers on a little bomb, kiss it on the face and send it to God.”
- Lamb Of God — Sad, soft, spacey rock song, with Manson singing in an agitated whining kind of voice. We hear his most introspective moments regarding the themes of the album. More references comparing Jesus, Jack and John Kennedy, John Lennon, and Mark David; as well as imagery that intertwines religion, entertainment, and politics. “If you die when there’s no one watching, then your ratings drop and you’re forgotten, but if they kill you on their TV you’re a martyr and a lamb of God.”
- Born Again — “I’m someone else, I’m someone new, I’m someone stupid just like you. ”A hollowed, mechanical version of Adam sings an uptempo rock anthem. He’s as famous and powerful as he’d imagined, but he has also been transformed by Holy Wood. His message is synthesized by the media into a commercialized form of rebellion for everyone. A born-again, superstar, imitation of Christ.
- Burning Flag — Unable to escape being destined to live meaninglessly until death, powerful as he is, Adam leads a last punk rock anthem aiming himself and his fans at an upcoming election. A final, hopeless rebuke intended to capture as much attention and cause as much chaos as possible. “You can point your gun at me and hope it will go away, if your God was alive he would hate you anyway” He calls out the hypocrisy of the media being willing to let him burn for the violence he inspires, while they use their own synthesized version of culture to justify their own. “My right wing is flapping, the left one is gray, let’s hear it for the kids but nothing they say, they gyrate and G-rate on election day, we got our ABC’s and our F.U.C.K.”
- Coma Black — “A loved one laid his head in her lap, red roses fell to the floor, and the world stood still.” Coma, Adam’s lover and muse, is dead. Another senseless death that the media uses to create a new narrative. “I burned all the good things in the Eden Eye, we were too dumb to run, too dead to die.” Adam is both desensitized to and traumatized by her assassination. He states that she was the only one he could love, but that the word love itself has become meaningless. Being born to burn out and die, her death is nothing shocking, but the callousness of exploiting her life after death is overwhelmingly bleak. Much religious imagery is used in this song, heavily entwining innocent and beautiful Coma into the Christ allegory prevailing through the album.
- Valentine’s Day — “Flies are waiting,…” Like the Friday the 13th Valentine’s day massacre that resulted in the mass arrest and execution of the Knight’s Templar, Adam and his followers are blamed for the death of Coma and are likewise targeted. “Slit our wrists and send us to heaven, the first flower after the flood.” Coma’s death as a justification for violence contrasts with the violence Adam is accused of inspiring with his music.
- …The Fall Of Adam — “When one world ends, something else begins, but without a scream. Just a whisper because we just started over again.” A self-fulfilling prophecy is completed. From the beginning, Adam had anticipated his incapacity to change things. Hard distorted guitar thunders through Adam’s last rant, whipping his remaining followers into a frenzy with an old slogan. Their voices fade into a mechanical whirring noise; animatronics on rails, as blinded by their devotion to Adam as any other extremist is to what they believe. The song ends with the sound of flies.
- King Kill 33 — Possibly, the only song on the album told exclusively from the perspective of Marilyn Manson. Essentially saying, “look at what you’ve done,” in reference to the violence portrayed in the album as well as in real life at Columbine. He absolves all responsibility from himself, emphatically stating “I am not sorry, this is what you deserve.” As always, Manson portrays himself not as the corrupter, but the corrupter’s mirror image, suggesting that those who scapegoat others for the world’s miseries should look at themselves.
- Count To Six And Die (The Vacuum Of Infinite Space Encompassing) — Adam faces judgment. As the music fades, a series of revolver clicks firing empty rounds flows perfectly into the opening noises of the album. “It spins around, we all lay down, some do it fast, some do it better in smaller amounts.”
Phoenix Rising: The Film Documentary
The film and novel versions of the album, like many of Manson’s non-music projects, were never released. Much better for the purposes of contextualizing the album is the two-part documentary Phoenix Rising by actress Evan Rachel Wood, Manson’s ex-girlfriend. The film follows Evan’s story from the time she met Manson through the years of alleged abuse, and her subsequent rebirth as an activist for domestic violence.
Evan was a teenager when they met. By then she was already an established actress known for taking angsty teen roles, as well as for her doll-like Lolita-esque persona/aesthetic. The movie frequently portrays her as Manson appears to have seen her, as Alice in Wonderland. A naive, innocent, and bright young child. She talks about their shared love of art, her sincere belief in his creative genius, and the way he made her feel special. From her perspective, we learn that being the muse for a broken human being is far from romantic, and that behind the curtain, artists can be as monstrous as corporations, politicians, and religious leaders.
“He just represented all of those things that I wanted to unleash and not be ashamed of.” — Evan Rachel Wood, Phoenix Rising
Being a sheltered, closeted bi-sexual teen, it was easy for Evan to look up to Manson as someone with the courage to be themselves. If there were red flags, they were easy to dismiss as the eccentricities of an unstable genius. Evan admits that she first thought Manson was ironic or doing commentary when acting inappropriately, though this appears to have been a smokescreen. His pseudo-irony allowed him to get away with things no one else could. It created an illusionary distance between his real-life sadism and his persona of misunderstood artist.
Details about what Manson did to Evan are discussed at length elsewhere. What interests me more is the cult-like behavior she describes. The likeness between Brian Warner and Charles Manson is never clearly stated, but painfully obvious. It strongly suggests the moniker is not analogous, but literal.
According to Evan, Manson had an inner circle of close associates whomst he blackmailed and manipulated. Reportedly, those in his inner circle acted as though his message was bigger than anyone. By the time they had gotten close, Manson was well-equipped to keep Evan isolated to himself and fully indoctrinated in her belief in him. He could threaten or punish her as he saw fit and reinforce her dependence on him by giving her drugs and keeping her in a constantly fatigued state through starvation and sleep deprivation. Around this time, Manson painted several portraits of her, creating “art” out of the broken person he’d made.
“The only smiling are you dolls that I’ve made, but you are plastic and so are your brains.”
Though she eventually managed to escape, Evan was neither the first nor last of Manson’s victims. Along with several of the others and their allies, the film shows us Evan’s efforts to pass the Phoenix Act and get some kind of closure. Thanks to their efforts, the statute of limitations was extended from 3 years, to 3–5 years in the state of California. Even then, it was still too late for Evan to make a case, though it was a victory, nonetheless. The film ends with Evan naming Manson as her abuser publicly for the first time. Since then, several women have come forth to accuse him. There is at least one pending court case and an ongoing police investigation at time of writing. Manson’s career as a musician effectively ended that day, though no legal consequences have found him yet.
Media Manipulation & Fascist Fetishism
An essential part of the Marilyn Manson philosophy comes from “The Long Hard Road Out Of Hell,” the story of Brian Warner’s transformation into his full-time persona. Several of its passages are read aloud in Phoenix Rising, mostly related to Brian’s accounts of his own trauma and violent behavior. For the purposes of the movie enough is said, though it winks at something even more revealing. Evan herself says “He manipulates the truth so much it’s hard to know what’s true.” An interesting statement given his own admissions and the way he glamorizes himself in the text.
Originally, Marilyn Manson was a fictional character created by Brian Warner when he was an aspiring writer. “He was a character who, because of his contempt for the world around him and, more so, himself, does everything he can to trick people into liking him. And then, once he wins their confidence, he uses it to destroy them..” One wonders in retrospect if the starlet/serial killer combination was less commentary, but more of a bait and switch.
Abuse is a major theme in the book, itself being the title of a two-part chapter documenting the creation of the “Smells Like Children” EP. A release famous for Manson’s cover of Eurythmics’s “Sweet Dreams.” “Some of them want to abuse you, some of them want to be abused.” These chapters could almost be a microcosm of the whole book, or even of Manson’s whole career. The better part of part-one is spent on the band’s drug problems and their fascination with torturing vulnerable women while on tour. Several occasions are described in which Manson and his friends commit physical, emotional, and psychological abuse on young women for the apparent thrill and satisfaction of it. While justified for the sake of art, there’s no doubt that Manson was able to take full advantage of the power balance in his favor to simply get a reaction from people. Not only that, he wrote about it, pondered it, became transformed by it, and made it part of the show. It only took nearly three decades before anyone examined these accounts critically.
If Holy Wood is Manson’s most idealistic version of himself, then The Long Hard Road Out Of Hell is probably his most revealing. As a teenager, I read this book imagining it was about someone like me. The story of a kid that didn’t fit in, growing up to be a musician and exposing the hypocrisies of religion and popular culture through art. A monster to the religious right, but an angel to his fans. Now, it seems more and more like he was really just a monster, and that I and the rest of his fans had fallen for the image of a rockstar.
Manipulation and abuse as showmanship has existed for a long time, though one has to wonder how far the limits could be pressed. In the book, Manson meets one Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan and author of the Satanic Bible. A mutual interest in carnal pleasure, mass psychology, fascism/”social Darwinism,” and a general interest in the hypocrisy of organized religion, seemingly brought them together.
LaVey is described as a showman, appearing in puffs of smoke in his own house, spying on his guests, and telling stories about famous people he’d known. Manson seemed impressed by how he was able to use his natural talent to entertain in order to maintain control. A brilliant performer controls the narrative around them, crafting their own public image to their greatest advantage and benefit. It’s a skill that could be very effective at spreading a message, as well as to conceal oneself in plain sight.
The manipulation techniques used by these two men as entertainers are not dissimilar to those used by fascists and other authoritarians. Manson quotes Anton LaVey in his book as saying, “Hitler was smarter than people realized.” A line that stands out among the several coy references to Nazism throughout the text. While characterized as a mere fascination with the darker elements of psychology and history, it seems clear that there was also a fascination with gaining power and controlling others.
This, of course, draws obvious parallels to Phoenix Rising. Much of the symbolism in the film is either in direct reference or contrast to Manson’s work. Parts of it are obviously scripted and acted for the camera, though they’re presented as organic. Evan Rachel Wood is a celebrity selling a media product she wishes you to consume. This is not to say the film is dishonest, merely that Evan is clearly constructing a narrative about herself in order to achieve a desired effect for a mass audience. The evidence she presents is difficult to dismiss, and despite what she may have learned from Manson, her claims have enough credibility that I don’t think I could doubt them. The question is, if Evan Rachel Wood can use these techniques to do good, then what of Marilyn Manson?
Holy Wood: In the Shadow of The Valley Of Death
If you have at any point in your life, fallen for a pop-star rebel, imagine marching up to the Capital to one of their hardest songs and dying for them in an orgasmic fit of nihilistic terrorism. Imagine what would happen in the media after such an event; what they would talk about, who they would blame. To answer, we can look at any number of other massively violent acts we’ve seen. Columbine, 9/11, Boston Marathon, Sandy Hook, etc. We see enormous amounts of activity surrounding the events; mourning, analysis, debate, retribution, but no perceptible change in the status quo. The system absorbs violent shocks like these so well, that they become part of the system itself; and maybe there isn’t anything we could ever do except make art about it.
I could almost hear Manson saying, “I could do it if I wanted to, but there would be no point but to amuse myself. It’s better if I make art about it.” The sound of Adam’s fans’ frantic chants turning to mechanical screams strikes an especially sinister turn when you think about it that way.
There’s a watercolor painting by Manson shown in Phoenix Rising of Hitler portrayed as a sort of angel of death, flying over his destroyed victims. Evan claims he told her that “Hitler was the first true rockstar.” Another equation of media manipulation and celebrity, and also a contrast with the Christ metaphors on the album. The question he obviously wants asked is whether he is more Christ or Hitler, more Marilyn Monroe or Charles Manson. Obviously, his point is now proven. He is now an angel to some and a monster to others, broadcast globally to anyone who cares, meanwhile casting aside the people he breaks along the way.
Could you really perceptibly call this art? If so, is it good art? Is this article, or Evan Rachel Wood’s movie, entertaining? If it all amuses people, and its effects ripple and fade so as to make no significant difference to the status quo, doesn’t it add up to what Manson has always said?
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how Manson was planning to make a movie about Lewis Carol, the author of Alice in Wonderland. He was to play Lewis Carol while Evan would’ve played Alice. In a new light, he seems more like “Lolita’s” unreliable narrator, perhaps not unlike Lewis in some ways, but much sadder. He seems like a monster who would do about anything to hang on to his own dignity and identity, but who could never really face what he’s done.
Evan Rachel Wood’s activism has managed to make some small progress for victims like her, and if making a two-part documentary about her experience helped her recover something of herself then fantastic. Saying it makes no difference would be wrong, even if it’s a small one. Maybe it’s a speck of dust overall, but millions of specks could still ripple out strongly over time. And as we’ve seen, art can definitely influence the way we weave our own narratives of our lives.
Having been a fan of Manson’s as a teenager and continuing into adulthood, his narrative has been one I’ve cared about and which has unquestionably influenced my life. Reading his book at 16 and listening to his albums felt like finding the first artist I could relate to on every level. We were youths disaffected with our religious upbringing, on some level traumatized, and looking for a new way of participating in the world. What if everything you believed was a lie, the authorities in your life were insincere or malevolent, you can’t heal your pain, and you realize that there’s nothing you can do to change it? Why not turn your pain into art, pursue pleasure and fame, and become a messianic mockery of everything that’s hurt you along the way?
The problem is that turning pain into art won’t heal you in itself. Knowing about it, singing about it, won’t make it go away. Your pain doesn’t make you stronger, it brings you down until you pass it along to others. You can scream it hurts all you want, or you can hug those close to you and do your best however you can to feel something better.
Last Manson was seen in public, as far as I know, was at the Kanye West worship service. I don’t know if it’s me, but in the photo he seems to look like he’s worried, or scared. If this is the last we see of him, I couldn’t think of a sadder ending. He’s practically a Christian morality tale straight from the Satanic Panic era, a parody of what we thought he was, a real monster, and also, it must be said, not entirely wrong in his beliefs.
Holy Wood, the album, used to seem romantic to me. A real rock opera. Now it seems more horrifying to me than ever. The potential truth it may tell haunts me, but there is part of it that holds up. Whether it’s Christ, Kennedy, a Fuhrer, or a rockstar, some will see angels while some see devils. We may never really know who they are deep inside, but there’s power in that ambiguity. Think of all the people just going along for the ride.
I’m writing this during the Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard trial, which brings to mind that Manson and Depp have both said in the past that they were close friends. That may seem like an accusation of guilt, though it isn’t my intention to come down one way or another on that issue. It just strikes me how obvious it is that both sides are trying hard to appeal their narratives to the media and that their trial is getting plenty of attention. Again, we have a story about abuse where, apart from seeking justice, everyone surrounding these people are trying to control the narrative to suit their own ends. As often as we learn the lesson that sensationalism of abuse only breeds more abuse to sensationalize, shouldn’t we be wiser by now?
Holy Wood is a flawed album written by a flawed person, but in a way, it’s the perfect album for explaining the darker side of all media. If nothing else, it mirrors the darkness inherent in our culture and demonstrates exactly how controlling the narrative can be so powerful. The next Manson, or Epstein, or Hitler, or Kennedy may be someone you already admire or respect. Before falling for the icons we love, it would be wise to remember how much of them you really know, and the depths to which a person could sink and still be perceived as Christ.