Metallica, The West Memphis Three, and the Narcissism of the Law

by on Jan.25, 2013

In the past week I’ve huddled in a freezing apartment before my laptop and watched the entire Paradise Lost trilogy  as it recounts the nauseating saga of the West Memphis Three, railroaded as teens for the vicious murder and mutilation of three eight-year-olds, a crime supposedly prompted by their supposedly Satanist taste in books, clothes, music, handwriting and hairstyles. Since I am hearing impaired and the DVDs have no captions, my attempt to force my neurons to process the dialogue added a layer of obscurity and stress to the proceedings which amplified the competing layers of obscurity and stress which are the raw material of this ongoing multidecade saga.

west memphis


As a mere viewer of these films, I am not an expert on this topic like my friend Christian Peet (see his Supplicium blog), but I am an artist with an interest in Art’s occult movements, its paradoxically linked power and obscurity. The three films themselves, of course, are Art– they are documentaries made by the filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofksy, and therefor compositions, carefully edited, composed, re-edited, condensed, revised, and, always, set to music. As twenty years of legal time condenses to nine or so hours of film-time, we are watching a medium which at once condenses, reanimates, and disorients time, remaking the flesh and hairlines and clothing of both the main protagonists and the minor characters with as relentless and as ludicrous a sense of aplomb. Art touches every aspect of this story, adds and strips away years before our eyes, drives apparent ‘facts’ together and strips them apart. Art is lucidity, instrumentality. The only things which do not change visibly are, interestingly, still photographs– mug shots, school portraits, crime scene photos. Yet different affects and interpretations gather and drain from these still photos, so even they become penetrated by the obscure power of emotion, narrative, and Art.

Across the three films, Art is most lucidly and obscurely embodied by the Metallica soundtrack. Striking aerial footage of the highways frames the films and is frequently returned to throughout the films; this aerial viewpoint and the Metallica instrumental become synonymous, as is evident even in the trailer, here:

As I watched the films, for hour after hour, hunched over with my back cramping and my ears to the tinny laptop speakers, trying to force sound into my cerebellum,  I was so struck by the Metallica riff, which, higher pitched than the mostly male-spoken dialogue, slipped its wire into my brain with no problem at all. As it floated so lucidly, with so much interest in the proceedings, the music itself began to seem more and more sentient. It is up in the air, it occupies a position normally awarded to God or a movie camera. The more time I spent with its synesthetically aerial view of the music, the more and less I ‘understood’ about the saga; I slowly came to recognize that what I was seeing was not just rural highways, truckstops, a large drainage pond illustrating a remote rural community, but the dumping ground where the three victims’  bodies would be found. Dreadfully familiar to me,  I felt claimed by the dark and dreadful knowledge of the film itself. This dumping site would then become a kind of retroactive stage whereupon all kinds of fantasies would be scripted and enacted by the prosecution and played out again and again on the stage of the courtroom. As I continued through the hours of documentary, my body buckled and froze up as I struggled to hear, and I found myself more and more in the physical position of the defendants in their uncomfortable wooden chairs sitting through hours and hours of rancid testimony. Only when I heard the Metallica was I allowed to float lucidly free, high above West Memphis, Arkansas.

As the trilogy continues, the soundtrack has other roles– sometimes it plays as the camera barrels along an interstate to a new setting, as if enacting the camera’s insistence on driving the narrative to a new stage, only to double back to older footage, arrive at a new setback or be locked outside of courtrooms. At other times it moves through the underbrush as the crime scene is revisited. It marks where the camera is moving, but at the same time it is takes on and sheds anguish, the fluid that is running along side, through, on top of the documentary just as it runs along side, through, on top of each version of the narrative presented by this sad epic’s inmates. This is thought-provoking in the sense that Metallica is both at the inception of this story– part of the dark aesthetic tastes of which the original case against Echols is built– and threaded throughout it, as the emblem of the ‘celebrity interest’ that allowed supporters and resources to flow to the story, funding new and comprehensive forensic research which would lead to the West Memphis Three’s release.

The real and unreal effects of the Metallica soundtrack– and/or  Art itself– are strikingly (and paradoxically) bio-identical with each other. That is, the soundtrack, as the camera’s audible trace, shows Art’s instrumentality in shaping this story. We are not watching ‘facts’  but a narrative, a shaped version of events, a synthetic counter story to the prosecution’s official narrative. This constructed narrative, as the three films unfold, eventually exercises a ‘real’ force, winning support and resources that brings about the triumph of the West Memphis Three’s narrative of railroading. Art bought real time for the condemned Damien Echols, and eventually bought him back his life.

On the other hand, Art changed fantasy into reality; the ‘Satanic Panic’ of the townspeople and prosecutors became true; their supposed fears of the rape, mutilation, torture, cannibalism of young boys at the hand of Satanists were inverted, amplified and applied to the young bodies of the West Memphis Three themselves. Across the films, various participants call for the three young men to be raped in prison, have their faces bitten off, be tortured forever, shot up, etc. The justice system worked its Satanism on the phantasmatic and real bodies of these three young men; perhaps then Satanism is the phantasmatic double of the law itself, which is why the Law in this period is so interested in Satanism. Rather than Echols or other teenagers, it is the Law’s fatal narcissism which attracts it to Satanism; it is the Law which is prompted by narcissism to study it, to learn its lingo,  to wear its executioner’s clothes, to enact its supposed rituals of dungeons, violation, torture, and murder. It is the Law that wants to reflect on itself, to declare itself incontrovertible, its decisions final and its hairstyle permanent and correct (this, it would seem, is the meaning of the wigs worn in British legal proceedings). But as is evident by the irrationality of the Alford plea which eventually won the Three’s freedom by allowing them to plead guilty and proclaim their innocence in the same breath, the hair of the Law is not gleaming but thinning, its flesh wasting and jowling, its hands tremoring, its power arbitrary, now sinking, now swollen, a corpse which nonetheless raises itself from its reflecting pool to express its vanity and rage.




3 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    For me the most startling detail in the third movie was that some asshole cop had been stealing Damien’s D-and-D-ish drawings over a year before the murders, faxing them to the self-proclaimed expert on Satanist cults (complete with a degree from upstairs university), asking if they indicated that this was the “satanist” they had all become so scared of. They were looking for the culprit before the crime had even been committed!

    The story has much in common with another story I’ve been fascinated by, the story of Susan Smith who alleged a black man had stolen the children she herself had killed – and how all of America bought this story immediately and began searching – and finding! – this racist stereotype. This stereotype is of course fan-fictioned briliantly by Cornelius Eady (in Brutal Imagination), who I then fan-ficitoned in Entrance Pageant and Haute Surveillance.


  2. Rebecca Loudon

    Joyelle, thanks for this. I am renting these three movies to go along with the book I’m reading The Red Parts, Maggie Nelson’s memoir about the murder of her aunt, Jane Mixer (first written about in the gut-punching Jane: A Murder). Sometimes I get to a point where it seems that everything I read/see/listen to, creates a continuous line I am supposed to follow. Montevidayo of course, is part of that line and thank you and thanks to Johannes as well.

  3. James Pate

    Excellent post, Joyelle…I especially like this: “Art bought real time for the condemned Damien Echols, and eventually bought him back his life.” I like the idea of Art as a morally neutral force. Deleuze talks about music in similar ways. Sure, it can lead to Fascism, or be employed by Fascism, but it can also lead to all sorts of liberative effects too.

    I grew up right across the river from West Memphis (there’s sometimes some confusion about this: West Memphis is in Arkansas and wholly different from Memphis, TN) and I have vivid memories of the trial. For more than a year it was in the news every day, and Memphis came to a complete standstill when the verdict was given. The West Memphis Three were household names.

    It’s strange, but most people I knew thought they were innocent. Even some fairly conservative people I knew at the University of Memphis, very much law and order types, thought it too. There was so little evidence, plus Memphis as a whole looked down on West Memphis (just as one fairly impoverished city will look down on one even more so) and thought they weren’t capable of an impartial case.

    I also think a lot of people found Echols disarming. The guy was clearly smart, articulate, charismatic. In an odd way, I think that worked against him. He would sometimes be likened to Charles Manson, or to a cult leader. And as stupid as that argument was, I think his charisma lent itself to that kind of thinking. He came off as smarter and more composed than his prosecutors — and a certain kind of American mentally, one that equates intelligence with evil and ignorance with wholesomeness, can find that threatening.

    At the same time, places like West Memphis exist for a reason. Forty years or so of neoliberal policies have decimated such places. The backwardness and ignorance exist because that backwardness and ignorance allows others to rake in millions and billions of profit. Not to let West Memphis off the hook or anything — but if things keep on going as they’re going, if America continues to be striving to mold itself in the image of Milton Friedman’s vile economic philosophy, in a few years we’ll be saying we’re all West Memphians now.

    Great post….really thought provoking…