A Psychological Study of the Sacred in Metal Music Culture

  • Kyle Messick

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    The sacred is a quality pertaining to individual and collective systems of meaning (Knott, 2013), which is distinct from the ordinary or mundane (Durkheim 1976/1912), and is characterized by a sense of specialness or pricelessness (Taves, 2009). Through their connection to the sacred, individuals experience a range of benefits, such as finding meaning and dealing with uncertainty in life. Despite an increased interest among psychologists on the functions, effects, and loss of the sacred, the topic has seldom been explored outside of religious contexts. The aim of this thesis is to rectify this gap by exploring the sacred within a specific secular context: metal music culture.
    This thesis has 3 main aims: 1) to assess the secular sacred as a special affective and cognitive experience that is distinct from what is merely good or enjoyable; 2) to study how this secular sacred experience fulfils similar psychological needs to the religious sacred, including its ability to influence levels of affect, empathy, and prosociality; and 3) to test for the potential negative impact of the secular sacred, when loss or desecration occur, within metal culture. Three studies were conducted to accomplish these goals. Metal music culture was chosen to investigate the sacred within a secular context because it might function like a religion, given its ability to provide meaning, cultural identity, rituals, and a sense of belonging (Moberg, 2012), thus making it a good candidate to explore the role of the sacred outside of religious contexts.
    The first study sought to identify the some of the most prominent sacred-like aspects of metal music culture (music, behaviours, cultural artefacts, and people), and found that higher levels of commitment to the metal worldview were associated with a stronger metal identity, greater engagement in metal cultural behaviours, and greater perception of prominent metal cultural figures as sacred-like. In addition to this, it was found that the affective importance of metal music was dependent on the type of metal and its consistency with subgenre-based metal identity. Findings from the first study also laid the groundwork for understanding music cultures outside of the context of the sacred, such as by exploring the role of personality and moral reasoning in music preferences. The second study, which contrasted metal music stimuli with the most popular non-metal style of music for metal fans (hard rock), found that preferred metal music was seen as more sacred to the self, more sacred to the community, promoted higher levels of positive affect, and was significantly associated with higher levels of psychological needs fulfilment and prosocial behavioural intentions. No differences were found between the two music styles and their influence over empathy and negative affect. The third study used sacred metal artefacts to test for a potential negative experience of the sacred, focusing on loss and desecration. Its findings broadly replicated previous work that found that appraising a loss as sacred results in feelings of anxiety and depressive symptoms (Pargament, Benore, & Mahoney, 2005). Similarly, it was also found that desecrated or violated metal objects resulted in significantly higher levels of anger, when compared to sacred loss without desecration or non-sacred loss.
    This thesis provides some of the earliest evidence that secular communities, such as those encompassed by metal worldviews, endow its music and artefacts with emotive and cognitive qualities similar to those of the religious sacred, and that these may likewise shape individuals’ experiences positively and negatively — effects known to occur with one’s attachment to sacred religious sources. I conclude by discussing the implications of this work for the psychological study of religion and metal studies.
    Date of AwardFeb 2020
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Coventry University
    SupervisorMiguel Farias (Supervisor) & Jonathan Jong (Supervisor)

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