By Ernest Hilbert

I amble down Walnut Street in Philadelphia, on lunch break from my job as an antiquarian bookseller on the top floor of the art-deco Sun Oil Building, when I develop a pronounced limp. I am not surprised. It is not my first affliction of the day. Welts and bruises rise along my biceps and upper legs. I’m a bit battered. More than a bit battered, really, and, at age 46, experiencing a tough aftermath to the night before. My frame has received many hundreds of severe shocks and blows, the kind that shake the brain around the skull and rattle the length of the spine. I may as well have stood in the Anglo-Saxon shield wall at Hastings. You see, about twenty hours before I found myself in the middle of a massive mosh pit at a Slayer concert. I was 17 at my first Slayer concert, nearly 30 years before, and my ability to take punishment, and to heal from it, has begun to wane. I’ll be restored in a few days, but the following July, when I find myself in another, far more intense pit, I’ll be in serious recovery for nearly a month. Today I feel good. I am triumphant.

What is a mosh pit? How does one explain it to someone who has never even seen one, much less been pulled into the maelstrom? It compares with very few other experiences. Merriam-Webster offers a staid definition of “an area in front of a stage where very physical and rough dancing takes place at a rock concert.” Wikipedia is a bit more helpful:

a style of dance in which participants push or slam into each other, typically performed to “aggressive” live music. It originated in the hardcore punk scenes of California and Washington, D.C., in the early 1980s, thereafter spreading from hardcore to other forms of punk rock as well as thrash metal.

Better. As often, Urban Dictionary is even more helpful, illustrating a number of types of pit, including the Closed Pit (“Tight, hard to move and hard to breathe”), Open Pit (“You can pick a target and reach them, throw them across the floor punch them, barge them [sic]”), and Circle Pit (“Run around in an empty circle punching those on the outside of the circle and pushing the runner in front until he either leaves or falls to be trodden on . . .”). Though the etymology of “mosh” remains somewhat murky, Merriam-Webster traces the word to 1983, possibly an “alteration of mash,” as it appeared in early hardcore zines. The band Anthrax was instrumental in popularizing the term for larger audiences.

A Slayer pit is a mixture of these three principal types, unfolding in a completely unpredictable and dangerous manner in pitch darkness split by blinding white flashes from strobe lights. The closest non-concert experience I’ve had was during a protest march in 2003 that rammed me up against police barricades in Manhattan with a crush of thousands behind who were unaware that those in the vanguard were trapped at the barriers. Your own body becomes lost in the animal movement of a great mass. Panic sets in at first when you are crushed; it gets hard to breathe, you lose your footing and find yourself lifted off the ground by the pressure of crowded bodies. It is also invigorating. Metal shows always have this insane press, closer to the stage. The pit is a more merciless environment precisely because you can move. You must move. It is impossible to explain why anyone would willingly choose to enter such a situation at all, much less for an hour or more. Heroic quantities of beer, gallons of it, help to produce the correct attitude, of course. Also, the volume and intensity of the music heightens the corporal instincts. The fiercest thrill arrives from the combination of total physical exertion accompanied by sometimes total loss of bodily control. Slayer creates these conditions on every occasion, quickly and reliably.

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Recently, Slayer performed at the end of a two-day hard rock and heavy metal festival called Rock Allegiance Fest, held at Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, Pennsylvania. The day is sweltering, hellishly humid. For the festival, the soccer field itself is opened up for the audience. This allows for far more bodies than the 18,500 seats would suggest. Inside the stadium, the well-tended grass of the playing field is preserved from damage by an UltraDeck synthetic turf-protection system, which protects the field but creates a nightmarishly slippery surface for those unfortunate enough to be standing on it after it is slickened with rain and two days of spilled beer mixed with sweat, traces of blood, and vomit. I stand with my brother at the center of the field as the immense crowd circulates around us. I am 6’3” and well over 200 pounds. My brother is taller and stronger, with broader shoulders. We are agog as true giants lumber by us, brushing us with bare shoulders that seem as high as our heads, their deep eyes set grimly on the distance like ogres or stone giants.

The denizens of the festival assume many forms. Hair is of every possible length; elaborate tattoos abound. There are teenagers. There are middle-aged parents, some with children in tow. There are wiry young skater kids. There are thick-trunked veteran head-bangers in their 50s and even 60s. Shirts are uniformly black, most with only white emblems, sigils, and stylized lettering. One emblazoned simply FUCK HITLER would seem oddly unnecessary and out of place anywhere that self-professed Nazis weren’t prowling on a regular basis. In the confines of the arena, nothing shocks. It’s all OK. A burly man with a beard and crew cut, arms and legs emblazoned with tattoos, is clad in nothing but bright sneakers and a skimpy bikini that almost disappears under his rotund torso and strains over his bull shoulders. No one gives him a second glance.

I feel an almost palpable sense of camaraderie. I feel like I belong. Whatever else divides us, there is no question that we all love heavy metal of one kind or another. This sense of belonging may be fleeting, and, in a sense, illusory. Surely many of us couldn’t be more different outside the confines of the concert. Granted, most (though never all) are white, more than half are men, and most are in some stage of inebriation or stoned (or both and more), but the feeling is good when it happens and for as long as it lasts.

* * *

In The Violent World of Moshpit Culture, Joe Ambrose tells us that “what began in small clubs now stuffs arenas. The violence of the mosh pits, which 10 years ago resulted in self-elected injuries shared between grown men, has spread all over the place.” This leads to legal and security concerns for promoters. In 2008, the president of CSI Entertainment Insurance told ABC News that “Mosh pits are an interesting problem. They’re very tough to control and can break out anytime, anywhere.” He went on to say that “insurance for concerts that have a moshing potential is definitely more expensive. A Metallica concert will have more exposure to moshing and the [insurance] rates are definitely higher.” In 2013, NBC News ran a story of a man who claimed he had been mistakenly pulled into a mosh pit that quickly broke his knee and sprained his shoulder. He filed a lawsuit claiming that the band and the venue’s owners “failed to prevent aggressive, intoxicated, drugged, and/or otherwise impaired individuals from forming a mosh pit.”

One problem with mosh pits—and a permanent headache for promoters—is that they are simply unstoppable. They are like riots. When a worried concertgoer (“not some big buff kid”) inquired on Gamespot about techniques that would help him survive an upcoming Slayer mosh pit, answers included “stand outside it,” “be aggressive and don’t lose your shoes,” “surviving is for lightweights,” and, resignedly, “if you do get injured it’s just a badge of honor.” Some seek to observe the phenomenon from a purely scientific standpoint. Lindsay Abrams wrote in The Atlantic in 2013 about a Cornell physics student who noticed in a mosh pit “curious patterns in what had always felt like the epitome of chaos.” The student explains that after “being on the outside [of a mosh pit] for the first time, I was absolutely amazed at what I saw—there were all sorts of collective behaviors emerging that I never would have noticed from the inside.” The concert became fieldwork, during which he hoped to study “the complex behavioral dynamics of each human mosher” according to methods usually used for understanding the movement of particles. He went so far as to create digital models to further his study of the seemingly random motion. “We need someone to try and explain what’s going on. And that’s what scientists are here for, right?” His confidence is admirable, but his study, as diverting and inspired as it is, is not likely to explain the strange desires that drive otherwise sane attendees to join the pit.

Few of the dozens of bands scheduled to play today can incite a mosh pit. It’s hard to know exactly why Slayer inspires such devotion and can whip up such furious mosh pits, but they do, and indisputably. Their success is hard to understand, but it’s a combination of the bizarre, hostile, diminished-fifth (what they call “devil’s music”) songwriting of guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman (the latter now dead from complications related to chronic alcoholism compounded with a flesh-eating condition known as necrotizing fasciitis, contracted from a spider bite) and the apocalyptic, violent, and nightmarish imagery the group cultivated to accompany that sound. In “Fans Rule,” the short documentary appended to their concert film War at the Warfield, fans testify that Slayer is an “expression of hatred in a very fucking aggressive form,” insisting “Slayer is a religion . . . you’re either there or you’re not,” “it’s about chaos,” “it makes me want to be violent.”

* * *

As the sun sinks toward the horizon the crowd shuffles over to the side where Slayer will soon begin. My brother, always tactical, positions us where he believes we’ll be close to the band but not in the area where mosh pits usually erupt. In the enclosing dusk, Slayer detonates titanically into “Repentless.” It’s a fast song, and it gets the crowd rowdy right away. Tom Araya shouts the furiously fast punk-style lyrics:

Arrogance, violence, world in disarray Dealing with insanity every fuckin’ day I hate the life, hate the fame, hate the fuckin’ scene

Pissing match of egos, fuck their vanity