Horror was my thing when I was a kid. Certain memories still have the lurid and cozy glow of a decaying VHS tape. I tried to summon the devil from Legend on a Halloween night. I experimented with a furry Gizmo doll, turning the star of Gremlins inside out to reveal his evil twin. I left a secret piece of cake for the monster under my bed. In 1999, just after the English ban on the movie ended, I saw part of The Exorcist and spent the next year haunted by a loopy carousel of Linda Blair puking green slime.
At some fuzzy point, Marilyn Manson’s Mechanical Animals came into my treehouse of horror. I don’t know when this happened, but presumably it was in the aftermath of the Columbine High School massacre, when Manson was at his most infamous thanks to right wing goons who deemed him responsible for the event. Suddenly there he was, throwing my nine-year-old self a demonic stare, this zonked ghoul with prosthetic breasts and hair dyed hellfire red. All the bats in my stomach came fluttering into delighted life. I had only a cartoon understanding of the anatomical differences between “boy” and “girl”—was a vulva a wizard thing?—and Manson melted them under fluorescent lights on a Saturday morning. His body was a sexy and threatening sculpture; his flesh glowed Michael Jackson white. In a 2012 interview, Grimes pointed out the father-son likeness between them: Manson “[did] the Michael Jackson thing, where you live your art, except it was scary as shit.” Twenty years later, he seems like the product of some transdimensional romance, equal parts rave Nosferatu, Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs, and undead Grace Jones. Living in the nowhere land of English suburbia, who could resist something like that?
The encounter with Mechanical Animals was the big one before puberty hit. My body, which was well trained at making me feel like a lonesome gargoyle (wonky eyes, flat feet, warped brain) was getting even odder. Maybe it was a warning, or maybe that’s what my school wanted me to think. It was all weirdly familiar.
Manson was a rock version of the heroes who stalked through my childhood dreams promising wicked fun, like Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) or Jack Nicholson as the Joker in Batman (1989). (Tim Burton invented my young brain.) Like the Beast who breaks Beauty’s heart, he was proof that somebody could be beautiful and freakish at once, drawing awesome power from the paradox. Manson wasn’t my introduction to the stranger things of the imagination—monsters, androgyny, transformation—but he brought them all together in one song-and-dance man.
I snuck into a long-since-demolished Tower Records outlet in the shopping complex near my house and gawped at the photos in Manson’s schlock autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell (1998). There was a cute monochrome snap of pubescent “Brian” dressed up as the Catman from Kiss. There were teenage fans who carved his name into their flesh, the spidery letters mimicking the font from Edward Gorey books. Manson told stories about an adolescence colored by bad acid trips, trailer park deviants, and dead dogs (RIP, Aleusha). He was Florida swamplands gothic, and this was dark magic. Florida! Home of Mickey and Goofy!
Rewind to 1997. In the Hollywood Hills, Mechanical Animals was coming to life, a dystopian rock opera about an alien superstar who grows sick of success and drifts into chemically induced oblivion. Manson and his partner in crime, photographer Joseph Cultice, wanted the album’s cover to be a shocking end-of-the-century sequel to the sleeve for David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs (1974), in which Ziggy Stardust appears as an airbrushed half-man, half-dog beast, complete with ambiguous werewolf genitalia.
I called up Cultice. He told me that Manson was supposed to have had a sequence of dog teats on his chest, but they were deemed too weird to be erotic and switched for that lone pair of breasts. To become a wraith, he was slathered in latex and silver paint. Cultice described their mad scientist collaboration as an attempt to pinpoint a twilight zone where spooky and soft-core became inextricable. The shoot was conducted at a rat-infested soundstage in Los Angeles where Tim Burton had filmed a few scenes for Ed Wood (1994). As Cultice remembers, “a revolving door of weirdos” came over while the album was created. Keanu was there. Courtney, too. Rose McGowan, who was then Morticia to Manson’s Gomez, raised hell in the background and battled Hollywood sleazebags in secret. Several porn stars were enlisted to do backing vocals on the “Fame”-like vamp, “I Don’t Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me).” Those recordings were sent to the crypt.
Once the cover was finished, evil conglomerates saw the devil and shrieked. Walmart refused to stock the album unless Manson’s “obscene” nipples were removed, obviously fearing the traumatic ramifications of the average shopper coming across a drug-blitzed hermaphrodite in between the Froot Loops and trash bags. Manson had those zombified eyes on stardom, so a censored version was readied for the mall. (That artificial gaze was thanks to a dude in Hollywood who also fixed up the Insane Clown Posse with their freaky lenses.) Cultice told me that no amount of latex could be sculpted to endow Manson with female hips. Dr. Frankenstein with a primitive computer program, Cultice had to slavishly graft flesh from a picture of Elle Macpherson onto Manson’s body to create the illusion of a female creature. The compact disc itself was designed to look like a killer tranquilizer, moondust white, ominously imprinted with the word COMA.
I was so into the cover that I never thought about the music beneath it until a few years later. For kids still wrecked by the tragic comedown from grunge, Mechanical Animals offered an interstellar escape route. Now it sounds in tune with the strung-out affect of the 1990s, haunted by Kurt Cobain’s ghost as much as by The Man Who Fell to Earth. Joyless excess, suicide, and dissociative loneliness brought on by spending too long in fame’s isolation tank flow through the record like downers in an addict’s bloodstream.
Cultice says everybody was hot, early on, for Manson to channel the grotesque satyr from Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 5, which had premiered that year, but that made it all seem too metal. Then there was talk of Manson appearing as a winged angel for the cover, maybe an image of his alien alter ego, OD’d. Looking at the picture again, that might be the perfect description of that figure. There he is, my very own creepy, fucked-up angel.