Finding honour and rules in heavy-metal chaos

(Edmonton) In the world of heavy metal music, the mosh pit—a constructed space in front of the stage for crowd surfing, stage diving, pushing, body slamming and head banging—is a central feature of any live metal concert and is fundamental to many metal fans’ ultimate experience of their music.

“The mosh pit is both a physical expression and reflection of the music,” said physical education and recreation grad student Gabby Riches, whose research on mosh-pit culture recently won the prestigious Marion Miller Award at this year’s Canadian Congress of Leisure Research for her paper, Moshing outside the leisure box: Mosh-pit culture and extreme metal music’s contribution to leisure theory.

While the mosh pit may be a physically demanding and a “wildly chaotic” space, in metal culture it’s not a violent place even though there’s plenty of pushing and shoving. In fact, says Riches, there are unwritten rules of mosh-pit etiquette that make it a welcoming space for moshers—and it’s enforced by the fans themselves. “Rules of etiquette include that if someone falls you pick them up right away; not wearing spiked bands or jewellery that could injure others, and no sexual contact. People look out for each other in the pit; we want people to have a great experience.”

The pit, which made its debut at hardcore punk music concerts in the 80’s in the form of slam dancing, earned a bad rap for violence, but metal fans, who are typically drawn to the genre because they feel like outsiders in mainstream culture, have adopted and adapted this form of expression as a cathartic, vigorously expressed tribute to the band, the music, and to express their individuality and pent-up emotions.

“People go into the mosh pit to show their appreciation for the band if you know their music, or for playing your favourite songs,” said Riches. “It’s also a way to build friendships. Afterwards, moshers affirm each other with back-patting and hugs. Often they’re the same people in the pit at each concert, so a community is formed.” She adds that those who are there to fight or violate the etiquette are quickly ejected by those in the pit.

And while the mosh pit can be physically intimidating, and “seemingly full of anger and chaos, those new to moshing realize that when they get into the pit, everyone is looking out for each other,” said Riches.

Moshers themselves relish the near transcendental experience of being at one with the music, the moment and each other. Many whom Riches interviewed described the activity as a peak experience, a cathartic release of energy and emotion, a place to be oneself, a physically challenging yet somehow intimate and safe space where friendships are forged, tensions are expelled and euphoria experienced. In essence, it’s a place where people who often feel marginalized by mainstream society, feel a sense of belonging in the warm, seething mass.

Riches says that while the mosh pit tends to be dominated by men, women have infiltrated every aspect of the musical genre, including moshing. “Women say they feel a sense of safety even though it’s very physical and very aggressive, because the etiquette is being maintained.”

Riches adds, “Male moshers are also very welcoming of having women in the mosh pit. Many men [I interviewed] revealed that they are pleasantly surprised when they receive a solid hit from a woman; it adds a different dynamic and challenge to the usually male experience. And overall, metal heads are active in constructing a sense of equality within the mosh pit.”

For Riches, whose research into heavy metal music and the metal scene as leisure have taken her to Europe and the UK, as well as locally to explore this little understood phenomenon, her research begs more questions about how leisure scholars can embrace “…the notions of the dark and deviant” and seek to understand how “pain, suffering, resistance and the extreme” can contribute to our understanding of the complex nature of leisure.