In theory, performance should be based on ability and ability alone. In practice, however, there are many other factors at play. For example, appearance often has just as large an impact on performance as ability does. As the great Deion Sanders once said, “Look good, feel good. Feel good, play good. Play good, (they) pay good. Pay good, live good. Live good, eat good. Die good.” He’s right: If you look the part, you’re most likely going to perform better, which will lead to improvements in all areas of life. That is, in everything but metal.

In metal, you have to look the part to play the part, but that does not mean you end up rich in the end. In fact, it often means that you have to work a real job in addition to performing in a metal band. But do these acts really care? Of course they don’t. They’re in the business of metal music to make art, not make millions, and the best way for them to make their art is to get into costume.

Costumes, whether the artists want to admit it or not, are a crucial aspect of metal. Hair metal relied on it (you really think these guys dressed like this when they weren’t touring?). Black metal relied on it (it really sells the image that these guys might actually be the dead reincarnate). Nu-metal relies on it (if the music is going to suck, they have to make it interesting somehow). Whatever this kind of metal is relies on it (words cannot describe the favors these costumes do for the music). Despite this, few bands lean as heavily into their costumes as Ghost does.

For Ghost, anonymity is key. The members want to release as little personal information as possible and focus solely on the music, and to do so, they all adorn costumes to maintain their namelessness. What’s more, Ghost uses their costumes to create their own mythology, a sort of storyline surrounding the band and their music. Their live shows take themes and rituals from the Roman Catholic Church and reinterpret them through a Satanic lens. The typical crosses are inverted, white is converted to black and rather than praise the Holy Trinity, the band worships Satan.

Every member of Ghost has their own character. The lead singer and guitarist assumes the role of Papa Emeritus, a mysterious figure shrouded in face paint meant to resemble a skull and dressed in Satanic “Papal” garb. The other four members — the bassist, guitarist, keyboardist and drummer — are part of an ensemble known as “A Group of Nameless Ghouls,” a group of underlings dressed in dark robes and metallic masks subservient to Papa Emeritus. They assume no individual identities, distinguished on stage by an alchemical symbol — when one of them speaks to the media, the quote is attributed to “A Nameless Ghoul.” Nothing more, nothing less.

The lead singer, on the other hand, is a whole lot more interesting. He has undergone several transformations as his Papa Emeritus character. In fact, there have been four incarnations of the character: Papa Emeritus I, Papa Emeritus II, Papa Emeritus II’s younger brother Papa Emeritus III and the much older Papa Emeritus 0, each with their own unique and convoluted backstory and specific costume. For example, Papa Emeritus II was replaced by Papa Emeritus III because II was fired for lack of productivity in overthrowing churches and governments. Though the costumes were meant to conceal identities, one of the members was bound to have their identity revealed, and ultimately, it was Papa Emeritus. 

After being faced by a lawsuit set forth by former members of Ghost who claimed they lacked adequate compensation for their roles in the band, Papa Emeritus decided that it was time to oust himself. In 2017, after seven years of mystery, Tobias Forge, previously of Repugnant and Crashdïet, revealed himself to be the mastermind behind Ghost and all iterations of the mysterious Papa Emeritus character. Once the dust surrounding the lawsuit settled, Forge announced a new character: Cardinal Copia. Cardinal Copia is a figure once thought to be Papa Emeritus IV, yet he shares no relation to any manifestation of the Papa Emeritus lineage. He sports a plain mask with black eye sockets, complete heterochromia and blacked-out vestments, and according to Forge, has not yet earned his face paint yet. 

In addition to Cardinal Copia, Ghost also added several new members. In 2018, a third guitarist joined the “Group of Nameless Ghouls,” two new keyboardists known only as the “Ghoulettes” appeared, and, surprisingly, the artist formerly known as Papa Emeritus 0 returned and is currently known as the saxophone-wielding Papa Nihil. Forge plans for Cardinal Copia to be around for only five years, and after that, there’s no telling where the band might go next.

The elaborate costumes, innumerable characters and Byzantine lore may seem distracting, but they really add a lot of dimensionality to Ghost. It makes the music seem that much more real. Songs like “Stand by Him” and “Rats” are inhuman rockers, and if the songs are performed by blatant humans, a lot of the band’s charm would be lost. Consider lines like this, “Them rats! / Into your sanctum, you let them in / Now, all your loved ones and all you kin / Will suffer punishments beneath the wrath of God / Never to forgive, never to forgive.” These lines wouldn’t pack nearly the same punch if, instead of a Satanic cardinal priest, an ordinary metalhead complete with a black tee, pasty skin and wispy, greasy hair said it. In fact, it would be comical, even farcical. The costumes are what allow the band to make the music that they do.

It may all seem like a gimmick, but Ghost’s act is more than a mere schtick. A quote from a A Nameless Ghoul (presumed to be Tobias Forge himself) states that “(h)ad not the music been rocking, I don’t think that people would have gone gaga just about our looks. Had we not had the looks, I’m not sure we would have gotten the same attention.” This is to say that, regardless of looks, the music will always be good, but the costumes are what elevate and separate Ghost from the more pedestrian heavy metal acts of today. The costuming and lore allow the band to transcend reality, and, in a way, become even more metal.

Appearance doesn’t always dictate performance, but in the case of Ghost, the appearance of each members most certainly enhances their performance. Their appearance makes them that much more convincing, even when the band can’t be seen. The very thought of Ghost in full dress is enough to lure listeners into their Satanic world. When in costume, the band sinks fully into the music, unaware of the human world around them. 

If Ghost feels Satanic, they’ll play Satanic; If they play Satanic, they will make some of the most notable heavy metal out today.

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