Artistry, Emotion, and Pop Culture

Metallica’s Kirk Hammett on the manifestation of fear and uncertainty in art

Kirk Hammett is known the world over as the lead guitarist of one of the most successful metal bands of all time. Given the themes explored by Metallica over the years in songs like Of Wolf and Man (about a werewolf), The Thing That Should Not Be (about a cosmic evil trapped beneath the sea), and Some Kind of Monster (about some kind of monster), it might not be the most surprising revelation that one of its members is a fan of horror movies. But the collection of memorabilia Hammett has put together over decades of acquisitions is, like his music, deep, dark, and filled with terrifying imagery. It is, in fact, one of the most significant archives of classic horror and sci-fi cinema art in the world.

Hammett has spent more than three decades collecting rare film posters, artwork, props, and costumes—fueled, he says, by his passion for horror and for understanding people through their movies and music. The multiple-Grammy-Award winner spoke with ROM magazine recently from his San Francisco home about his collection, and the connection between artistry, emotion, and popular culture.

What excites you most about showing people your collection?

I’ve discovered that the most amazing thing for me is to watch people—to see how people react to the collection, and to see how it kind of jogs either their memories, their emotions, or their sentiments. Almost always, when people see the collection, when they see the movie posters, you’ll hear “Oh, I remember that! Oh, yeah!” I like to see how my collection moves people on an emotional basis. Because it does the same for me.

What made you decide to share it with the public?

I’ve been collecting this stuff ever since I can remember. But it kicked into overdrive in the mid-’80s. And about 10 years ago, the collection got so big and outstanding and cool, and just so epic, I thought, “It’s too good for just myself!” It’s representing more than just my collecting whims, you know? It’s representing horror culture throughout the 20th century. I have all these cool movie posters, movie props, toys, books, artwork, and it was too cool for my eyes only—too cool for just me and my friends.

What interests you about horror movies in particular, compared to other genres over the same time period?

The most important thing—and this was kind of a recent revelation on my part—is that the core classic horror movies that were made by Universal Studios in the 1930s, which is Frankenstein, The Mummy, Dracula, and then later on The Wolf Man, The Phantom of the Opera, The Creature from the Black Lagoon—those movies are our fairy tales. They’re like the equivalent to how in Europe they have Grimms’ fairy tales.

Why do you think they continue to capture our imaginations?

This is a part of American culture, and the reason these movies, these stories, these themes have hung on for so long is because they speak to the human condition in a psychological way, an emotional way, a subconscious way—in much the same way that those fairy tales do. I think people recognize that, and they recognize the progression of the stories over the course of the hundred or so years that my collection spans.

What can we learn from the posters themselves?

Decade by decade, as our culture changed, the movie posters changed with it. And it’s really interesting to see how what was attractive in our culture at the time was reflected in the movie posters. What was feared at the time was also reflected in those posters—and not necessarily in the movies, but in the posters. They’re a great cultural marking. It’s a great cultural thing that’s almost uniquely American.

Do they reflect something about the country, even apart from the movies themselves?

Yes. Take a movie poster from the ’30s. In that time, the most popular movies were either romance types, or westerns. And so, a lot of the horror movie posters from the ’30s will have elements of romance. You’ll see a love interest or love triangle in the posters. As a result of that, horror movie posters are very lush. Things changed in the ’40s with World War II. Horror movies took a real downturn in the early ’40s. A lot of the movie posters early in that decade were very formulaic.

Hammett has spent more than three decades collecting rare film posters, artwork, props, and costumes—fueled, he says, by his passion for horror and understanding people through their movies and music.

In the ’50s, during the Cold War scare, there were a lot of nuclear-themed horror posters. There were a lot of posters that were just xenophobic. You know, “The aliens are coming,” without telling you who the aliens actually were. All these propagandist messages [were in] these posters, and you’d watch the movie and it’d be completely different.

If those movies and posters were a reflection of our fears, what do you see as being our fear now?

It’s very obvious with the whole zombie thing, and why it’s so popular, is again this idea of an unseen force showing up on your doorstep, whether it’s [expletive] disease, or bad government, or global warming, or whatever. A lot of those apocalyptic fears are manifested in these zombie movies.

How does your collection and love of these genres continue to influence your music?

A lot of the time, I’ll be watching a horror movie, and it’ll be a really intense scene, and a little melody will just come into my head. And usually it’s not much of anything, and it’s almost never a heavy-metal riff. But these melodies come in and it’s almost like my brain is coming up with its own soundtrack all of the time. The inspiration comes from watching the movies, from looking at the movie posters—even from just the feel that I get from a horror movie I’ve seen recently.

Do you ever feel like you need to switch up your movie diet? Maybe watch a soap opera just to change things up? Or is it all horror all the time?

Ha! You know what, I’m also just really addicted to kung fu movies. OK, this is what I watch, bro: I watch horror movies, I watch kung fu movies, and I watch documentaries. And that’s my deal. But I don’t have enough for a collection. I have to draw the line somewhere.

What do you hope people take away from the exhibition?

To keep interest in these movies alive. They’re historical in their own way. They’ve contributed so much to our culture in so many different ways. So, I just don’t want people to forget there were these stories, these images, these important ideas—all captured by these posters. A lot of these movies were of course books first—Dracula and Frankenstein, for example—but it was the screenplays in those early decades of the 20th century that turned these characters into what they are now; how we see them in our mind’s eye. I think they’re still cool. The imagery is cool, the stories are cool, it’s a great way to spend your time. It’s just nice, good, clean fun. Well, for the most part. It seems like people just need an alternative way to have fun other than staring at [expletive] screens.