Guest contributor: Carling Kirby is a freelance writer, media communications graduate and horror junkie. Along with Anatomy of a Scream, she has also contributed to Rue Morgue Magazine. She has a fascination with psychology, the occult, and true crime, and hopes to start her own podcast looking at various forms of media under a critical lens. Upon asking her best friend to describe her, she was dubbed “Vincent Price and Paris Hilton stuffed into one body.”
Truly, I don’t remember the specific moment in my life in which I was formally introduced to a virtual band that would come to have a massive impact on me—as an individual, as a content creator, as a critical fan of media and yes, even as a budding social activist. Gorillaz always seemed to be there in the background—a curious anomaly throughout my teenage years that I was quick to dismiss. My adolescence was when I truly began to explore and understand the horror genre. I still enjoyed music and animation, but did not look at it with the same sense of passion and curiosity as I did with gritty thrillers such as Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects and Alexandre Aja’s remake of The Hills Have Eyes, to name some personal favourites. While I knew I would never truly “outgrow” cartoons, I was in the mindset that I was wise beyond my years—that I shouldn’t waste my free time poring over something I foolishly believed to be for children when I could be picking apart pieces that dealt with themes like the destruction of the idyllic American dream, nihilism, and paranoia.
Little did I know that it had been right under my nose the entire time, packaged in the seemingly inconspicuous form of a vibrant, fun-loving, ragtag group of fictional musicians.
To give some background information, Gorillaz is the brainchild of musician Damon Albarn, frontman of Blur, and illustrator Jamie Hewlett, co-creator of the Tank Girl comic book series. Their collaborative project officially began in 1997, when the two artists decided they were fed up with the superficiality of the entertainment industry and its negative impact on Generation X (also known as the MTV Generation). They figured that if manufactured music had become the new norm, they would give it to the public in a way that had never been done before. Their imaginary band members—all of whom would quickly gain a life of their own—were originally supposed to represent archetypes within the industry. What started off as a deconstruction of the pop genre soon transformed into something innovative and experimental, however, with overlying concepts both musical and thematic. Gorillaz was no longer something that could be categorized, or put in a box, due to the band’s frequently shifting nature—something that has yet to be truly replicated.
But the event that transformed Gorillaz from something that could’ve easily been forgotten as an early 2000s gimmick into a powerful, influential narrative vehicle was the same event that forever changed the horror genre—and our way of life itself.
Not only did the devastating tragedy influence Albarn and Hewlett to completely shift gears with Gorillaz’s storytelling, both visually and musically—its political and social undertones reflected the change as well. Their narrative style became much darker, and more complex—a change deeply reflected by the characters themselves.
Within the fictitious universe of Gorillaz, the band is made up by four members—Stuart Pot, better known as 2D, the sweet-natured frontman suffering from the long-term effects of brain trauma and an addiction to painkillers; Russel Hobbs, the introverted, highly intelligent drummer with a big heart; Noodle, the multi-talented child prodigy-turned guitarist and the baby of her makeshift family; and Murdoc Niccals, the controversial founder, bassist and deviant. What started off as caricatures of pop culture have since developed into a quartet of multi-dimensional protagonists, each with their own detailed backstory and arc. Through print, digital and audio interviews, a 300+ page autobiography, forum posts, compilation DVDs, podcasts and even an episode of MTV’s Cribs, we’re able to observe the behaviour of these characters and their relationships amongst each other—something that plays a key role in the themes of social injustice within the Gorillaz narrative. The personal and interpersonal issues that Murdoc, 2D, Noodle, and Russel endure are less a reflection of sensationalized horror and more accurate to the horror of reality.
In horror fiction, there is nearly always a source of conflict that disrupts everyday life and turns it on its head. In the case of Gorillaz, that conflict is usually created, or embodied, by Murdoc himself—who is, ironically enough, the character that the fictional narrative tends to follow the most. At first glance, Murdoc appears to be the figurehead of toxic masculinity. He is impossibly selfish, quick to anger, misogynistic, and entitled. There are subtle hints dropped throughout the first “phase” of Gorillaz (which lasted from 1997 to 2002) that his vile behaviour is the result of an abusive childhood, but the full extent of his personal history is not explored until the release of autobiography Rise of the Ogre in late 2006. The first chapter of the book confirms what the narrative had been implying all along—that Murdoc is not inherently evil, but a product of a highly toxic environment. Not only was he horrifically abused and exploited by his sadistic, alcoholic father, the teachers at Murdoc’s school also chose to turn a blind eye to his situation—labelling Murdoc as a lost cause and not only ignoring the obvious signs of abuse and neglect that he was suffering from, but contributing to it.
From a young age, Murdoc was coded as monstrous and was treated as such by those around him—especially by those who were supposed to protect him. His actions were not seen as a ploy for attention, but as deliberately malicious. Because these views had been reinforced onto him throughout his entire life, he soon began to reflect them through his own behaviour. Because empathy was never extended to Murdoc at any point during his pivotal years of development, he now has no grasp on it. Because society has treated him poorly, Murdoc has now become a threat to society itself. Though his twisted, outlandish behaviour is often viewed through a lense of morbid comedy, Murdoc’s character provides an introspection into the insidious effects of childhood abuse and neglect. By turning a blind eye to his cries for help, “we” have transformed a victim into a monster. And once this supposed monster is in a position of power—having achieved fame, fortune, and a pawn in the form of his singer 2D—he becomes just as cruel as those who tormented him. He uses his newfound privilege to control and bully others, especially 2D, who is inflicted with the same physical and psychological trauma that young Murdoc endured.
As the years go by in real time, Murdoc’s appearance becomes considerably more ghoulish-looking as well—his skin turns a sickly green, his ears become devilishly pointed and his nails grow into long, wicked-looking talons. While part of the Gorillaz lore includes Murdoc selling his soul to Satan in a Faustian trade to ensure his musical success, the alterations in his design could very well be a metaphor of Murdoc’s inner demons completely taking over.
All this being said, the depiction of Murdoc’s character is not fully unsympathetic, nor is it without its nuances. He has moments of lucidity (few and far between as they may be) in which he questions his moral decisions, and shows resentment towards his father for shaping him into the corrupt person he’s become. There are heavy implications that Murdoc’s rampant substance abuse may factor into his behaviour, as well as concurrent mental disorders—including delusions and psychotic episodes. He shows a softer side towards Noodle, who he views as a surrogate daughter, and a begrudging respect towards Russel, who is unafraid to stand up to him. Murdoc has also faced a whole new slew of emotional trauma throughout the Gorillaz narrative—including prolonged imprisonment, repeated assassination attempts, sexual violence and at one point, self-imposed exile on an island of garbage (yes, you read that correctly; more on that later).
There is an undeniable element of tragedy to Murdoc, as someone who has completely succumbed to the abuse that made his early life so miserable, damning himself to continue the vicious cycle through his stubborn refusal to seek help. The depiction of his mental illness represents a very real horror that plagues society, and while it is heavily dramaticized by metaphors like his increasingly demonic appearance and even a Babadook-like figure that pursues him at one point in the Gorillaz canon, his is an issue that is very much grounded in reality. And much like those who suffer from mental illness in real life, there is no easy sense of reprieve to be found for this character—no simple solution in sight. Murdoc’s over-the-top antics and destructive behaviour have become what is expected of him, both in and out of universe. He simply does not know how else to function, and much like other protagonists (or anti-heroes) in post 9/11 horror media, he never finds a true sense of closure. The sense of dread and horror never seems to stop for him—whether it is Murdoc himself creating the horror, facing it the horror, or both.
Murdoc is not the only member of Gorillaz to face off against inner and outer demons. His much more empathetic counterpart, Russel, is just as deeply ingrained in the world of the supernatural, and has undergone a series of events that have left him deeply scarred, starting with a random demonic possession at a young age. Faculty governors removed him from his private school after the incident that left his peers horribly mauled and Russel in a four-year coma. After relocating to another school in hopes of starting fresh, Russel discovered hip-hop and made a group of tight-knit friends. But it seemed Russel was unable to escape the path fate had laid out for him—these friends were all massacred in a drive-by shooting, a completely random act of violence that took place outside of a 7/11. Russel, who was present during the attack, initially believed the crime to be gang-related—but things didn’t add up. The bullets inexplicably never hit him, and upon catching a glimpse of the gang leader—a figure in a black hooded sweatshirt—Russel believed him to be death incarnate. What could’ve been written off as understandable panic and confusion was all but proven to be true when the spirits of Russel’s deceased friends forcibly took up residence inside his body, cementing his connection to the paranormal world and changing his life forever.
Monsters have played an integral role in horror media since its very conception, and are often depicted as infiltrators of human society (i.e. the vampire disguising himself as a friendly neighbour in 1985’s Fright Night). Similarly, Gorillaz personifies real life horrors—such as the guilt of immorality, with Murdoc’s Boogieman, and post-traumatic stress, with Russel’s ghosts—in the form of entities who continuously haunt and stalk the protagonists. Not only that, the world they live in of itself is horrifically corrupt. While Murdoc is to blame for causing a series of car accidents that disfigured 2D’s eyes, giving them the eerie look they have today, it was the British justice system who had assigned him to care for the then-comatose 2D in the first place—one careless decision that ending up trapping 2D in a toxic situation for the next twenty years of his life. In Noodle’s case, she discovered early on in her adolescence that she is the result of a child super-soldier project created by the Japanese government. When the project was abandoned, her peers were slaughtered—all except for Noodle, who was rescued by her creator and shipped off to England for her own safety.
While a first glance may indicate that these characters live in some sort of dystopian future, this is not actually the case. The stories that Gorillaz choose to tell have always been a reflection of the time period of which the respective record was produced. 2005’s Demon Days—the album that put Gorillaz on the international map—carries a deep sense of foreboding, with multi-layered, ethereal sounds that vary track by track. The album’s hit single, “Feel Good Inc” (also the band’s most successful song to date) depicts the characters on a tower in the sky—a manufactured prison disguised as a paradise, floating above a decrepit city. Beside the tower is the now iconic windmill island, where Noodle—the only one left uncorrupted at this point in the narrative—sits, playing guitar. While the tower represents faux happiness bestowed upon us by the media, the city represents the gruesome reality that we often turn a blind eye to. Noodle’s windmill symbolizes the generation of new ideas and independent thinking. 2D, who is watching Noodle longingly from inside the tower, represents how freedom is just within our reach, but ultimately something we fail to grasp. The video ends up on a rather bleak note, with 2D, Murdoc, and Russel succumbing to the empty pleasures that surround them.
Again, there is no sense of closure. Because the dangers that these characters face continuously exist within society, there is an opening for the Gorillaz storyline to go on forever. As of yet, none of their arcs have ended happily; more often than not, hints of new conflict are left to be dealt with next time. But while the protagonists may never be able to truly conquer the terrifying issues that plague them, but they can face them as best as they can. This is something that’s touched on heavily in both 2010’s Plastic Beach, which raised the question of whether or not humanity would be able to thrive in the environmental disasters we have created (see: Murdoc’s garbage island that he masquerades as a paradise), and even more so in 2017’s politically charged Humanz, which was produced during the 2016 American presidential election. Humanz explores a dying world run under a dictatorship—something that would unfortunately become reality following results of the election in October 2016—and the social divide it causes. That being said, the music also paints an overwhelming sense of apathy. The world is in shambles, but if it’s about to end anyway, why should anyone care? While the previous two albums had nihilistic overtones and implications, this is the first album to fully explore the consequences of nihilism. In that sense, Humanz can be seen as a sister album to Demon Days.
As for Plastic Beach, it is still a very relevant album and a significant part of the Gorillaz lore. Humanz, which is divided into sections via a series of audio interludes, opens with “I Switched My Robot Off”. Not only did Plastic Beach force us to look at the damage we’ve done to nature, it also delved into the rapid pace of which technology is advancing (i.e. the disturbing “Cyborg Noodle” character). Similarly, the first portion of Humanz explores our overdependence on technology—how we get so lost in our phones and iPads that we sometimes lose track of what’s going on in the real world.
Due to the absence of Damon Albarn’s iconic vocals as 2D and the vast number of collaborators, the response to Humanz was incredibly polarizing amongst the Gorillaz fanbase. The structure of the album is fairly loose, but there is an overarching story. The collaborators are there to describe how they would handle the apocalypse, each offering a different viewpoint or idea. While the overall tone of the album initially appears to be light-hearted fun on the surface, its underlying sense of urgency is greatly unsettling. Humanz paints a picture of how blind we as a society are to the dangers that surround us, and steadily attempts to open our eyes to those dangers. By the time the song “Carnival” rolls around during the halfway point of the album, that sense of danger is no longer being implied—it’s explicit, delving into topics such as civil rights issues and racism. “Hallelujah Money”, which was released as a single on January 19th, 2017—one day before the inauguration of Donald Trump—describes the arrival of that danger. The final track, “We Got the Power” has a fairly straightforward message—that we must unite and protest against the injustices that will inevitably be (and have since been) wrought by the U.S. government. And that sense of unity ties into the title of the album itself: Humanz.
Despite the many macabre themes found within Gorillaz and the band’s significant political undertones, the overall narrative is incredibly tongue-in-cheek. Many of the awful things that happen are depicted in a very absurdist way. Cyborg Noodle vomits up a live octopus in the “On Melancholy Hill” video. In the very same video, Russel has grown to colossal proportions due to consuming radioactive fish. Murdoc holds 2D captive in an underwater basement and hires a whale to keep eye on him. While Gorillaz is a multifaceted piece of media that offers a lot to consider, many of its nuances are hidden beneath layers upon layers of irony. It’s media that should be consumed mindfully, but also critically. As mentioned before, the characters have since evolved from the tropes they were initially based off of—in more ways than just their personalities. We are now living in a time where ethical standards are much higher, and many of the racist and insensitive stereotypes used in Phases 1 and 2 have since been altered. This does not excuse the mistakes of the Gorillaz team, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction—steps that will hopefully continue to be made in the future.
Speaking of the future, we have now entered Phase 5 of Gorillaz—the era of their upcoming album, “The Now Now”. While horror appears to have shifted away from the main focus, at least for the time being, exciting progress has been made. While neither character has not officially “come out”, heavy implications have been made that 2D and Murdoc fall somewhere on the LGBT spectrum (with Murdoc dropping hints over the years that he is attracted to other men, and the bisexual pride flag colours depicted in the visualizer for the new single “Fire Flies”, a melancholy love song). The music style itself has evolved so it still carries an ethereal sound, but not as depressive, which may appeal to fans of the “Demon Days” era for its horror ambience.
The storyline itself is currently unfolding, but what we know so far is that Murdoc has been sent to prison for a crime he claims he did not commit, and his replacement is none other than a character from—wait for it—The Powerpuff Girls. We don’t know if Murdoc is as innocent as he claims, and we don’t know if this new addition to the band will play a key role in the plot or if he’s just a fun piece of nostalgia for old school cartoon fans, which make up a good portion of the Gorillaz demographic. It’s also difficult to say whether or not the theme of this album is truly as upbeat as Damon Albarn claims it is, once you actually take the time to read over the lyrics that have been released thus far. Knowing Gorillaz, there’s something darker (or at the very least, something more meaningful) brewing underneath a seemingly saccharine surface—we just don’t know what it is yet. We’ve already explored the consequences of nihilism. Perhaps we are finally moving beyond that, and into different territory altogether. Regardless of what happens, it should be interesting to see how things play out this time around, especially with the recent announcement of a comic series, clothing line and even a potential TV series or film for Phase 6.
“The Now Now” will be released this Friday, June 29th. In the meantime, all of Gorillaz’s previous music videos are available for streaming on their YouTube channel. Horror fans, keep your eyes peeled for references to some of your favourite movies—they’re in there.
Check out their latest video, “Humility”.