Figures in Black: Heavy Metal and the Haunted Sabbath
Doom, gloom, and masterfully monstrous guitar riffs are among the hallmarks that heralded the coming of the Sabbath in Birmingham, England in 1969. The bleak, industrial grounds of the English town had proven fertile soil for the formation of a musical genre that would later become known as Heavy Metal, and its flagship performers were none other than Black Sabbath, the legendary rock group featuring the madman (and sometimes maddening) Ozzy Osbourne on vocals, Tony Iommi on guitar, Geezer Butler on bass, and Bill Ward pounding the pagan skins and cymbal crashes.
Stylistically, the band often featured darker themes, influenced by such things as classic horror of literature and film, as well as circumstantial anecdotes and stories shared by members of the band (for instance, the early Sabbath tune, “N.I.B.,” had often been thought to be an acronym for “Nativity in Black,” but instead had merely been a reference to drummer Bill Ward’s goatee, which resembled an ink pen nib to Osbourne). But among the stories underlying Sabbath songs, there were also a number of stories that involved real life encounters with strange entities and ghosts that inspired the band, which took place throughout Sabbath’s haunted travels around Europe and the rest of the world.
The album’s first album, the self-titled Black Sabbath, was released in February of 1970 on the appropriate date of Friday the 13th. Along with the dark mystique the band had hoped to create, early English releases of the album also featured an inverted cross with a poem drafted beneath it, helping to establish early on a connection with evil and the occult that would follow the band–and at times weight them with controversy–throughout their career. The artwork featured on the album cover itself is rather ghostly; a very psychedelic rendition of the Mapledurham watermill is featured in a still autumnscape, with dead limbs and bare trees visible in the foreground. Amidst the undergrowth is a witchy-looking figure in black, with dark, sunken eyes and pale skin. Though subtle, the imagery is indeed both haunting and truly creepy; and yet, the inspiration for the “figure in black” had indeed shared its own real life counterpart.
The group’s first album release not only shared the band’s name, but also the recording’s title track, which features the famous line, “figure in black stands before me.” Apparently, the story goes that this particular line of the song had been inspired by a frightening encounter Butler claimed to have had, in which he awoke suddenly from a horrific nightmare, only to find that a ghostly figure, clad entirely in black, had been standing near his bed as though observing him while he slept. Strangely, this particular brand of phenomenon is fairly common among those who experience ghostly encounters; years ago, I had asked an associate of mine what, if anything, really frightened him. His reply had been, simply, that he had always had experiences where he heard of people waking in the middle of the night, only to find a strange, dark figure standing before them, watching them. “Why do (ghosts) watch us when we sleep?” he asked. “That, to me, is a little unsettling.”
This would not be the only encounter with a strange, ghostly “figure in black” that the band members would report having. During the composition of the band’s 1973 album Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, Tony Iommi also claimed that he had witnessed a ghost in the armory of Clearwell Castle, in the Forest Of Dean. Later, during an interview with Guitarist Magazine, Iommi recounted his sighting of an apparition in a haunted castle:
We were setting up the gear in the dungeons and were the only people there. It was myself and Geezer, or myself and Ozzy, and we were walking down the hallway and we saw a cloaked figure coming towards us. We thought, who is that? It walked into a room, and we followed it to see who it was and there was nobody there… We told the people about it who owned the castle; we thought they’d think we were mad, but they just said, ‘Oh yes, that’s the castle ghost’.
Had it been some former resident of Clearwell Castle that the band had seen on this occasion? Or, could it have been the same strange “figure in black” that bassist Geezer Butler had described, which became the inspiration for the band’s eponymous first release? Though they likely were not one and the same, it is interesting to note the presence of these ghostly manifestations around the band, especially with their darker and often foreboding mixture of hard rock with the darker aspects of ritual and the occult.