On Wednesday evening, it was reported that Holden Matthews, the 21-year-old son of a Louisiana sheriff’s deputy, had been arrested in connection with a series of church fires in Louisiana’s St. Landry Parish. Matthews has been charged with three counts of arson of a religious building, which carry a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison per charge.
Although police have yet to reveal a motive, all three of the fires were at historically black churches, which led the NAACP to classify them as hate crimes earlier this week. Matthews’ Facebook page also provides some clues as to what his motive may have been: according to the Daily Beast, he was an aspiring black metal musician and a fan of a number of black metal and pagan pages. In a press conference, Louisiana Fire Marshal Butch Browning confirmed that Matthews had a “relationship” with the black metal community, which had an “association” with church burnings.
To be clear, Matthews’ musical taste in and of itself does not necessarily indicate what his political leanings were. While there is a subset of the black metal community called National Socialist Black Metal, which combines neo-ideology with ethnic white European pagan views, “that is just one part of the black metal community. It’s not indicative of the entire community. That’s a really important distinction to make,” says Keegan Henkes, senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s intelligence project, which tracks far-right extremist, hate and anti-government groups. Indeed, many of the pages Matthews commented on actively forbade the expression of racist or anti-Semitic views.
Nonetheless, there is some overlap between the black metal community and extremist views, as evidenced in part by the fact that Matthews commented on memes featuring Norwegian black metal musician Varg Vikernes, a major figurehead in both the Norwegian black metal community and the neo-Nazi movement. The former bassist for the Norwegian black metal band Mayhem, Vikernes boasted about burning churches in Norway with other black metal musicians called the “black circle,” which he attributed to his desire to take “revenge” on Christians and bring Norway back to its pagan roots. He served 15 years in prison for arson and for the stabbing murder of his Mayhem bandmate Euronymous, whom he killed in 1993 over a contract dispute.
Vikernes is an extremely polarizing figure among black metal fans: while many loathe him and publicly disavow him, while others give him a pass. “You’ve got others who are extremely deferential to him. He was in an incredibly influential band on the black metal scene, so it’s pretty difficult to be a fan of black metal and not know who he is,” says Henkes. Although he has denied claims that he is a neo-Nazi, his blog, which he started in prison, has endorsed neo-Nazi views and contains rants against Muslims and Jews. (Vikernes declined to comment on this story in an email to Rolling Stone.)
While it’s unclear whether Matthews was a fan of Vikernes, a friend of Matthews told BuzzFeed News that his alleged crimes may have been “inspired” by the film Lords of Chaos, which tells the story of Vikernes, the church burnings, and the Norwegian black metal scene of the early 1990s; one Facebook comment authored by Matthews, while not explicitly endorsing Vikernes’ actions, also endorsed the film, writing, “It’s a good movie, yea it’s a ‘Hollywood’ movie but hey it’s still fun, the only people against it are people who take themselves too seriously, and people who listen to everything varg says.” (It is perhaps of note that he may have been alone in this view; Rolling Stone‘s Kory Grow gave Lords of Chaos only 1.5 stars. We reached out to Jonas Åkerlund, the director of the film, and will update if we hear back.)
Vikernes’ influence is still deeply felt among some black metal fans with extremist views: indeed, earlier this month, a black metal drummer named Jacob Lowenstein was arrested and charged with arson for setting fire to a Mormon church in New Zealand. Although Lowenstein did not attribute the bombings to Vikernes, many media outlets noted the parallels of the case to the crimes documented in Lords of Chaos.
After serving 16 years in prison, Vikernes was released on parole in 2009 and moved to France with his wife and child. He was arrested again in 2013, after it was reported that Vikernes had received an early copy of a manifesto by white supremacist Andres Breivik, the man behind the 2011 shooting spree at a Norwegian socialist summer camp that killed 77 people. He was ultimately convicted by a French court of inciting racial hatred in 2014, and was given a six-month suspended sentence and a fine. Vikernes has kept a relatively low profile since his 2013 arrest, though he still regularly posts on his YouTube channel).
Henkes is wary of attributing the Louisiana church burnings to Vikernes or to white supremacist views in general until more information emerges about Matthews and the case. “I’m really hesitant to attribute a racist motive to it,” he says. “On the other hand, it’s impossible to divorce these crimes from the greater context of the last few months.” There has been a tremendous rise in hate crimes in recent years, with the FBI citing a 17 percent increase in such crimes between 2016 and 2017 alone; houses of worship have been particularly vulnerable, as evidenced by the Charleston church shooting of 2015, the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre last year, and the Christchurch mosque massacre last month, all of which were committed by people with white supremacist views.
Regardless of Matthews’ motive, it’s unlikely that the congregations in the historically black churches in Louisiana will recover from the destruction wrought by the burnings anytime soon. Attacking a church is “striking at one of the most sacred and protected spaces” of a community, says Henkes. “It’s a very transgressive act.”