Before we begin, be sure to read this recent academic essay exploring the History Channel as a vector for conspiracy theories and masculinity panic. I’m cited in it, and, well, we all know that this mix of conspiracy culture, toxic masculinity, etc. feeds directly in to the conspiracy culture we are seeing all around us, notably among the Capitol Hill insurrectionists, whose demographics are a close mirror of the History Channel’s own target audience.
Regular readers know that I have a longstanding interest in the Habsburg monarchy, so I read with curiosity, if not exactly excitement, a press release from the Austrian symphonic power metal band Dragony about their new album Viribus Unitis, which is billed as a tour through the end of the Habsburg dominion over Austria-Hungary. Now, “symphonic power metal” is not a genre I have any interest in—for some reason I receive regular press releases about various metal projects related to ancient astronauts, the occult, and Atlantis—but I was taken particularly aback by the concept of the album, which involved a bizarre (and admittedly fictitious) conspiracy theory / alternative history fantasy about Crown Prince Rudolf (sometimes anglicized as Rudolph), whose 1889 suicide set the monarchy on the path to oblivion by destabilizing both the imperial family and the imperial government.
Here is how Dragony describes the album’s fictitious conspiracy fantasy about history:
Let’s clear the assumption that Rudolph died after trying to take his life at castle Mayerling in 1889. No way! Instead, after his mother Sisi is assassinated in 1898 in Switzerland, he subsequently gets in contact with dark powers which, driven by his desire to be with her again, make him turn to black magic and demonology. Now history takes its true course. There are not only zombies and cyberpunks lurking – DRAGONY also managed to prove further entanglements of well-known personalities you could never imagine…
But what makes it doubly weird for me is that the band has very taken the types of conspiracy theories first applied to James Dean and grafted them on to Rudolf, albeit probably more from pop culture zeitgeist than a direct borrowing. (However, given how popular Dean was and remains in German-speaking countries, I would not exactly doubt a more direct influence.) After James Dean died in 1955, conspiracy theories arose that he had not died but instead lived on in hiding. Similarly, his first biographer and several journalists developed the story that he was driven by a desire and an obsession to reunite with his dead mother, and multiple tabloid stories asserted that he turned to black magic and satanism to achieve that goal. None of this was true for Rudolf. He had a distant relationship with his parents, who were cold and often indifferent to him. He was a notorious debunker of the supernatural and paranormal, conspiring to expose and humiliate a popular medium and writing a tract against occult beliefs.
There is, of course, a certain similarity between Rudolf and Dean that makes the transfer of stories easy. Both were dynamic, handsome young men who were almost preternaturally famous, moody, and acted out. Both had a bewildering variety of interests they worked tirelessly toward for brief periods before losing focus. Both felt professionally frustrated for much of their lives. Both died very young and had cults devoted to their memories.
The art that went with this story is just bonkers. Take a look at Rudolf masterminding a cyberpunk zombie death squad featuring his father, the Emperor Franz Joseph, Harry Houdini, and Nikola Tesla. Dragony has taken the old conspiracy theories about James Dean and took them to their logical conclusion by weaving a historical fantasy about Rudolf using magic and steampunk technology in a zombie war.
I’d laugh, except that the conspiracy theories about Rudolf’s death—that it was an assassination, for example—fueled a culture of conspiracy in Austria-Hungary that led down the path to World War I. This might not be the right historical moment, even in fantasy, to play around with themes of satanic political conspiracies.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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