The Hidden Meaning Behind "Enter Sandman"

James Hetfield: motivational life coach.
James Hetfield: motivational life coach.

My only tattoo depicts a skeletal figure above a banner which reads “Vaya Sin Miedo," or "go without fear." I thought about it quite a bit on a recent round-trip excursion to Colorado. I had plenty of time to consider the tattoo and other random thoughts while driving 34 hours over a three-day weekend.

I could have flown to Colorado for my business, but I admit, I didn't want to be that guy in that one Alanis Morissette song. I have an irrational fear of flying. In spite of the ink embedded in my skin reminding me to go without fear, I'm chickenshit.

Somewhere around hour 11 of the drive, Metallica's "Enter Sandman" shuffled up. Maybe I was overthinking how I'd failed myself by not just buying a plane ticket. Or I might have been reading too many Jef Rouner articles lately. For whatever reason, I was hearing one of metal's most tired, overplayed songs with the fresh notion that “Enter Sandman” is all about the liberation of living a life entirely free of fear.

Maybe you've long considered the song an optimistic, life-affirming ditty, but more of us have probably heard its ominous tone and considered something far more sinister. A quick Google search reveals most lyric pundits feel the song is about (in no specific order): fear of sleep; fear of nightmares; fear of death; fear of the evils of the world; fear of monsters. The key word here is pretty obvious. No one seems to mention fearlessness as a theme.

The song opens with lyrics that concede we are born with it. Fear, the true original sin. We “sleep with one eye open, gripping your pillow tight.” We pray for ourselves and others and those prayers - whether they're literal or figurative in the forms of drugs, money, sex, etc.  - try to keep us free from the sin of crippling fear.

"‘Til the Sandman, he comes," that is. The Sandman, in this reading, is the embodiment of your acceptance that you and all your fears will one day perish. Not the knowledge, but the acceptance. Once you have that, the fearlessness follows.

If you’re a baseball fan, you know “Enter Sandman” has become a go-to for closers, 9th-inning relief pitchers like Billy Wagner and Mariano Rivera. The consensus has been it conveys to batters something to fear: you’re about to get put to sleep. But maybe it’s not about the batter’s fear. Maybe “Enter Sandman” is there to remind the pitcher of his own fearlessness. You’re entering the game, which has now been played for a couple of hours, and your team has scrapped to maintain a winning margin for all but three outs. It’s your job to get those three tough outs. You’d better be able to choke the fear of failure until its withered body lies useless at your victorious cleats.

Bayard Russell says the song is his “jam.” He’s an ice climber, a practitioner of an adventure sport that adds the danger of rock climbing with the frigid peril of glaciers. The song is popular for dubbing against BASE-jumping videos on YouTube. These extreme-sports athletes aren’t attracted to the song because it reminds them of death. They hear its message of fearlessness where others may not.

"Enter Sandman" was also famously used to torture prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, under the guise it would offend the religious sensibilities of the tortured. Lars Ulrich correctly argued there were songs far more offensive. But, those songs didn’t also contain the message that the U.S. soldiers may have been getting from those repeated plays, which is that they could embrace fearlessness even in the midst of war.

War, liars, dragon’s fire…things that scare us all. If being dead is the ultimate fear lurking behind those lesser ones, then you fear the exit light. The obvious counter is to “enter night.” Metallica’s advice is to take the Sandman’s hand and go rage in the dark. Oooh, in yo’ face, Dylan Thomas!

This place, where fear is reduced to nothingness and only the verve of living unafraid remains, is so foreign, so far-flung and so utopian it can only be called a "Never Never Land." Not many get to that destination, but those that do don’t mind that odd noise under the bed or the beast in the closet. According to “Sandman,” those fears exist only in your head.

I admit, I’ve never given the lyrics to the song much thought. When it came out, it just sounded like a badass jam I had to crank to 11. Arguably, it was the vehicle that allowed Metallica to enter the mainstream. Maybe they chose the song as the moment to seek a broader audience because they realized how empowering it was. When you hear it, your blood surges. Your heartbeat quickens. Some sense of invincibility attaches itself to you. If it’s streaming through your earbuds when you’re walking down the street, you expect people to clear the path for you. It’s not because you’re hearing a song about night terrors or monsters.

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Again, I didn’t hear all this as a twentysomething when the song was first released. But that’s the beauty of lasting works of art. What you saw in the painting hanging there 25 years ago may not be what you can’t take your eyes off of today. Once, I considered “The Exorcist” the most frightening film I’d ever seen. That was as a teen, when all I saw was the horrifically realistic makeup and the green spew. When my kids were rebellious teens, I watched it again and felt that it was no mistake that Regan becomes possessed just as she’s about to become a teenager. The movie got a lot scarier then.

The line that convinces me most of the true message behind "Enter Sandman" comes when James Hetfield sings “grain of sand,” the only time he sings the line in a song that is fraught with repeated lyrics and riffs. It always sounded so cool when he growled it out, but it was only an aural thrill until I reasoned, only days ago, that any of us who can hear the song might be that grain of sand. We shift amid an untold number of others in the hourglass, always headed for the tunnel that drops you from one existence to the next. It’s gonna be the longest drop ever into the deepest sand. But, once we’ve settled in it, there’s nothing to fear — unless the hourglass gets flipped over and the whole process begins again. (Reincarnation – what a concept!.) The key is to head there without panic or dread.

Next summer, I plan to get on a plane to fly to Europe, a place I've never been but must see before I squeeze through the slim part of the hourglass. I plan to do it, too, with more than a moderate amount of alcohol consumption and an excess of music to help. Prominent on the playlist will be “Enter Sandman.” It may be the only song I play the whole flight. I haven't met the Sandman yet, but I hope for all of us he’s out there. We may never take his hand, but that doesn’t mean we can’t reach out for it.

Vaya sin miedo, friends.


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