Ghost’s Tobias Forge has always had a knack for combining blasphemous lyrical imagery with the sweetest of musical caresses. If anyone could infiltrate the social media mainstream with a song that, on the face of it, combined sacrilege with slick pop-rock hooks, it was him.
And so it proved with viral success of Mary on a Cross. In September 2022, a TikTok user uploaded a slowed-down, reverb-heavy version of the three-year-old song to soundtrack a compilation of Stranger Things scenes. It blew up and before long there were more than 300,000 TikTok vids using either the original or alternative iteration of the track. It also propelled the band into the US Billboard Hot 100 chart for the first time, subsequently becoming the band’s most listened-to song, currently sitting pretty with more than 210 million streams on Spotify.
According to the band’s own mythology, Mary On A Cross dates back to 1969, when an early version of Ghost dipped its fingers in the psychedelic waves of the dying decade. Despite being fronted by a swaggering, handsome clergyman known as Papa Nihil, this groovy 60s incarnation of Ghost failed to set the world on fire. It was only when Papa Nihil made his 21st Century reappearance with the band – declaring himself to be Papa Emeritus Zero – that Mary On A Cross and another song, Kiss The Go-Goat, were exhumed and re-released as the 2019 single Seven Inches Of Satanic Panic.
Nonsense, of course, albeit entertaining nonsense. In reality, Seven Inches of Satanic Panic was written and recorded after the band’s 2018 album Prequelle. It was a collaboration with Swedish songwriting/production duo Salem Al Fakir and Vincent Pontare, aka Vargas & Lagola. The pair, who have previously worked with Madonna and Katy Perry, also co-wrote Prequelle tracks Dance Macabre and Life Eternal and would team up with Forge again on 2022’s Impera.
Released on September 13, 2019 as the B-side of the Seven Inches Of Satanic Panic single, Mary On A Cross plugged into the fake backstory Forge had created. Propelled by psychedelic garage rock organ it captured the late 60s occult vibes portrayed in the video for the single’s A-side, Kiss The Go-Goat.
The song’s lyrics are ambiguously evocative. “We were speeding together down the dark avenues,” sang Forge. “But besides all the stardom, all we got was blues.” Most striking lyrically is the chorus: “You go down like Holy Mary/Mary on a cross”, a seemingly provocative mash-up of Biblical and sexual imagery.
Forge himself has been loathe to strip away the mystery, though he admitted one his daughter’s friends had heard the song was “perverted”. Speaking to Mastodon’s Brann Dailor on a recent livestream, the singer explained: “There are multiple layers in the lyrics that it might be important for people to understand. The chorus is written very tongue in cheek of course. ‘Go down’ doesn’t necessarily mean as in a 69 sense of the word… it can also mean go down as in go down in history, your own ascent.
“Mary doesn’t necessarily mean Mary, mother of Jesus,” he continued. “It might mean Mary Magdalene, the proclaimed whore who might have been the wife of Jesus – just as a symbol for someone who came off as one thing but actually had other intentions and did something else. Someone who’s miscredited.”
He went to reveal that the song was “more about friendship and how, together with someone else, you might have been something at one point and then you ended up just not being like that.”
Forge also archly pointed out that his stage name in pre-Ghost death metal band Repugnant was Mary Goore (actually a play on late guitar hero Gary Moore). “So it has very little to do with the mother of Jesus, because I don’t want anyone to believe that she was not a virgin,” he quipped.
Despite its status as a lowly b-side, Mary On A Cross instantly became a fixture in Ghost’s live set. But it was TikTok that amplified the song’s profile - something that Forge admits he never saw coming.
"I think it was my daughter who spotted it first," Forge told Metal Hammer. "She said, 'I heard Mary On A Cross on TikTok.' She's done that before with other songs. Then I was summoned to a label meeting and they were like, ‘Are you aware of what's going on?’, and they started presenting stats."
The song’s success brought with it some unwanted attention. Christian TikTok called out the song, with one user calling themselves stand_.with._jesus, declaring that, ‘This sound is horrible and is disrespectful to the beauty of Christianity’. Jesus.rescues went a step further, with a line-by-line breakdown of parts of the song. The poster suggested that the intention to weave sexual imagery with Christianity was more important than whether the song was literally about the Holy Mary, calling it a “perverted mockery of the Christian faith”.
Given that Forge had built Ghost on precisely that kind of anti-religious provocation, it’s likely that he knew exactly what response Mary On A Cross would prompt. Speaking on Cutter’s RockCast, the singer said the song’s viral success acted as a gateway for people who wanted to go deeper into the band’s world. “If you’re not revolted by [Mary On A Cross] and you want to cancel whoever wrote it,” he said. “Because that’s the backside of it, people hearing it and finding it deeply offensive and this and that because they didn’t have the brain capacity to realise what it’s about.”
Ultimately, the success of Mary On A Cross put Ghost in front of millions of unsuspecting souls who would probably never have heard them before. "We attracted so many new people who got sucked into this and fell into the rabbit hole of everything that we created,” he told Metal Hammer. “And that's a great thing because you always need more people.”