Demonic backward messages on rock records! Nationwide underground devil worship! Live nude human sacrifices! Sex! Drugs! Booze! Cults! Suicide! Murder! And all of it set to a completely kickass heavy metal soundtrack!
Such were the suspected deviancies that defined a peculiar unholy hysteria that beset America in the 1980s that, in the (relatively) saner times since, has been labeled “the Satanic Panic.”
From Black Sabbath’s 1970 debut onward, heavy metal rejiggered rock’s furthest extremes by coupling new highs in volume and intensity with dark and dangerous subject matter, much of which arose from the occult. Then by the mid-’80s, heavy metal was big and scary, prompting America’s most uptight moms, square dads, and non-groovy religious leaders to shriek about how Ozzy Osbourne, Iron Maiden, and Mötley Crüe were bewitching teens via albums, concerts, and MTV videos.
Adding fuel to all this hellfire were horrific real-life crimes committed by heavy metal fans, plus raging debates regarding the First Amendment.
Alas, the fact that the whole brouhaha got dressed up in pointy horns and pitchforks makes it all seem ludicrous in hindsight. However, the 1980s Satanic Panic has also since proven fascinating, bizarre, and, as even the most righteous preacher for the other team is liable to admit, that the devil always has the coolest music.
1. PMRC Hearings (1985)
The devil went down to Congress in August 1985, after Tipper Gore and other Senators’ wives created the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a political agitation group whose aim was to legislate government labeling of records they deemed threatening to the hearts, minds, morals, and/or eternal souls of American youth. Heavy metal, naturally (and supernaturally), pulsated in the churning, gory, sexually deviant guts of the debate.
The PMRC opened its official D.C. hearings by entering into United States Congressional record a succession of “offensive” materials. Chief among them were Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” music video, W.A.S.P.’s “F—k Like a Beast” (complete with its chainsaw codpiece cover image), and lyrics by previously obscure hooded shock-rockers the Mentors that rhymed “use your face like toilet paper” with a very particular (and fragrant) strain of bodily vapor.
Crackpot composer and heavy metal hero Frank Zappa effectively testified against the notion of record labeling in defense of free expression and allowing the marketplace to dictate taste. On this front, two thoroughly unlikely political bedfellows joined Zappa: Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider and granola-wholesome ’70s country-pop star, John Denver.
Mr. “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” potently pointed out the heat he took when his ode to natural outdoors intoxication, “Rocky Mountain High” had come been misunderstood as the world’s mellowest-ever drug anthem.
Snider, though, proved to be the wild card winner. With wit, grace, a cool head, and a freaky mountain of blonde curls, Snider took on Tipper and Company, driving the final outcome toward being that the government would allow the music business to police itself.
The record industry’s subsequent tidal wave of “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” that got slapped onto album covers functioned, then, as an immediate tip-off to kids as to which groups and titles contained the stuff that would annoy and distress authority figures most. Heavy metal sales numbers surged. What a shock.
2. Geraldo Rivera’s Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground (1988)
Cresting on the wave of late-’80s “trash TV” typified by chain-smoking right-wing hothead Morton Downey Jr. and tabloid news shows such as A Current Affair (both of whom regularly rolled out heavy metal topics), Geraldo Rivera soared to the bottom of the class with his two-hour, primetime NBC special, Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground.
Geraldo’s lunatic circus of Luciferian mayhem aired just before Halloween and called out heavy metal lyrics, stage shows, and albums covers as evidence as to the rise of a hell-spawned fervor overtaking youth (Iron Maiden’s Number of the Beast got a particularly in-depth grilling). Backing such claims were “experts” in fields such as demonic possession and the infernal origins of innocent-seducing recruitment tools on the order of He-Man and the Smurfs.
The special also boasted cannibal cults, black magic nursery school atrocities, and millions-strong underground networks of demon-loving criminals as described by reliable sources such as Charles Manson and David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz.
Ozzy Osbourne beamed in via satellite, dismissing the headbanging brouhaha as mere showbiz, while face-painted, diabolical-grinned Mercyful Fate frontman King Diamond repeatedly endorsed Satanism outright. He probably sold more top hats that night than won over souls to the Dark Lord, but either way, the whole thing was entertaining as Hell.
3. Judas Priest Backward Message Trial (1986)
On December 23, 1985, a pair of teenage Judas Priest fans in Nevada attempted suicide a 12-guage shotgun. One succeeded, the other blew off the majority of his face and died later.
The boys’ parents had long blamed “back-masked messages” on the Judas Priest album Stained Class for driving the duo to load up and open fire. Specifically at issue was a line in the song “Better by You, Better Than Me,” that, when played backwards, reportedly commanded the listener: “Do it!”
Five years after the tragedy, a lawsuit against Judas Priest filed by the self-shooters’ parents went to trial. It lasted longer than a month, and featured Priest vocalist Rob Halford singing from the witness stand. The judge ultimately dismissed the case.
Judas Priest’s manager said that not only did Stained Class not contain any back-masked messages, but also, if it did, they’d say, “Buy seven copies!” More movingly, Halford stated: “It tore us up emotionally hearing someone say to the judge and the cameras that this is a band that creates music that kills young people. We accept that some people don’t like heavy metal, but we can’t let them convince us that it’s negative and destructive. Heavy metal is a friend that gives people great pleasure and enjoyment and helps them through hard times.”
4. Night Stalker Richard Ramirez (1985)
Throughout 1984 and ’85, a home-invading sexual sadist terrorized Los Angeles with mass slayings of unprecedented grotesquery. Savaging families as they slept, local news media dubbed the slayer “the Night Stalker.” Heavy metal came in to play when Ramirez left an AC/DC baseball cap behind at one of his crime scenes.
The headbanging volume intensified when Ramirez showed up to his trial with a pentagram carved into his palm and routinely interrupted the proceedings by shouting, “Hail Satan!”
Reporters quickly brought up AC/DC’s 1979 six-and-a-half minute opus “Night Prowler,” suggesting that its lyrics inspired or even instructed Ramirez to act. Tipper Gore’s record-labeling political group the Parents Music Resource Center immediately targeted AC/DC, and several venues cancelled the band’s concerts.
AC/DC defended itself by claiming the song was about a teenage Romeo sneaking in to his girlfriend’s bedroom after her parents had fallen asleep. Their cause, however, was not aided by lyrics such as the rhyming couplet: “Cause no one’s gonna warn you/and no one’s gonna yell, ‘Attack!’/Cause you won’t feel the steel/till it’s hanging out your back.”
On the other hand, only the most deranged miscreant could take “Night Prowler” seriously, as AC/DC vocalist fan Bon Scott ends the song by quoting Robin Williams’ goofball Mork and Mindy catchphrases, “Shazbot! Nanu-nanu!”
5. Ricky Kasso “Say You Love Satan” Murder (1984)
Seventeen-year-old Long Island LSD dealer Ricky Kasso listened exclusively to heavy metal music and enjoyed hallucinations of occult grandeur that prompted him to nickname himself, “the Acid King.”
Ricky and his archetypal headbanger dirtbag pals hung out in local playgrounds after dark that they vandalized with graffiti tributes to Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and Ozzy Osbourne, along with the declaration, “Hail Satin!” Yes, that was how this brain trust spelled “Satan.”
In June 1984, Kasso and three pals got high around a campfire, whereupon the Acid King told Gary Lauwers, also 17—whom he’d accused of stealing from him—that they should throw Lauwers’ shirt and hair clippings into the fire for ritual purposes. From there, things went straight to Hell.
Kasso stabbed Lauwers dozens of times, shoved stones down his throat, and gouged out his eyesballs. In the heat of the slaughter, Kasso also seethed: “Say you love Satan!” Lauwers instead said, “I love my mother!” That prompted the deathblow.
When cops busted Kasso, he appeared as terrifying as the abomination he’d committed. Wired-up, wild-maned, and bewitchingly bug-eyed, Kasso went to jail clad in an AC/DC shirt that was emblazoned with a scary devil’s head. The next day, he hung himself with that very garment in his jail cell.
Much as Charles Manson had personified what the establishment feared most about hippies, Ricky Kasso suddenly symbolized the whole Satanic Panic in flesh form. Heavy metal paid rebellious bad taste tribute accordingly via multiple movies, dozens of songs, and a mighty San Francisco sludge outfit calling itself Acid King—and then electrifyingly living up to the name.
6. Mazes and Monsters TV Movie Demonizes Dungeons and Dragons (1982)
Among those concerned about such things, role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons have long labored in cahoots with heavy metal music to march America’s youth down the path of spiritual and psychological annihilation.
Aside from occult tropes such as sorcery and spells, both D&D and metal traffic in medieval fantasy imagery involving mythical beasts, broadswords, barbarians, warrior women, elves, trolls, and such. They also, undeniably, arouse enormous passion among their participants.
In the mid-’80s, a couple of real-life psychotic headbangers such as Richard Ramirez and Ricky Kasso were used to smear heavy metal. For Dungeons and Dragons, similar controversy kicked off in 1979 when a D&D-playing teen attempted suicide beneath a University of Michigan building in what came to be known as “the Steam Tunnel Incident.” The news prompted erstwhile romance writer Rona Jaffe to dramatize it in a 1981 novel, Mazes and Monsters. The book became a CBS movie the following year, and an immediate Satanic Panic camp classic.
Mazes and Monsters stars Chris Makepeace, then still his own version of hot after Meatballs and My Bodyguard, as an Ivy League “Maze Master.” Among his 20-sided die-casting cabal is Tom Hanks as a player to whom the game becomes all too real. In short order, Hanks envisions orcs and goblins overtaking New York City subway tunnels, prompting him to defend his imaginary kingdom and, upon coming out of a blackout, bellyache into a payphone: “There’s blood on my knife!”
6.66. Satanic Messages Detected in Mr. Ed Theme Song (1986)
Rock records have long been accused of “back-masking” subliminal messages in their grooves. These are statements that go unheard to the conscious listener but sink in anyway. Such tricks can only be detected by spinning the disc in its reverse direction. Obviously, then, occultists hell-bent on winning souls for Satan would use heavy metal songs as the ideal vehicle for such brainwashing.
Alleged messages of this insidious nature have been “discovered” on “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin (“Oh, here’s to my sweet Satan”) and “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen (“It’s fun to smoke marijuana”). Most notoriously, in 1985, Judas Priest was accused of commanding two Nevada teens to commit suicide via back-masked messages (the band won the case).
During particularly hysterical 1986 Satanic Panic high point, a pair of Southern Ohio preachers aimed to expose every back-masked message in existence. Their quest somehow led them to the theme song from Mr. Ed, a charmingly ludicrous 1960s theme song whose title character was a horse with the power to speak.
Spinning the Mr. Ed theme, “A Horse Is a Horse (Of Course, Of Course)” in reverse, the preachers clearly picked out two backward messages: “Someone sang a song for Satan” and “The source is the devil.”
Now here’s the kicker: when you play the record backward, the mashed-up words actually do sound like the singer is saying those words! Granted, it has to be a coincidence (right? Right?!), and the discovery itself is still not as funny as two paranoid clowns looking for demonic mind-programming in the Mr. Ed theme to begin with, but listen for yourself below and decide. It really is the damnedest thing (of course, of course)….
Mike McPadden is the author of 'Heavy Metal Metal Movies: Guitar Barbarians, Mutant Bimbos, and Cult Zombies Amok in the 666 Most Eye- and Ear-Ripping Big Screen Films Ever' (Bazillion Points).