The 1980s were ground zero for the Satanic Panics, when thousands of children were allegedly kidnapped, defiled and murdered in ritual abuse ceremonies. Even though police statistics made it clear there was no such epidemic, a nation of millions believed the hype. Geraldo Rivera’s 1988 prime-time special on the subject–“Exposing Satan’s Underground”–became the highest rated two-hour documentary in the history of television.
“The very young and impressionable should definitely not be watching this program tonight,” Geraldo disingenuously pleaded with his audience. “I am begging you. … Please get them out of the room or change the station!” A cadre of “survivors” and “experts” made the rounds on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Larry King Live, Donahue and Sally Jesse Raphael. The Cult Awareness Network offered information packets warning of the devilish dangers of rock music, as did the Parents’ Music Resource Center. The PMRC sold a $15 “Satanism Research Packet” that was filled with all sorts of misinformation gleaned from law enforcement and so-called experts.
Throughout the decade, parents brought several lawsuits against heavy metal artists and their record companies. The most prominent suit was filed after two youths shot themselves following several hours of drinking, smoking weed and listening to Judas Priest albums. CBS Records and the band were charged with selling a dangerous product. They allegedly planted subliminal messages on Judas Priest’s Stained Class album, but audio experts proved no such messages existed and the suit was dismissed.
“The cassette or CD player in too many teens’ rooms is an alter to evil,” radio evangelist Bob Larson warned, “dispensing the devil’s devices to the accompaniment of a catchy beat.” Larson’s Satanism: The Seduction of America’s Youth wasn’t the only one knocking the rock. Dozens of books claimed to expose these hidden messages, including Jacob Aranza’s Backward Masking Unmasked and More Rock, Country and Backward Masking Unmasked. He writes that when the chorus of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” is reversed, one hears, “Decide to smoke marijuana, marijuana, marijuana.”
In Dan and Steve Peters’ book Rock’s Hidden Persuader: The Truth About Backmasking, they pick apart recordings by Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones and the dreaded Electric Light Orchestra. The Peters brothers also note that Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page was fascinated by Aleister Crowley. Many other rockers were curious about Crowley–including the Beatles, who included him in the cast of characters on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s. In the 1960s, the John Birch Society implicated Sgt. Pepper’s in a communist mind control plot, and as recently as 1994 a high-level Vatican official called the group “the Devil’s musicians.”
Rock’s Hidden Persuaders draws heavily on the work of Vance Packard. His influential 1957 book first raised alarm bells about subliminal messages, claiming that marketers were placing hidden commands in movies and television. The Peters brothers also cite Wilson Bryan Key’s 1977 bestseller Media Sexploitation, which revived the subliminal trope within popular culture. If you look at advertisements closely enough, he maintained, you could find everything from skulls and humping donkeys to the word “SEX” spelled out in ice cubes.
Their work was discredited long before the Peters brothers wrote Rock’s Hidden Persuaders, but no matter. Most Satanic Panic researchers never came across a debunked study or hoax they didn’t credulously cite. Dan and Steve Peters quote Packard’s insistence that, according to his industry sources, jack-rabbit-style television commercials will soon “be coming at us in three-second blasts, combining words, symbols and other imagery.”
The Peters brothers then extrapolate this prediction into the world of music, warning readers of backmasking. “Whether these messages are Satan-created, or simply Satan-inspired, subliminal stimuli certainly must have the ‘Satanic Seal of Approval.’” Their proof? “[O]ne never hears of secular rock albums promoting secretly the gospel of Christ–or even simply wholesome thoughts, such as ‘Eat all your vegetables, Maynard,’ or ‘Would it hurt to visit your grandmother once in a while?’”
The popular role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons was also lumped in with heavy metal and backwards masking as a medium of the devil. During the 1980s an entire anti-D&D mini-industry sprouted up–even inspiring a craptastic made-for-television movie, Mazes and Monsters, which starred a young Tom Hanks. Bob Larson’s take on the role-playing game is typical of the period. “The occult overtones of D&D are so explicit that virtually nothing in the world of Satanism is omitted,” he insists. “Players are told how to have their characters commune with nature spirits, consult crystal balls filled with human blood and conjure the Egyptian deities that Moses opposed.”
Larson didn’t have a very good B.S. meter, often quoting fantastical survivor stories like that of “Sean,” who claimed, “I became obsessively involved with Dungeons & Dragons. I went frequently to the Rocky Horror Picture Show (a rock movie musical based on transvestism, sadomasochism, and other perversions),” the boy confessed. “I met a lot of Satanists there. I identified myself by wearing my left shirtsleeve rolled up and keeping my left pinkie fingernail unclipped and painted black. Through Ninjitsu, I delved into the violent aspects of the martial arts, learning how to conceal weapons and commit assassination. I once ate the leg off a live frog in biology class.”
To help parents detect whether or not their child is worshiping the devil, Larson’s book includes a checklist of telltale signs: a preoccupation with D&D; an interest in Ouija boards and psychic phenomena; an obsession with heavy metal groups like Slayer, Metallica and Megadeth; and an inclination to write poems about Satan or to sketch pentagrams or the number 666, the number of the beast. His list describes, in part or in whole, just about every teenager I knew during the 1980s.
In Teenage Wasteland, sociologist Donna Gaines seeks to understand the rising incidences of teen suicide, especially among poor and lower middle class kids who listened to metal. Gaines takes Larson to task, arguing that “most kids view this stuff like carnival amusement, as art, as a means of expressing profound anxiety and frustrations of living. … Larson simply has no respect for kids’ intellectual or aesthetic sensibilities.”
The kids who embraced H. P. Lovecraft’s The Necronomicon, LaVey’s Satanic Bible, or the works of Aleister Crowley did so not because they were prone to murdering bunnies and babies. Instead, those texts offered something mystical and exotic in a world of strip malls and monotonous minimum wage jobs. Concerned adults like Bob Larson may have had good intentions, but they clearly had no clue about how music and popular culture works in the lives of teenagers.
Kembrew McLeod teaches in The University of Iowa’s Department of Communication. He once threw a chair across the room during a lecture on punk rock.