The Devil’s Music: Unraveling the Satanic Panic and Heavy Metal Controversies of the ’80s

Explore the turbulent history of heavy metal music, the controversies it sparked during the 1980s, and how this notorious genre navigated its way through moral panic to gain mainstream recognition.

The Devil's Music: Unraveling the Satanic Panic and Heavy Metal Controversies of the '80s

Rocking the Cradle of Controversy

If you were a music junkie in the late 70s and early 80s, odds are you were thrashing around to the roaring riffs and wailing vocals of heavy metal. It was the era when music got heavier and hair got bigger – a match made in headbanging heaven. Bands like Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, AC/DC, and Motley Crue were cranking up the volume and taking over the airwaves.

The music was loud, the lyrics were raw, and the fans – well, we were ready to rock. But with fame and popularity comes scrutiny and, in the case of heavy metal, it came in the form of a fire and brimstone panic attack. Enter the stage – the Satanic Panic.

The Satanic Panic, as it was aptly called, found a pitchfork-wielding scapegoat in heavy metal.

Now, just imagine a guitar riff so gnarly, it could birth an entire cultural phenomenon. The 80s saw the rise of strange and dark crimes across America, setting the stage for a public paranoia quicker than you could strike a power chord. The Satanic Panic, as it was aptly called, found a pitchfork-wielding scapegoat in heavy metal. The book “Michelle Remembers”, despite later being outed as horror pulp fiction, fueled the fires with tales of ritual abuse.

The plot thickened with the grisly crimes of Ricky Kasso, a self-proclaimed Satanist and metalhead. Kasso didn’t just make it onto every parent’s “be scared of this” list – he headlined it. The media, ever ready to capitalize on the fear, connected the dots between Kasso’s horrific acts, heavy metal, and Satanism faster than a shredding guitar solo.

Media’s portrayal of heavy metal was like a Geraldo Rivera documentary on steroids. His masterpiece, “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground”, painted metal fans as a bunch of tomb-raiding, blood-guzzling, sacrilegious hoodlums. Suddenly, a Metallica shirt and a couple of tattoos made you a prime suspect in a ritual sacrifice case.

And let’s not forget our old friends at the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). They practically made it their mission to put metal under the societal microscope. Proposing legislation to slap content warnings on albums and compiling the infamous “Filthy 15” list, they were doing their darned best to paint the genre as the devil’s music. With nine metal songs on their blacklist, you’d think we were crafting symphonies for Satan.

This cocktail of fear, music, and wild accusations set the stage for an era-defining controversy that would go on to shape the future of heavy metal.

The Satanic Panic and the Shadow Over Heavy Metal

To understand the firestorm that rocked heavy metal in the 80s, one must first grasp the concept of the Satanic Panic. Picture a fear so pervasive, it paints your favorite tunes in the colors of the devil’s palette. A moral panic so widespread, it deemed your ripped jeans and band tees a uniform of anarchy and debauchery. That was the Satanic Panic. Mainly sweeping the United States, it was a period marred by fears of Satanic ritual abuse, with an unnerving rise in peculiar, dark crimes.

Fueling this inferno of fear were several factors. The publication of “Michelle Remembers” in 1980 marked a tipping point. This book, alleged to be a true account of cults and ritual abuse, was initially swallowed hook, line, and sinker by law enforcement, courts, and the public alike. It painted horrific tales of recovered “repressed memories”, only to be debunked later as a gruesome work of fiction.

As if the flames needed any fanning, the murder of Gary Lauwers by Ricky Kasso turned the heat up several notches. Kasso, a 17-year-old drug dealer and self-proclaimed Satanist, stabbed Lauwers 36 times. The media, quick to pin the Satanist label on Kasso, amplified his gruesome act into a full-blown cult crime. The fact that he was found in an AC/DC shirt was enough for them to connect the blood-soaked dots to heavy metal.

More crimes were carelessly linked to the genre and Satanism. 14-year-old Thomas Sullivan, a fan of Black Sabbath, was charged with the murder of his mother, further cementing the stereotype. The media conveniently glossed over essential factors like mental health and home life, instead focusing on their music tastes.

Then came James Vance. Vance, after surviving a suicide attempt, pointed fingers at Judas Priest, claiming their “Stained Glass” album contained subliminal messages that pushed him over the edge. Although Judas Priest was legally absolved, the echoes of Vance’s claim added another verse to the cautionary tale of heavy metal’s influence.

As the cases stacked up, heavy metal found itself on trial in the court of public opinion. The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) was both judge and jury. Taking their case to the United States Senate in the mid-80s, they aimed to brand every ‘unsuitable’ record with “Parental Advisory” labels. This sparked a fierce debate over the interpretation of the 1st Amendment and the censorship of music.

The PMRC then went a step further to compile “The Filthy 15”, a blacklist of songs they deemed inappropriate. Nine heavy metal songs made it onto the list, further demonizing the genre. In this fear-stricken decade, heavy metal music had become society’s chosen scapegoat, its influence painted as a corrupting force to be feared and censored. The tolling of the bells for the genre had begun, and it was echoing loud and clear.

Fear of the Nonconformist in the ’70s and ’80s

The 1970s saw a surge in various countercultures, sparking discomfort among traditionalists unsettled by the shifting societal norms. One focus of this anxiety was the growth of Satanism, fuelled by the founding of the Church of Satan and the notorious Charles Manson Family’s horrific crimes. These developments led to a pervasive fear of emerging countercultures throughout the United States.

The atrocities committed by Charles Manson and his followers, including multiple gruesome murders, were a glaring example of this wider fear of countercultures. The savage nature of these crimes and the cult-like behavior of Manson and his acolytes were used as fuel to kindle anxieties about the perceived dangers of non-traditional lifestyles and countercultural movements.

Media outlets often associated heavy metal music with Satanism and violent crime.

Media outlets often associated heavy metal music with Satanism and violent crime, exemplified by a Geraldo Rivera documentary, “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground”. This documentary portrayed heavy metal fans as active participants in Satanism and criminal activities, thus strengthening the perceived link between the music and these fears.

The concern surrounding heavy metal and its potential influence on the behavior of young people was potent enough to instigate legal action. In 1985, a 20-year-old named James Vance attempted to sue Judas Priest.

Further reinforcing these fears was the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a committee established in 1985. The PMRC compiled the “Filthy 15”, a list of songs they deemed inappropriate due to content related to sex, violence, drugs, alcohol, or the occult. Nine of these songs were from heavy metal bands, adding to the public’s mounting concerns about the genre’s influence.

Atrocities and the Unfounded Association with Heavy Metal

The documentary “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground” played a key role in the negative portrayal of heavy metal enthusiasts, known as ‘metalheads’. The film framed these individuals as blasphemous and dangerous, going so far as to link a series of murders involving young people to devil-worship. This stigmatized the heavy metal community, further embedding the cultural fear of this music genre and its followers.

One crime emphasized in the documentary involved 14-year-old Thomas Sullivan, who fatally stabbed his mother. Sullivan’s interest in Black Sabbath was seized upon as a significant factor in his heinous act. This crime, and others like it, were used to establish a direct link between heavy metal and violent behaviour, often ignoring other critical factors such as mental health and familial circumstances.

The 1980s also saw the rise of concerns about supposed subliminal messaging hidden within heavy metal music. The case of James Vance stands out in this regard. Vance, after a botched suicide attempt resulting in the death of his friend Raymond Belknap, filed a lawsuit against the band Judas Priest. He alleged that hidden messages in their album “Stained Class” had driven him to attempt suicide. While the band and their record label were ultimately not found legally responsible, the case did stoke public fears about the potential dangers of heavy metal music.

The purported association of heavy metal with devil-worship and other societal ills had a substantial impact on its public image. This was further compounded by incidents such as Ricky Kasso’s murder of Gary Lauwers, which was attributed to satanic influence and Kasso’s affinity for heavy metal. The media was quick to make these connections, despite the lack of solid evidence suggesting involvement of a cult or a direct link to heavy metal music. This undue association further reinforced the public’s misconceptions and fears about heavy metal culture and its perceived societal implications.

The Controversial List: “The Filthy 15” and Its Aftermath

In 1985, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), led by Tipper Gore, created a list known as “The Filthy 15”. This list comprised fifteen songs that the PMRC deemed inappropriate due to their content relating to sex, violence, drugs/alcohol, or occult practices. This list came to play a significant role in the discussions around music content regulation.

The “Filthy 15” was used as a model for proposed legislation regarding the rating of albums. The PMRC suggested that albums with content relating to the aforementioned categories should be accompanied by additional warnings, as an attempt to regulate and control what was perceived as harmful content.

These proposals led to a Senate hearing in 1985, where musicians, including Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, John Denver, and the eclectic and fiercely independent Frank Zappa, testified against the proposed legislation. They defended music as a form of art and expression that should not be subjected to such stringent regulations. They also raised concerns about the “Filthy 15” list, arguing that it was misleading and inconsistent in its criteria.

In the wake of these discussions, the music industry eventually agreed to a compromise. Albums containing explicit content began to be labeled with “Parental Advisory” stickers. This move, however, was met with criticism. Detractors argued that it was an inadequate response to the issue of explicit content in music and pointed out that such labels could potentially increase the appeal of such albums to young listeners, rather than dissuade them. This period marked a significant turning point in the discourse around music, censorship, and the responsibility of artists and industry stakeholders.

The Lasting Impact and Evolution of Heavy Metal Perception

Looking back at the tumultuous relationship between heavy metal and society during the 1980s, it’s evident that this period had a profound and lasting impact on the genre and its public perception. Despite the heavy criticism, legal battles, and moral panic, heavy metal proved resilient. It weathered the storm, continuing to evolve and thrive, while also leaving an indelible mark on the music landscape.

The 1980s criticisms, fueled by the fear of Satanism, countercultures, and the notion of subliminal messaging, contributed to the stigmatization of heavy metal. However, it also inadvertently served to solidify the genre’s rebellious image, helping it to gain a broader appeal among those who identified with its outsider status and heavy themes.

Today, heavy metal is seen in a somewhat different light. Although remnants of its controversial past still linger, the genre is often acknowledged for its musical complexity, technical skill, and its capacity to give voice to societal discontent. Over the years, heavy metal has developed numerous sub-genres, each with their unique aesthetic and thematic leanings, making it a diverse and expansive musical genre.

The genre, which was once scapegoated as a cause for societal ills, has endured and is now better understood and appreciated for its artistry and social commentary.

In closing, it’s clear that the public perception of heavy metal has significantly evolved since the 1980s. The genre, which was once scapegoated as a cause for societal ills, has endured and is now better understood and appreciated for its artistry and social commentary. The journey of heavy metal through the 1980s provides a fascinating case study in societal reactions to music and youth culture, reminding us of the transformative power of art in the face of adversity.