Get out your devil horns. If you grew up in the 1980s, there’s. a good chance you may have listened to Motley Crüe, Ozzy Osbourne, or Iron Maiden. I went to a Catholic high school and distinctly recall getting a detention or having an Iron Maiden poster in my locker – it was considered morally offensive. Depending on your age, you may also remember the Satanic panic that swept through the United States.
While the satanic moral panic was not specifically focused on just heavy metal, it’s not surprising that bands like Black Sabbath, Maiden, and the Crüe, fell under the radar. It also shouldn’t be surprising that heavy metal and horror have been longtime bedfellows. For this monthly entry of The Laboratory I’ll be examining the unholy trinity of popular culture – heavy metal music, horror films, and Satan.
Finding the Devil in Heavy Metal
There is a long history of deviantizing youth subculture and music. Claims-makers crusaded to create links between jazz music and marijuana, among other things, in the 1920s and 1930s. Preachers and Christian fundamentalists immediately bemoaned rock and roll as the “devil’s music” in the 1950s (Stephens, 2018).
From its infancy, cultural historian Scott Poole (2009) argues that heavy metal music and Satan have been connected. Metal pioneers Black Sabbath adopted their moniker from an early Mario Bava film of the same name starring horror legend Boris Karloff. Before they settled on Black Sabbath, the Birmingham rockers were called the Polka Tulk Blues Band and then Earth. Much of Sabbath’s aesthetic in their album covers and early song lyrics feel like they could have easily been influenced by the gothic horror of Hammer Studios. Of particular interest, Hammer Films icon Christopher Lee would eventually record his own heavy metal album.
Emerging from the working-class youth subcultures in the 1970s who felt disenfranchised from the “love and flower power’ generation, heavy metal bands adopted occult and satanic imagery in part as a form of rebellion and most likely for the sheer shock value and theatrics (Poole, 2009). Alice Cooper allegedly adopted the name from a session with a Ouija board. Later bands like Motley Crüe and Iron Maiden would similarly adopt supernatural elements into song lyrics in part to leverage its shock value.
None of these artists or bands actually engaged in satanic rituals or practiced the occult. Supernatural references were superficial. AC/DC songs, Highway to Hell and Hell’s Bells, sound ominous but have no actual references to the devil. Even Motley Crüe were clearly a party band more interested in ‘sex and drugs’ than the Devil. In some cases, Black metal bands like Mercyful Fate and Venom traded more heavily on satanic influences in their music.
Moral Panics and Heavy Metal Music
Sociologist Stanley Cohen coined the concept of a ‘moral panic’ based on his studies of the conflicts between British ‘mods’ and ‘rockers’ in the 1960s. He noticed that local media exaggerated the extent of the problem with sensationalistic reporting and headlines. Cohen (1972) would later define a moral panic as:
“[a] condition [wherein an] episode, person, or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature i presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media” (p. 23).
America witnessed its own bizarre moral panic that stretched across much of the 1980s. With the election of Ronald Reagan and a rising conservatism greatly assisted by what historians referred to as the Christian Right, new moral crusaders took aim at what they saw as a rise in the amoral rooted in American popular culture.
Evangelist Jacob Aranza, for example, launched attacks on heavy metal and rock musicians (Poole, 2009). Among his criticisms, Aranza published a book, ‘Backward Masking Unmasked” (1983), exposing the alleged practice of inserting subliminal messages in vinyl albums. Refuted by cognitive and social psychologists, the controversy surrounding backward masking hit its peak during the Judas Priest civil trial. Briefly, the trial revolved around claims that two teens – Raymond Belknap and James Vance – who allegedly attempted suicide after being influenced by subliminal messages hidden in several Priest tracks.
Tipper Gore launched a sustained and arguably more successful attack on heavy metal. Forming the Parent’s Music Resource Center (PMRC), Gore and her companions developed shrewd media campaigns that claimed links between heavy metal and substance use, pornography, and the occult. One of the results of the PRMC efforts was a senate hearing in September 1985. At hearings, the PRMC pushed for the creation of an independent review board, similar to the Comic Code Authority of the 1960s, to review and approve of music content prior to release. Gore and the PRMC presented a playlist of ‘morally reprehensible songs, now known as the ‘Filthy 15’ to drive home their point. The infamous listed included songs by Motley Crüe, Venom, W.A.S.P., Twisted Sister, and Def Leppard. One of the reforms that emerged from the hearings was the infamous Parental Advisory label (Lynxwiler & Gay, 2000)
Of course rock and roll can never die and heavy metal album sales were largely unaffected by the moral panic. Nirvana and the rise of the grunge movement probably did more to hurt heavy metal than Tipper Gore. Unfortunately, the 1980s satanic moral panic did have serious consequences for some people. The West Memphis Three – Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., and Jason Baldwin – were wrongfully convicted in 1994 for the murders of three boys. A key argument advanced by the prosecution was that the children were killed as part of a satanic ritual. In addition, the infamous McMartin Preschool trial in the 1980s saw the McMartin family falsely accused of abusing children in their care; allegations included numerous bizarre claims of satanic ritualistic practices.
Heavy Metal and Satan in Horror Films
Much of our popular culture – intentionally or not – serves to reinforce dominant normative values and cultural anxieties and fears. Not surprisingly then, the horror genre played on American fears in the 1980s with a handful of films depicting links between heavy metal and the occult. Most of these films were low budget, straight-to video stinkers, like Black Roses and Rock N Roll Nightmare, making heavy metal out to be a corrupting gateway.
The 1986 horror film Trick or Treat (no, not the anthology film from the 2000s) was one of the better of these ‘Heavy Metal’ horror films released at the height 1980s moral panic. Its story about a dead heavy metal artist resurrected by a disgruntled high school loser was almost completely lacking in subtlety or self-awareness. Its evil ‘heavy metal’ musician is brought back when loser Eddie plays a never-released album backwards. To its credit, Trick or Treat shows a little insight with its casting of Ozzy Osbourne as a morally righteous tele-evangelist.
Nonetheless, Trick or Treat’s ‘high school loser’, played by Marc Price (Family Ties), was the familiar ‘loner’ narrative found in several horror revenge films like Carrie and Evilspeak. However, in this film, Eddie matches the popular image of the ‘metal head as dangerous outcast’, sharing many similarities to the real-life Belknap and Vance. In this way, the films draws links between its sensationalized subject matter and the familiar case, crystallizing public fears of heavy music.
Now 30 years removed from this moral panic and the horror genre has largely moved on. The Diablo Cody-scripted Jennifer’s Body includes ritualistic sacrifice in its story but substitutes heavy metal for a goth-indie band. The more recent New Zealand film Deathgasm updates the heavy metal theme, flipping the narrative to makes its metalhead loner the hero of the story. Times have certainly changed.
Heavy Metal Vindicated
Horror, heavy metal, and Satan have made a particularly powerful trio for just over four decades now. Much of the allure of the relationship has been in the pursuit of rebellion and shock value by the subcultures that often gravitate to heavy metal and horror. Yet for a brief period, the horror genre exploited public fears of a perceived growth in satanic rituals and the occult. Conservative Christian families saw heavy metal music as the conduit through which the devil would infect suburban youth. The exploitation didn’t produce many memorable films. Today, heavy metal fans now at least have the fun Deathgasm to vindicate the metalhead.
Cohen, S. (1972). Folk devils and moral panics: The creation of the mods and rockers. New York: Routledge Classics.
Lynxwiler, J., & Gay, D. (2000). Moral boundaries and deviant music: Public attitudes toward heavy metal and rap. Deviant Behavior, 21, 63-85.
Poole, W.S. (209). Satan in America: The devil we know. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.,