Growing up in the early ’80s could be very traumatizing. The threat of nuclear war and the Russians invading us RED DAWN-style kept me in a state of worry, but that worry was nothing compared to the possibility of going to hell! The threat of Satan seemed very real to me back in those days. My grandmother was very religious and the church we attended was filled with fire and brimstone sermons warning us against the satanic evils of rock music, especially the Devil’s favorite conduit “Heavy Metal.”
I was astounded to find out that my new stepdad loved rock music and owned an extensive collection of albums. I would spend hours looking through his albums and he would put on his favorites and I would enjoy them as much as a kid destined for hell could. The artwork of Black Sabbath’s debut album was nearly as traumatizing as the music. I can still see a woman with a yellowish pallor dressed in black standing near some trees and a pond in front of a very dilapidated medieval looking house. This scared that crap out of me! She had to be a witch or some succubus with ill intentions. All the songs were either about the running away from the devil or being the devil’s chosen bride or about scary wizards walking by. This was as enticing as it was scary.
By the time my small town got MTV and a decent record store it seemed like the satanic panic was in full swing. I would keep my fingers at the ready to change the cable box to Nickelodeon as I waited for “Looks that Kill” by Motley Crue of “Flight of Icarus” by Iron Maiden to come on. I would have to wait through hours of Men at Work and Pat Benatar videos, but eventually I would be thrilled at the sight of “Bark at the Moon” and it would all be worthwhile.
In the age of digital downloads, album cover art has taken a back seat. I would sneak around the rock section of my local record store and freak out while looking at Iron Maiden covers and their skeletal mascot “Eddie.” “Holy Diver” by Dio was particularly troublesome. I felt that if I were to pick up the album and hold it, the earth would crack open and I would be pulled to hell right in the middle of Kmart. The scarier the album cover was the more I wanted to hear the music.
A funny thing happened as I began to listen to more metal music. I realized that it wasn’t a gateway to hell; rather it was a gateway to all sorts of subjects that would fascinate me all the more. It would have taken me several more years to discover Frank Herbert and Dune if it wasn’t for Iron Maiden. I would have missed out on Stephen King’s short stories if it wasn’t for Anthrax. Heavy Metal wasn’t about wearing your sunglasses at night or feeling the rhythm of the night, it was about life and death, and good and evil.
By the time it was 1987 and I was 13 years old a new brand strain of harder and scarier heavy metal arrived on the scene. “Reign in Blood” by Slayer made any output by Dio and Motley Crue seem silly and juvenile. Metallica and Megadeth touched on the evils of war and drug addiction. This more tangible and realistic metal stripped away the hokey mysticism and faux Satanism.
The Satanic Panic of the ‘80s finally reached its apex with a much-ballyhooed Geraldo Rivera special on Satanism in 1987. It was the talk of the school the next day. I imagine every town claimed to be the secret satanic capital of the United States much like mine supposedly was. Every pentagram on a school notebook and jean jacket was taken very seriously by the faculty of my school. Listening to metal was an act of rebellion and feeling rebellious was awesome and dangerous. It all looks so silly today, but it touched a primal chord of fear and excitement in me and many of my friends.