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Traumafessions :: Kinderpal Ericzilla on Heavy Metal & the Satanic Panic of the 1980s

April 26th, 2011 by aunt john · 19 Comments

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.

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19 responses so far ↓

  • 1 RubyTombstoneNo Gravatar // Apr 26, 2011 at 9:48 am

    I remember the great Satanic Panic of 1987! I also remember having to do public speaking at school, and being told to pick a topic we felt passionate about. My big speech was about “Why Heavy Metal Music Does Not Cause Teen Suicide”. I quoted Ozzy Osbourne, “Why would I want kids to kill themselves? Who would by my fucking records?”. By the end of the speech I was pounding the lectern!
    I also remember a similar panic about Dungeons & Dragons. My Mum was all dutifully panicked when she found out I was playing it!

  • 2 RubyTombstoneNo Gravatar // Apr 26, 2011 at 9:49 am

    Oops – typo. That quote should read “Who would BUY my fucking records?”!

  • 3 Will ErricksonNo Gravatar // Apr 26, 2011 at 9:49 am

    Excellent piece. I remember those days well, and laughing at those ignorant and superstitious fools who were so upset by the lyrics and imagery. Fortunately my parents were not those people who got freaked out by metal–other than my dad’s constant shouts to “Turn it down!”–and even took me to see Iron Maiden when I was 13, for the World Slavery Tour, one of metal’s most iconic tours. And “Reign in Blood” is still one of the most perfect rock records of all time.

  • 4 ApocalypsejunkieNo Gravatar // Apr 26, 2011 at 9:54 am

    “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”

    This made me laugh out loud. You had nothing to worry about, everbody knows the Portal to Hell is located in Walmart…. ;-)>

  • 5 cmcmcmcmNo Gravatar // Apr 26, 2011 at 10:01 am

    Wow – I loved reading this! Black Sabbath is still one of my favorite bands even though my tastes have evolved dramatically in the last 25 years. I have always thought they were such a great combo of cool and creepy – and have even been creeped out by a track or two while listening to them as an adult.

  • 6 ChrisNo Gravatar // Apr 26, 2011 at 10:32 am

    Oh man does this bring back lots of memories! I was that guy in school with the jean jacket and Iron Maiden t-shirts (yeah, even in my early years of elementary school. My parents are AWESOME!). The whole Satanic Panic stuff was great, and I think helped me grow into the horror fan I am today.

    On a similar note, anybody remember “The Pagan Invasion” TV show? It aired on one of those 24 hour Catholic stations, and I used to watch it (forgive the pun) religiously. It was hysterical how melodramatic it was…

  • 7 TaylorNo Gravatar // Apr 26, 2011 at 10:35 am

    Around the time that my older brother was getting into hair metal in the mid-to-late 80s, he and I found this little religious tract in our parents’ room decrying metal music and listing examples of Satanism in lyrics, band names, etc. To our parents’ credit they never forbade us from listening to that stuff (at least not for “Satanic” reasons; they were more concerned about sexual overtones in music/movies) so they must have found the pamphlet’s claims almost as ridiculous as we did.

    The only detail I can sort of remember from the pamphlet is a claim that the name “AC/DC” is a reference to something demonic. Sure, why use the common scientific explanation when you can let your overactive imagination run wild?

  • 8 micksterNo Gravatar // Apr 26, 2011 at 10:57 am

    Ah, the Geraldo special! I’d like to see it again.

  • 9 Chuckles72No Gravatar // Apr 26, 2011 at 10:58 am

    Ahem, Taylor, I believe that I can help you with the TRUE MEANING of AC/DC – It’s “After Christ/Devil’s Children”. This is good information from some very reliable sewing circles.

    I was never particularly bothered by the 80’s Devil fetish thing. Motley Crue was the most “Devilized” band out there and it was perfectly obvious that they were just interested in the girls. I suppose the fact that my parents liked metal took the edge off.

    However, I must sympathize with EZ’s album-cover trauma. We really need a full-on super post about scary album covers from the 70s and 80s. I can think if several off the top of my head that warrant some discussion – Queen: News of the World, Black Sabbath: The eponymous LP cover shown above and also the crappy but scary-looking “Born Again”, The Eagles: Hotel California (look closely at the windows!), P-Funk: Maggot Brain … and many more!

  • 10 ApocalypsejunkieNo Gravatar // Apr 26, 2011 at 10:58 am

    I remember back in the day finding one of those bible tracts in the mall. It was railing on and on about Satan. But the dumbasses mispelled it “satin”. Beware the powers of SATIN!

  • 11 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Apr 26, 2011 at 11:03 am

    Fascinating traumafession! Hard to believe that Geraldo’s 2 hour long Satanism special aired during prime time around Halloween.

    For those interested it starts here on Youtube…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VgV9K-1_mV8

    In the mid nineties Rivera actually apologized for his part in spreading Satanic panic…

    “I want to announce publicly that as a firm believer of the ‘Believe The Children’ movement of the 1980’s, that started with the McMartin trials in CA, but NOW I am convinced that I was terribly wrong… and many innocent people were convicted and went to prison as a result….AND I am equally positive [that the] ‘Repressed Memory Therapy Movement’ is also a bunch of CRAP…”

    http://www.religioustolerance.org/geraldo.htm

  • 12 Jami JoAnne RussellNo Gravatar // Apr 26, 2011 at 11:50 am

    @Apocalypsejunkie – I disagree, the portal to Hell is in Target.

    I never got the “gateway to Hell” thing – if you believe that, then you don’t believe in free will. Yet part of believing in God is believing in God given free will. Everything we do is our choice. Neither God nor Satan can actually control us. We have to control our actions, thoughts, etc. So there’s no way heavy metal, D&D, etc could lead one to Hell. It’s all up to you, period. It’s just scapegoating to blame anything else, be it music, DNA, or how you were raised.

    Just seems to me that if you believe in God yet think that heavy metal could actually force a person to be evil, than you’re a hypocrite.

    Me, I never listened to heavy metal because to me it’s just not good music. Give me Benny Goodman or Donna Summer over Ozzy Ozborn any day.

    Though I will take Ozzy over Rebecca Black.

  • 13 RATSAWGODNo Gravatar // Apr 26, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    Ah, this brought back a whole slew of memories. I’ll bet the affects of Devil Drama were even more profoundly felt if you grew up in a small town, like I did. The “stories” kids would tell each other on Monday mornings- I recall for a year our town supposedly had it’s own satanic circle, and we would spread word about their sightings in hushed, concerned tones. Heh-heh! It was an imaginative time, fo’ sho’!

    Does anyone else remember that Proctor & Gamble Satanic Symbol rumor from that era as well? You can check it out here, and scroll down to Number 4 on the list: http://www.businesspundit.com/5-corporations-damaged-by-false-accusations/

  • 14 mamamiasweetpeachesNo Gravatar // Apr 26, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    Oh yes. I actually switched schools in 8th grade so I got to write the WHY RECORDS SHOULDNT BE CENSORED essay TWICE! It was easy to write when it was something I actually felt passionate about (if you could look back at my old essays its quite obvious which subjects I chose myself. They were actually more than 5 sentances long!)

    And REALLY…I say this as a mother of a teen girl…those stupid labels just made things “worse”.Now its given ‘artists’ the license to say whatever they want on their CDs. Music is so much ‘dirtier’ NOW than it was in 1985. Im sure my daughter would laugh if I played what would pass as “objetional content” in MY day (remember when they wanted to ban CYNDI LAUPERs She Bop?)

  • 15 mamamiasweetpeachesNo Gravatar // Apr 26, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    ^ actually my parents never questioned any of it but I think a lot of that was I didnt push the heavier stuff on them. When I was in the car with my mom I would play POSION and CINDERELLA. When I was alone in my room METALLICA and MEGADETH and SLAYER went on. And my daughter is the same way. She listens to stuff like LADY GAGA in the car but when shes alone in her room she puts her headphones on and listens to BLOOD ON THE DANCEFLOOR.

  • 16 Bob IgnizioNo Gravatar // Apr 27, 2011 at 12:19 am

    Great post. Aside from the Geraldo special, I remember various touring preachers would come to my town to spread the word about the evils of rock music. As much as it was and is nonsense, I kind of miss those days when there was an aura of danger hanging over the music.

  • 17 TaylorNo Gravatar // Apr 27, 2011 at 8:35 am

    Chuckles: Agh, geez. That AC/DC interpretation is not even as creative as I was giving them credit for in my spotty memory.

  • 18 hostelNo Gravatar // Apr 28, 2011 at 3:19 am

    it’s awesome!!!

  • 19 Hannabella DoeNo Gravatar // Feb 4, 2014 at 5:33 am

    With me, I never experienced the “Satanic Panic” since I was born in the 90’s, but I do love me some Heavy Metal. I LOVE AC/DC (I was thrilled when it was finally available on Canadian iTunes store.) I also love, Black Sabbath, “Poison” by Alice Cooper, “Tom Sawyer” by Rush,Led Zepplin (especially stairway to heaven,) and Metallica (I’m actually listening to some Metallica right now.)

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