Rational fears don’t always fuel cultural hysteria. Somewhere in the middle of it all is our fondness for the curious, a quest to satisfy our deep desire to be interested. That’s why crime dramas often reveal huge conspiracies amid fictional murders. That’s why unsolved mystery videos are littered with comments suggesting extremely elaborate theories, while the simplest solution is discarded simply because it doesn’t pique our fancy. That’s why heavy metal bands get canceled just for making art. In many ways, that’s what was really behind the Satanic Panic of the early 1980s and the bands that strangely paid the price.
It was a time when vigilante parents invaded the grounds around a preschool in search of secret tunnels. That was when Kiss’ Gene Simmons was accused of having a cow’s tongue. That’s when Judas Priest’s kind Rob Halford was slandered for encoding suicidal messages into his music, to which he very shrewdly remarked, “why would I want to kill our fanbase?” If I was coding messages, it would surely be to encourage fans to buy more of our singles. A good point if I ever heard one, but it was a time when sense and sensibility really went out the window.
The 1980s were a time of rapid change. More parents were at work, which meant more children were in daycare. This was aided by initial economic hardship, which meant parents were also spending more time away from their children. There was naturally a sense of guilt associated with this. This guilt was echoed by the ever-present evangelical side of religious America, which amplified their approach to attacking secularization.
Culture also had its say. Censorship was waging war against the assimilation of sex, violence, and darkness into the mainstream, and artists were fighting back with irony. Those at the top were children of the 1960s, filled with liberal ideals. Bestsellers like Michelle remembers was about satanic cults, and it coincided with the rise of heavy metal, replete with its pagan imagery. We were filled with an influx of pop culture and the development of youth culture areas like MTV. We were spending more time at home with technology, looking for something interesting.
These factors collided to form a fuel focus. A spark came and lit the fire after a child abduction story made headlines. In truth, the stats show it wasn’t too remarkable. However, the widespread coverage on top of everything else created an atmosphere where more dominoes could fall. Suddenly you had a slew of false accusations also feeding into the trending story, amplifying it beyond the truth, and a ripple effect ensued. Cases of child abduction and abuse have made headlines whether true or not, putting parents on high alert.
What else did parents not understand about their child’s world and its new threats? Well, this new scary music, for starters. The music was scary by design. It was a symbol of how pop culture was developing. Heavy metal was almost an amalgam of everything that came before. David Bowie and glam rock had made the music more theatrical and performative, Black Sabbath had made it heavier, punk had made it more pointed and carefree. The result was devilish heavy metal.
The permutations of the music announced by Kiss and co gradually darkened. Some facets of the music were condemnable. Some groups harassed the public with horrible bait. However, whereas in the past these would have been sequestered away from the mainstream and dismissed as mere provocative fads destined to grow or die, conservatives blanketed the entire heavy metal scene with the blanket of condemnable Satanism. However, the problem with general terms is that when an isolated extreme event occurs, it tars everything under the wrapped duvet with the same denigrating brush.
Take, for example, the dark stories of Norway’s ultra-niche black metal scene. In truth, “The Black Circle” would only contain a few bands and a small group of people for a short time, but it would have lasting reverberations. Such a resounding incident occurred in 1991 when Per Yngve Ohlin, the leader of the group Mayhem nicknamed “Dead”, turned a shotgun on himself in a shared house and committed suicide. When discovered by Mayhem guitarist Euronymous, rather than immediately call the police, the musician inhumanely took graphic photographs (which later appeared on a bootleg sleeve for the band) and collected parts of his skull to make a necklace to distribute around the stage.
It was a world away from America and an incident so extreme that it can barely be reconciled, even among the small fraction of so-called “dark circle” members. Nonetheless, it was pointed to as evidence in an increasingly divided America that Satanism was prevalent in pop culture. So even a band like Kiss, essentially writing pop songs with the occasional obscene lyrics running through the power chord mill, got sucked into the notion that rock’s occult accents were anything but performative.
It was almost natural for reason to go out the window. If you were bombarded with stories of waves of teenage suicide, child abuse complaints, and mass kidnappings, you would find it hard to come to terms with sanity. You would panic. And amid blind hysteria, facts and logic get lost. None of this was true to any great extent, let alone the tradition that strange cults led her. And among that natural response was the need to make it interesting. Thus, the culture was dragged into the court of the clowns, and heavy metal’s inscrutable appeal to adults was indicative of a sinking America.
The bizarre consequence was that Gene Simmons not only mutilated a cow, but actually grafted a bovine tongue into its bestial mouth. Judas Priest was telling his own cash cow to kill himself, and Ozzy Osbourne, well, he was really biting off bats’ heads. The whole thing may sound totally incredulous (because it is!). Yet the evolution of pop culture and the failure to rationalize extreme events as isolated incidents in the face of media bombardment has meant that some very wild things have been believed and entered cultural discourse forever.
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