‘Sympathy for the Devil': Satanism, Music and Moral Panics in America (Part 2 - 1970s)
Late twentieth-century America saw a widespread moral panic surrounding the alleged rising threat of occultist behaviour. Due to the satanic components present in growing forms of popular culture, specifically rock and heavy metal music, American society was whipped into a frenzy, adamant that the morally corrupting music was inviting the devil into the lives of their children. Using Stanley Cohen’s model of moral panic as presented in Folk Devils and Moral Panics, this article will examine the folk devils and moral entrepreneurs of the satanic panic over rock and heavy metal music, continuing from my previous article by focussing on the 1970s.
It was the horrendous crimes of Charles Manson and his followers in 1969 that brought an abrupt end to the harmonious ‘summer of love’ of the 1960s and ushered in a decade of fear and paranoia. This second chapter will investigate how the moral panic over rock and heavy metal music really began to gain momentum in the 1970s, where heavy metal music evolved to be its own genre from rock music and bands began to fully embrace satanic imagery as a form of reactive deviance to moral entrepreneurs. This music evolution ran parallel to the increasing cases of ritual killings and cultist behaviour that began to preoccupy the mainstream media, as well as the rise of moral entrepreneurs in the form of the Christian right, who began to form a consensus that something should be done about the folk devils.
In the late 1960s Charles Manson formed a cult in California that became known as the Manson Family, and under the influence of both Manson and a plethora of psychedelic drugs the group committed nine murders in the summer of 1969. Among those murdered were Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, and the famous actress Sharon Tate. The Manson trials dominated the news during the 1970s, and during the People v. Manson appeal proceedings in 1976 it was noted that “Healter (sic) Skelter” was written in one of his victim’s blood on the refrigerator door. ‘Helter Skelter’, a hit song by the Beatles, was supposedly the inspiration behind Manson’s actions and the apocalyptic race war he named after it. Vincent Bugliosi, the lead prosecutor of the Tate-LaBianca trial, noted how “Manson told his followers that he found complete support for his philosophy in the words of those songs”. When confronted by Bugliosi, who queried whether or not Manson ordered the murders, Manson replied “Bugliosi, it’s the Beatles, the music they’re putting out. They’re talking about war. These kids listen to this music and pick up the message, it’s subliminal”. Manson’s claim that music was subliminally controlling teenagers was published in Bugliosi’s best-selling book in 1974, aptly titled Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders, which would have reached a wide audience due to its morbidly captivating contents. Furthermore, Manson’s fascination with the Beatles was widely reported in the press, with the Reno Gazette-Journal and the Orlando Evening Star both publishing identical articles that claimed Manson “played Beatles records obsessively” and commented that the song ‘Helter Skelter’ “referred to a black-white revolution”. The Pensacola News Journal further published Bugliosi’s comments on the trial proceedings, where he claimed that the Beatles’ song was the “inspiration” behind Manson’s motives. Each of these broadsheet newspapers have left-centre editorial stances, which demonstrates that conservative newspapers were not alone in generating public concern. Despite not blatantly blaming the Beatles for the actions of Charles Manson, commenting on the connection and alluding to its presence would have contributed to the panic, albeit in a more contained fashion.
The main connections that the media drew between Manson and religion were to Satanism, despite him not being a member of The Church of Satan. In fact, Manson acted as the reincarnation of Jesus to his followers and practiced ideas of scientology. Nevertheless, press corporations continually distanced Manson from his self-imposed ‘God-like’ persona and began to affiliate him with Satan. The Manson Family were referred to as “Satan’s Slaves” in New York’s left leaning newspaper the Daily News, as well as a “pseudo-religious group of naked hippies” and an “occult nomadic group”. These quotes demonstrate how the press denounced the hippy counterculture and metamorphose what had been a free love movement into a murderous, drug-induced rampage. Manson began to embrace his alleged Satanism when he appeared in court in 1971 with a shaved head, exclaiming “I am the devil and the devil always has a bald head”. These actions show that Manson transitioned from portraying himself as a holy being to his followers to embodying the devil to the media and wider world. This reaction synchronises with Cohen’s analysis of a moral panic; Charles Manson became the folk devil that he was being portrayed as in the press. Whilst journalists were not wrong in condemning a deranged cult leader and killer, their allegations of satanic behaviour and the stark connection drawn between crime and rock music solidified the panic over musicians in the public’s imagination. It further provided moral entrepreneurs with the evidence they desired to prove that rock music had a satanic influence, despite Manson twisting and misinterpreting the lyrics to fit his own sadistic designs. However, it was the emerging subgenre of heavy metal music that solidified the connection between music and the occult, and the fears of moral entrepreneurs became fully realised.
The work of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Black Sabbath propelled the new heavy metal genre forwards in the late 1960s, and in the 1970s bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest “removed most of the blues influence of the genre, codifying a set of basic metal characteristics” which included “distorted guitars, aggressive vocals, denim, leather and spikes”. Fans of heavy metal were seen to be a counterculture in their own right, with avid listeners typically being adolescent, white males who shared common traits “such as mode of dress, family background, attitudes, shared symbols and slang, as well as taste in music”. Robert Gross argues that the counterculture that the genre generated is reminiscent of Willa Appel’s definition of a cult, which he describes as “a group of people who share a common vision of the world […] by their very nature, cults alienate ordinary citizens, for they defy the existing social order”. This is because heavy metal musicians wrote lyrics that were relevant to the lives of their teenage fans, addressing themes of anger and alienation that youths were more able to relate to than adults. It must be noted that unlike the Mods and Rockers in Cohen’s research, heavy metal fans were not a distinct ‘gang’ that stirred up trouble or caused outrage over deviant actions. Instead, individual fans were perceived to be deviant based purely on the genre of music they enjoyed due to its allusions to the occult.
It was heavy metal’s allusions to Satan and the occult that cemented the genre as a cause for concern for moral entrepreneurs. Many musicians were targeted by the media for their ‘allegiance’ to Satan due to their morbid aesthetics, including pioneers of heavy metal Black Sabbath. Black Sabbath’s 1970 album release Paranoid sold around four million copies in the U.S. and reached number twelve in the American music charts by 1971, illustrating they were a popular band that many could recognise. With their horror-inspired lyrics and morbid aesthetic Black Sabbath appeared to be the poster boys for Satanism; for example, the first song from their debut album Black Sabbath opens with the sound of funeral bells and thunder striking, before the lead singer Ozzy Osbourne exclaims “What is this that stands before me? Figure in black that points at me […] Satan’s sitting there, he’s smiling”. The macabre iconography that the band utilised were initially used to create a dark and gloomy atmosphere in their music, but the band were quickly denounced as being satanic worshipers. Their notoriety even led to a group of students from King City Christian School destroying their albums, as a way to “[drive] out the devil’s influence on youth”, which was widely reported in the press. The fact that their albums were released at the same time as the Manson murders and trials may have further influenced their perceived satanic image, as the Manson case represented a convergence of counterculture fear, Satan and music.
However, two of the most common symbols that Black Sabbath employed were the peace sign and the Christian cross. Ozzy Osbourne was quoted saying “the press and the people who buy our records have made us into something we are not […] we just play what we feel at the time”. This comment demonstrates how significant the media were in exaggerating anxieties; in reality, many of the bands that were supposedly satanic did not believe in their own content. Just as Neil Forsyth argues that the devil was not the embodiment of evil but a “a character in a narrative” used by Christians, heavy metal musicians like Black Sabbath were playing a role and adopted occultism into their image because it was “good for business, not because it was something they took seriously as theological reality”. In order to remain relevant, musicians had to become more outrageous than those preceding them; they were following the controversial ‘trend’ of occultism, as “controversy sold and the devil was paying for it”. Ozzy Osbourne biting the head off a bat during one of his live performances is an example of the controversial acts musicians committed. This both compliments and contests Cohen’s theorisations on moral panics; the controversies that surrounded heavy metal musicians were indeed “social reactions to perceived deviance”, and musicians were reactively deviant to the label of folk devil that had been placed upon them by moral entrepreneurs. However; the commercial aspects of a moral panic were not noted in Cohen’s theorisations; not all folk devils acted in a deviant way because they had been labelled so, but some purposefully feigned deviance and occultism because it was a marketable image that had great commercial success.
Alongside the rise of heavy metal musicians and the infamous trials of Charles Manson, the 1970s saw an increasing number of high-profile cases of serial homicide, including perpetrators such as Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer and David Berkowitz. This was concern enough for everyone to be unnerved as no one appeared to be safe; murderers targeted men, women, celebrities, and some were never caught like the Zodiac Killer. Such high-profile cases took over the mainstream media, and because police officials did not have the technological capacity to cope with the severity of the cases many of the stories ran for years. In the case of David Berkowitz, who gave himself the alias ‘Son of Sam’, detectives received suggestions from the public to aid in their investigation. One suggestion was to examine lyrics from Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’, as you can allegedly hear “help me, help me, help me, son of Sam, son of Sam” in the song, and The New York Times published an article on the connection stating that a “member of the special task force […] had studied a 1967 album by the Jimi Hendrix Experience”. This suggestion from the public may have been made due to the importance of ‘Helter Skelter’ during the Charles Manson case, which exhibits how seriously the links between music and satanic behaviour were taken by both the public and police forces. Perhaps the links between heavy metal music and Satanism provided a convenient focal point for public anxieties over serial killers and cults because there were no easy explanations to justify the horrific crimes that were occurring. As Cohen argues moral panics are more easily spread when they relate to wider societal anxieties, and instead of the 1960s fear of declining morals and countercultures these anxieties were now focused on serial killer paranoia. Whether or not this is true, moral entrepreneurs inevitably utilised the fear that was emerging to condemn ‘immoral’ and ‘satanic’ musicians as being one of society’s greatest woes in order to further their agendas.
The greatest backlash from moral entrepreneurs came from the rise of the religious Right in America, who truly solidified heavy metal’s association with Satanism. While a rock band may have borrowed elements of occultism for their aesthetic or lyrics in order to be commercially controversial, evangelical groups and the religious right over exaggerated this affiliation to make it seem as though musicians were intentionally inviting Satan into the lives of their children. The religious right supported social conservatism, traditional values and a life free of sin, and further had great influence over politics as they were an important voting bloc of the Republican Party. This meant that their anxieties were not seen to be exaggerated, and their opinions on the moral degradation of rock music were taken seriously by governmental officials, as will be demonstrated by the Parents Music Resource Centre congressional hearing that will be analysed in the next chapter. Furthermore, during the early 1970s the communication networks between religious groups saw a vast expansion, with the number of Christian bookstores rapidly growing alongside the sale of books written by religious and political leaders. Moral entrepreneurs had varying opinions on rock music with the vast majority condemning every aspect of it. Not every claim was taken seriously in the press; for example, in 1975 the Reverend Charles Boykin claimed that “of 1,000 girls who became pregnant out of wedlock, 984 committed fornication while rock music was being played”. When questioned about his sources for the statistic, Boykin answered that “he couldn’t exactly remember where they’d come from, he’d have to look through his files”. His comments were widely reported in the press, alongside the movement he led that “contributed to the burning of more than $7,000 worth of rock ‘n’ roll records”. Reporters of the events were aware that Boykin had not fact checked his claims, and almost made fun of his remarks within the articles. Nevertheless, while some exaggerated allegations were chastised, many more claims made by evangelicals were taken seriously.
Prominent evangelist Bob Larson published a plethora of anti-rock material in the 1970s and travelled around America to lecture his ideals. He argues that heavy metal and rock music contained “cheap theatricalism and blatant sexual exhibitionism”, and that they were “purveyors of pornography”. It is interesting to note how moral entrepreneurs always linked occultism to sex and drug use, which demonstrates their wider anxieties of total moral corruption. Florida Today, a newspaper from a largely conservative state, published an article advertising Larson’s upcoming lecture in the state which quoted Minister Jim Goodroe’s opinion that “this geographical area is saturated with occult activity…he is coming because of the addiction of young people in this area to rock music, even young church people”. In Larson’s 1971 book Rock & The Church, he argues that even rock music performed by Christian artists was a sin, as “when used excessively, under proper circumstances, the beat of rock is a force accommodating demonic possession and therefore is not worth of a vehicle to communicate the Gospel”. Evangelists like Bob Larson had multiple platforms to convey their messages, as the establishment of Christian radio and television stations in the 1970s gave “fundamentalist, evangelical and Pentecostal preachers access to wider audiences”. This technological expansion meant that the satanic panic was more easily spread, as it could be directly broadcast into the homes of Americans nationwide. Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians began to consolidate in the late 1970s to form groups of moral entrepreneurs with great influence in the political sphere. John Brackett argues that they were attempting to “reverse the liberal tendencies that had shaped American politics since the 1960s”, so by forming political action committees they were able to lobby together and “mobilize voters and support like-minded political candidates”. An example of a group from the New Christian Right is the Moral Majority, which was formed by Jerry Falwell in 1979. The Moral Majority would end up becoming a strong advocate for conservative presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, and the group played a significant role in his presidential election in 1981. I believe that the merging of moral entrepreneurs represents the ‘consensus’ stage of Cohen’s theory of moral panics, where religious groups feared that “the beliefs or action being denounced were not insulated entities, but integral parts of society”.
Alongside the propaganda that evangelists produced, an anti-cult movement began to form in the late 1970s after the events of the Jonestown Massacre in 1978, which led to the deaths of nine hundred people who were part of the People’s Temple cult. Sociologist Eileen Barker argues that the events of Jonestown brought fears of brainwashing to the foreground, with the “consequent arguments for the necessity of deprogramming” being heard “with considerably more sympathy than had previously been the case”. The Jonestown massacre “suggested the real and objective dangers of cult activity” in America according to Philip Jenkins and Daniel Maier-Katkin, with religious groups believing that mystical movements like the Church of Satan were “the devil’s Trojan Horse in the subversion of America, a means to introduce the gullible young to anti-Christian concepts and practices”. Furthermore, Jenkins and Maier-Katkin’s research explores how moral entrepreneurs exploited the same few cases of cult and occultist crime, like the Charles Manson murders and Jonestown Massacre, in order to convince the public that Satan was brainwashing their children into his submission. This resurrection of stories in the media compliments Cohen’s analysis of moral panics, where stories were “presented as new to justify their creation as news”. Furthermore, the introduction of brainwashing theory into the moral entrepreneur agenda is of the upmost importance as fears over the brainwashing intentions of musicians led to evangelists claiming that rock songs had been backward masked to conceal satanic messages in the 1980s, which will be explored fully in the next chapter.
It was the convergence of the rising influence of the Christian right, increasing fears over cults and serial killers and the emergence of a controversial genre of music that ultimately led to the explosion of satanic panic that was about to occur. In terms of Cohen’s model of moral panic, the 1970s demonstrate how the moral panic had moved into its middle stages, whereby heavy metal musicians were met with hostility, alienated from the social ‘norm’ and reacted to the hostility by becoming even more controversial because it was commercially successful. Additionally, moral entrepreneurs indeed came to a consensus that something should be done about the folk devils, as demonstrated by the increasing activities of evangelical anti-rock ministers. As the title of Black Sabbath’s album states, society in the 1970s indeed became ‘paranoid’, and the moral panic would reach its final stages in the next decade.
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