By K.E. Roberts / November 14, 2017
Rock and roll was maligned as an “unholy pleasure” almost from the get-go, just as dancing was decried as the “Heritage of Hell” centuries before. After John Lennon declared the Beatles “more popular than Jesus” in 1966, Christian fundamentalists immediately condemned all music that “aroused the lower instincts,” and the smear campaign would last for more than a quarter-century. The year Lennon made his unfortunate gaff, Oklahoma’s Christian Crusade released a book called Rhythm, Riots and Revolution: An Analysis of the Communist Use of Music. Written by David Noebel, an “Associate Evangelist” of the publisher’s ministry, it claimed that folk-rock was a subversive Communist plot “aimed at rendering a generation of American youth neurotic through nerve-jamming, mental deterioration, and retardation.” Many other screeds followed, including guitarist-turned-evangelist Bob Larson’s 1967 Rock & Roll: The Devil’s Diversion, where the author argues that “The Beat” is “a force accommodating demonic possession” and “world-wide moral decay.” Both Noebel and Larson, who toured and wrote several more books on the subject, paved the way for the anti-rock crusade.
In 1957, the year Elvis Presley bought the Graceland estate and released “All Shook Up,” Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, a book warning that advertisers used subliminal messages to push products, sold more than a million copies. The public, made uncomfortably wary of Communist mind-control techniques long before the Beatles arrived, now feared that it was being manipulated by its most trusted brand names (it was, but not through “depth psychology,” as was suspected). Packard cites the research (long ago debunked) of James Vicary, who flashed the messages “Drink Coca-Cola” and “Hungry? Eat Popcorn” across movie theater screens in New Jersey, claiming that sales of both subsequently increased dramatically (they didn’t).
Subliminal messages, Satan, and rock ‘n’ roll first come together in 1969. Once again, the culprits are Beatles. The band had pioneered the use of backmasking—recording a sound or series of sounds backwards on a forward-playing track—in pop music with 1966’s Revolver. These aural experiments, as well as the band’s increasingly mythic persona, partly influenced the “Paul is Dead” urban legend, which claimed that Paul McCartney had died in a 1966 car crash and was replaced by the winner of a look-alike contest. The story went viral in October 1969, when a caller into Detroit’s WKNR explained that playing the White Album‘s “Revolution Number 9” backwards revealed a clue left by the surviving band members: “Turn me on, dead man; Turn me on, dead man; Turn me on, dead man…” Fueled by rumors of the band’s imminent break up, the legend grew. The cover of Abbey Road (1969) was said to represent a funeral procession, with barefooted Paul cast as the dead man. Playing another White Album track backwards, “I’m So Tired,” seemed to seal the deal: “Paul is a dead man. Miss him. Miss him. Miss him.”
Two months before college students across America started obsessively spinning their Beatles records in reverse, the “Manson Family” cult savagely murdered five people, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate, in Tate’s Los Angeles home. The media implicated Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan (one of the murderers, Susan Atkins, had appeared in a LaVey-produced topless revue before meeting Manson), there was talk of brainwashing, and it was widely reported that cult leader Charles Manson, who ordered the killings, was inspired by the Beatles, specifically the White Album‘s “Helter Skelter,” which he believed foretold a coming race war. The Tate murders effectively ended the “love and peace and psychedelia” phase of the counterculture, and Evangelicals attacked “the devil’s beat” and its practitioners—many of whom openly invoked the occult in their songs and lives—with renewed zeal.
Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders—the all-time bestselling account of a true crime—horrified and fascinated its 1974 audience and immortalized Manson’s lunatic belief that “the Beatles were speaking to [him] through their music.” And there was a new twist. During the trial, when Bugliosi attempted to get Manson to admit ordering 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.
And again, in a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone:
The music is bringing on the revolution, the unorganized overthrow of the establishment. The Beatles know [what’s happening] in the sense that the subconscious knows.
Though concern over subliminal messaging had been displaced by deepening real-world problems by the early 1970s, the controversy was reignited by journalism professor Wilson Bryan Key, who claimed in Subliminal Seduction (1973) and a series of sequels that Madison Avenue profiteers planted hidden images of erect penises in liquor ads and cigarette packages, and that the word “sex” was literally “baked” into Ritz crackers. Supposedly, this influenced consumers on a subconscious level, though his reasoning is a McLuhanesque cocktail of pseudoscientific gibberish. Key also warned against “backward masking or metacontrast,” a “technique which, though not purely subliminal, does affect both conscious and unconscious perception.” One of his notable examples is the sound mix to 1973’s The Exorcist, which he said included “subaudibles.” (Sounds of buzzing bees and squealing pigs were, in fact, altered and blended into the final mix to increase the infernal tension.) As in the case of audio detectives trying to unravel mysteries surrounding the Fab Four, soon everyone was finding lascivious and profane images and messages surreptitiously inserted into various media.
Key’s 1976 book Media Sexploitation goes a step further, devoting an entire chapter to The Exorcist, a film he says “could indeed be threatening or even dangerous” thanks to “subliminal technology.” He argues that “There is virtually no way cognitive or consciously perceived stimuli could have produced this intensity of emotional disturbance”—reports of fainting, vomiting, and hysteria were reported by audiences nationwide. He was right in the sense that director William Friedkin did insert several quick cuts into his film of the pasty-faced, red-eyed demon Pazuzu—but, again, he did so to increase the scare factor, to represent demonic possession visually, not to purposely cause lasting psychological trauma, as Key suggests. The images are hardly subliminal, though, and the practice was hardly untried at that point: Hitchcock, for instance, superimposed a death’s head on Anthony Perkin’s archetypal sociopath Norman Bates at the end of 1960’s Psycho.
The Exorcist was an incredibly important cultural moment, and a turning point in the Satanic backmasking charade, for a number of reasons. First, the book and the film, both written by William Peter Blatty, offer a defense of Christianity against the agnosticism and materialism of a postmodern age. As such, the story is a cautionary tale: human beings are spiritually vulnerable to the influence of Satan and his minions, even when, or especially when, we no longer believe in them. “I wanted to make a statement that the grave is not the end, that there is more to life than death,” Blatty said of his opus in 2013. “[Showing] what happens in these [exorcism] cases could really be a boost to the faith,” he added. “It could show people that the spiritual world is real.” A Catholic, Blatty did not pull any punches, and his vision is a decidedly conservative one. 12-year-old Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) is possessed by an ancient demon after playing with a Ouija board, the gateway drug du jour of the occult hobbyist (until supplanted by Dungeons & Dragons a few years later). Her mother, Chris (Ellen Burstyn), is a divorced Hollywood actress, a perfect stand-in for the debauched and sold-out Baby Boomer, and she stubbornly resists religious interference until Regan’s doctor recommends an exorcism as a kind of reverse psychology. The demon is only defeated when Father Karras (Jason Miller), a fallen priest, finds God again (through experiencing the Devil) and sacrifices himself to save Regan’s soul.
Cinematically, William Friedkin’s film masterly exploits what Wilson Bryan Key underestimated: the ever-quivering puritanical soul of America. Inversion and perversion—something witches have been accused of doing to Christian symbols and rites since the early Middle Ages—play a crucial and visceral role in the film: possessed Regan talks backwards, crawls backwards (and upside down), masturbates with a crucifix, and twists her head around 360 degrees on her motionless body. After recording Regan making disturbing, incomprehensible sounds, Father Karras has the tape analyzed. When played backwards, the audio offers up perfectly understandable English—“It is warm in the body!”; “Give us time!”—convincing Karras that a demon is living inside the innocent girl. If The Exorcist lacks the subversive wit of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby—the arch-fiend of the occult horror boom—that’s sort of the point: Friedkin’s production is so brutally in your face that it’s impossible to ignore. Much like 1975’s Jaws would make a generation of beach-goers afraid to go in the water, The Exorcist made a generation of agnostics afraid of the Devil.
In short, even though Billy Graham pronounced that “the devil is in every frame of the film” (a telling remark given our subject), The Exorcist was a godsend for the emerging Christian right, and fundamentalist leaders took the shoddy science they had learned from Key, along with the public’s unrestrained terror over Friedkin’s Biblical fantasy, and applied them to their true nemesis: the ever-growing popularity of rock among kids and teenagers.
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The only extant recording we have of Michigan minister Michael Mills warning against subliminal satanic messages being delivered via backmasking comes from a 1981 Christian radio interview, but he was making the rounds before that. Mills describes teenagers as having “a literal force field around them” created by rock music and rock lyrics. He wants to give the kids “proof” that rock is evil, and the truth is “that the subconscious mind is being successfully affected by the repetition of beat and lyric… is being affected through a subliminal message… a satanic message.” He samples the songs of more than 20 bands, playing them forwards and backwards, telling his audience what to “listen for.” The headliner is Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” at the time the most-played song on rock radio. When inverted, Mills interprets the words he suspects are brainwashing kids to worship the Devil (which amounts to little more than listening to Led Zeppelin): “Listen, we’ve been there/Because I live, serve me/There’s no escapin’ it/Satan/If we gotta live for Satan/Master Satan.” The following year, after Mills and other converts took the reel-to-reel on the road, the interpretation became quite a bit more sophisticated: “Oh here’s to my sweet Satan/The one whose little path would make me sad, whose power is Satan/He will give those with him 666/There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer/Sad Satan.”
By May of 1982, a Republican Congressman in California, Phil Wyman, had proposed a law requiring that a warning label be placed on any album containing “backward masking which may be perceptible at a subliminal level when the record is played forward.” (The Parental Advisory label was placed on albums deemed “objectionable” starting in 1985.) After being tipped off by a 20-year-old woman who had seen the insidious practice demonstrated on Praise the Lord, and facing a tough reelection campaign, Wyman decided that such messages “can manipulate our behavior without our knowledge or consent and turn us into disciples of the anti-Christ.” At this point, the backmasking scare fully intersected with the larger “Satanic Panic,” which peaked in 1990, when members of Judas Priest were sued for allegedly causing two young men to attempt suicide. The cause, claimed one set of parents, was a subliminal message—“Do it”—inserted into the band’s 1978 cover of “Better By You, Better Than Me.” One of the prosecution’s key witnesses was Wilson Bryan Key. The case was eventually dismissed.
Of course, the problem was never rock ‘n’ roll backwards. The problem was rock ‘n’ roll straight up. A language that emerged from blues and gospel, rock defined itself against oppression and convention, against adult dogma and adult prejudice. The beat, however jarring to some, has no master, and that’s why tyrants have always tried to suppress it. God willing, there will always be enough young sinners to side with the Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost, who thought it “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heav’n.”