The Satanic Panic of the 1980s boasted some harrowingly serious moments that ranged from real murder and suicide to widespread bogus claims of child abuse that forever tainted the lives of the accused.
The era also had its enjoyably ludicrous side, though, as well, involving fear of Mötley Cruë records and role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons — but even that led to lawmakers in Congress holding hearings to decide whether official government censorship regulations would be the only means of protecting innocents from the occult powers of Ozzy Osbourne.
HEAVY METAL HOMICIDE
The eighties Satanic Panic is often traced back to the very dawn of the decade, with the publication of the demonic ritual-abuse memoir Michelle Remembers by Michelle Smith and Lawrence Pazder.
In terms of heavy-metal music making its way into the madness, though, it can be argued that dirtbag drug dealer turned thrill killer Ricky Kasso ignited a fuse in 1984 that exploded a year later in the form of Richard Ramirez, the Satan-espousing “Night Stalker” serial murderer.
By any reasonable stretch, they were both scary guys and, in genuinely heinous ways, provided the public with rational reasons to panic.
Seventeen-year-old Kasso, of course, was the lesser of the two in terms of total atrocities, but the savagery of the crime that made him famous is chilling.
In June 1984, LSD-pusher Kasso — who called himself the “Acid King” and vandalized local playgrounds with graffiti tributes to Black Sabbath and, as he spelled it, “Satin” —accused Gary Lauwers, also 17, of stealing drugs and money.
While gathered around a campfire with pals, Kasso said he would kill Lauwers in a Satanic ritual. He then stabbed Lauwers repeatedly, forcibly removed the teen’s eyeballs, and told him, “Say you love Satan!” Lauwers responded, “I love my mother,” and died.Police promptly arrested Kasso and, bless us all, he did look somewhat like the devil himself with fiery hair, bugged-out eyes, and an AC/DC T-shirt bearing the image of a screaming demon head. A few hours later, Kasso hanged himself in his jail cell — some initial reports, not confirmed, claimed he used that same AC/DC shirt.
Around the same time as the Kasso case broke, Richard Ramirez began a year-long terror spree of invading homes in the dead of night to murder and mutilate a multitude of victims — including, sometimes, whole families at once — in a series of grotesqueries he said were offerings to Satan.
The fact that Ramirez left a baseball cap with an AC/DC logo at a crime scene injected metal into the fear. It only intensified after Ramirez’s capture. He showed up to his trial with a pentagram carved into his hand and regularly disrupted the court by crying out, “Hail, Satan!”
AC/DC found themselves under scrutiny as a result, with venues cancelling shows. The band maintained that their song “Night Prowler,” from which Ramirez’s nickname “Night Stalker” is thought to have derived, is just about a teenager sneaking into his girlfriend’s bedroom after her parents have gone to sleep. During the Satanic Panic, even that practice was enough to raise hairs.
HEAVY METAL SUICIDE
Late at night on December 23, 1985, Judas Priest fans Raymond Belknap, 18, and James Vance, 20, went to a local playground in Nevada with a shotgun and attempted to blow their heads off. Belknap succeeded. Vance shot off most of his face and died later from complications. The young men’s parents blamed Judas Priest.
Specifically at issue was alleged an “back-masked message” on the Priest song “Better by You, Better Than Me.” The parents claimed that, when played backward, the record ordered the listener: “Do it!”
Five years later, Judas Priest had to defend itself in court against a lawsuit filed by the parents. Frontman Rob Halford sang from the witness stand. After a month, the judge dismissed the case.
Afterward, Halford said: “It tore us up emotionally hearing someone say… this is a band that creates music that kills young people. We accept that some people don’t like heavy metal, but we can’t let them convince us that it’s negative and destructive. Heavy metal is a friend that gives people great pleasure and enjoyment and helps them through hard times.”
In 1986, “Suicide Solution,” an anthem warning about the perils of alcohol (i.e. — drinking to fix your problems is a suicide solution) by Ozzy Osbourne, faced similar legal troubles.
The parents of a teenager who allegedly killed himself after listening to “Suicide Solution” filed a wrongful death suit against Osbourne, claiming that the song contains the lyric, “Why try? Get the gun and shoot.”
Osbourne and bass player Bob Daisley, who wrote the words, countered that the line is actually, “Get the flaps out” — with “flaps” being British slang for female private parts. Ozzy won the case.
HEAVY METAL VS. GERALDO
On October 25, 1988, NBC aired Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground, a live, two-hour prime-time special hosted by journalist Geraldo Rivera just before he’d go on to get his nose broken by brawling skinheads on his sensationalist afternoon talk show.
Devil Worship alleged that coast-to-coast networks of Satan-worshipping sickos were at work abducting, torturing, and kidnapping all manner of innocents in the name of their dark master. Every conceivable manner of extreme occult crime, particularly those committed against children, was presented as actively taking place all over America in stupefyingly huge numbers.
Mostly what the show offered as proof was the popularity of heavy-metal music, with Number of the Beast by Iron Maiden receiving a particularly rough going over by Rivera. The show also rolled out claims of Satanic conspiracies by noteworthy level heads such as Charles Manson and David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam” killer, as reasonable arguments.
In defense of metal, Ozzy Osbourne, via satellite, said all the devil doings were strictly show business, while face-painted Danish howler King Diamond said he was a proud Satanist and encouraged others to join his faith.
Despite the special’s extravagant portrait of a nation run rampant with Hell-praising cannibal cults and blood-drinking butchers for Beelzebub at large, no arrests resulted from the broadcast.
HEAVY METAL VS. CAPITOL HILL
For a couple of wild weeks in August 1985, headbangers overtook the United States government.
The occasion was a hearing mounted by Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a political agitation group founded by Tipper Gore and other senators’s wives, that sought to bring state power down on rock and pop music they deemed perilous to the American public.
Heavy metal, of course, came up immediately — devil horns first.
The PMRC kicked off the proceedings by presenting material it deemed most in need of legislative squelching, including Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” music video, W.A.S.P.’s “F—k Like a Beast” record cover, and lyrics by the Mentors, a shock-rock ensemble with whom precious few rock fans were familiar beforehand, but who have remained infamous ever since.
Speaking on behalf of unregulated expression were eccentric rock visionary Frank Zappa, country-folk pop star John Denver, and Twisted Sister’s own front-beast Dee Snider.
To the surprise of all, Snider spoke eloquently and with great power, ultimately steering Congress away from turning the creators of edgy music into outlaws and allow the music business to police its own materials.
That’s how “Parental Advisory – Explicit Content” stickers ended up on album jackets and tipped off kids everywhere as to which records they should buy right away — and sneak home, of course.
Main photo: Ricky Kasso, New York Post front cover, July 7, 1984