Rock ‘n’ Reverse: Skeptical Lessons from the Backward Masking Scare

“Just ‘cause you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there.”
~ Radiohead, “There There”


In the campy 1986 horror film Trick or Treat, directed by Michael Martin Smith and written by Rhet Topham, a devil-worshiping rock star named Sammi Curr meets an untimely death in a mysterious hotel fire. His biggest fan, a high school student with no friends and an obsession with heavy metal music, finds consolation in being the sole recipient of the only copy of Curr’s final, hitherto unreleased album. He is shocked to discover that he can communicate directly with the spirit of the deceased rock star when the acetate disc is rotated backward and played in reverse. He soon learns he can use this otherworldly communication to his advantage, calling on the diabolical power of Sammi Curr to torment and terrorize the bullies who victimize him on a daily basis.

For many fundamentalist Christians in the 1980s and 1990s, the movie Trick or Treat may as well have been a documentary. To them, rock albums are not just harmful to young people when played normally on listening devices. According to the moral crusaders against popular culture, rock albums contain sinister hidden messages discernible only when they are played in reverse. “Backward masking,” a perceived phenomenon which, beginning in the 1980s, captured the imagination of rebellious youth and anti-rock evangelists alike, is the process of playing music records in reverse to find the hidden subliminal messages hiding in the grooves.

The scare began in earnest early in 1982 when a fire-and-brimstone televangelist named Paul Crouch devoted a segment of the January 14 broadcast of his Praise the Lord (PTL) show to a discussion of demonic messages in rock records. Crouch’s guest that day was a self-described neuroscientist named William H. Yarroll, who stated that rock stars were joining forces with organized Satanism and were “placing hidden messages on records in reverse so the subconscious mind could grasp the ‘secret’ or subliminal communications.” [1]

This claim immediately captured the collective imaginations of religious anti-rock activists. Anti-rock evangelist Jacob Aranza wrote two whole books on the subject of backward masking, calling it “a technique that rock groups are using to convey satanic and drug related messages to the subconscious.” [2] The main thesis of his 1983 book Backward Masking Unmasked is that the technique is the “missing link,” the elusive factor that directly ties rock music to the occult. “This was to become a channel for satanically infiltrating the minds of unsuspecting people!” [3]

Most of the evangelists who preached on the alleged presence of hidden messages in rock records believed the messages to be a supernatural phenomenon, not just the engineering work of devious tricksters. Jack Chick, a cartoonist and prolific propagandist for Christian fundamentalism, not only added backmasked rock music to his long and constantly-growing list of cultural and social evils to be combated, but imbued it with supernatural significance. In his Crusaders comic book “Spellbound?” Chick spins a lurid tale in which Satan’s forces recruit witches and Druids to encode rock records with subliminal spells and incantations. Only after a group of powerful witches have summoned Satan’s top demon to bless the master record was the music ready for production. The cursed records then serve as vehicles to hypnotize listeners and consign their souls to eternal damnation. [4]


A scene from Jack Chick’s comic book “Spellbound?” (The Crusaders, vol. 10)

To Chick, the premise and storyline of this comic is not fantastic fiction à la Lovecraft or Topham. He believes it to have a basis in reality. In 1985, his publishing company produced a book entitled The Devil’s Disciples: The Truth about Rock by author Jeff Godwin. A comprehensive condemnation of rock music, Devil’s Disciples purports to expose it as part of Satan’s global master plan to enslave the minds of everyone on earth. Godwin declares that “the voices we hear on these songs in reverse are actually the sounds of the demons themselves!” As proof of this, Godwin offers the following anecdotal account from a woman identified only as “Elaine,” who claimed to be a former Satanist who was personally involved in implanting her dark lord’s destructive message on music records:

Satan is real! Demons are real! . . . Like so many other things, the whole movement of Rock music was carefully planned and carried out by Satan and his servants from its very beginning. Rock music didn’t “just happen,” it was a carefully masterminded plan by none other than Satan himself. . . .

I attended special ceremonies at various recording studios throughout the U.S. for the specific purpose of placing satanic blessings on the Rock music recorded. We did incantations which placed demons on every record and tape of rock music that was sold. At times we also called up special demons who spoke on the recordings – the various backmasked messages. Also, in many of the recordings, we were ourselves recorded in the background (masked by the overall noise of the music) doing chants and incantations to summon up more demons every time one of the records or tapes is played. As the music is played, these demons are summoned into the room to afflict the person playing the music and anyone else who is listening. The purpose of all of this? Mind control[5]

Did the anti-rock crusaders promoting these claims have more sober and credible sources than Chick and “Elaine” to which they could turn for support? Many thought they had found their man in an academic named Wilson Bryan Key.

“Backward masking or metacontrast,” suggested Key, “is another technique which, though not purely subliminal, does affect both conscious and unconscious perception.” [6] Key, the late psychologist and communications theorist, was largely responsible for reintroducing into the public consciousness notions first advanced by the social critic Vance Packard in the 1950s about subliminal messages in media content, especially advertising. [7] He also testified at a 1991 trial in which a wrongful-death suit was filed against the English heavy metal band Judas Priest. Key defended the plaintiffs’ case that a subliminal backmasked message on the band’s Stained Class album had triggered the suicide of their teenage son James Vance. [8]

Key believed the word “sex,” along with various taboo four-letter words, was embedded in nearly all advertisement media and in many other places as well. The paperback cover of Signet’s 1981 reprint of Key’s 1973 book Subliminal Seduction features a photograph of an ice-filled cocktail with the caption “Are you being sexually aroused by this picture?” He claimed to have detected the image of a naked woman copulating with a dog embedded in an ice-cube emblazoned on a Sprite ad. He also thought he saw skulls, beasts, devils, and male and female genitalia hidden in Sears catalogues and on boxes of Ritz crackers, on the NBC evening news and on the Sistine Chapel.


The cover of Signet’s 1981 reprint of Wilson Bryan Key’s influential and controversial book.

Many culture warriors looked to Key’s work in their search for reputable scholarly confirmation of their irrational fears of rock music. Key asserted that the insertion of what he called “subaudibles” into rock records influenced listeners to crank the volume up in order to hear them. He said that the Oscar-winning soundtrack to the 1973 horror film The Exorcist incorporated subliminals, cleverly mixing in sounds of buzzing bees and of squealing pigs at various frequencies. [9] Of particular interest to many of the evangelistic “culture warriors” was Key’s borderline dualistic account of brain function, in which he stated,

Experiments have demonstrated that humans can receive, process, and transmit information which makes no conscious appearance at any stage of its passage through their nervous system. Indeed, the unconscious can operate quite independently from the conscious mechanism in the brain. The two perceptual systems often appear to be operating in opposition to one another. [10]

As with all arguments that lean toward a dualistic account of consciousness and its operation, Key’s account lacks both predictive and explanatory power. Key does not tell us what specific “experiments” he is referring to, and he does not explain how humans can “receive, process, and transit information” subliminally if the unconscious and conscious are indeed operating independently of each other. How is interaction between conscious and unconscious mechanisms possible in such an independence model? If Key’s followers want to say there is no interaction, they have no basis for asserting that subliminal messages in rock music, for example, have any effect on its listeners, harmful or otherwise. In order for such alleged effects to be observable and measurable, they must manifest on a conscious level. In the early 1990s, Robert D. Hicks, a criminal justice analyst for the state of Virginia, commented on the tendency of promoters of the backward masking notion to avoid such explanations:

Cult cops cite backmasking claims as factual, and proven. Interestingly, they never address the crucial questions: How does your average consumer manage to play the messages backwards on a common record player or tape recorder? Assuming the messages are there, what mechanism allows a listener to perceive them, consciously or unconsciously, when the music is played forward at the correct speed? Even assuming that a listener somehow absorbs the messages subliminally, so what? What effects do such messages have? Cult cops never bother to raise such questions, and neither do those who claim to have studied the backmasked comments . . . neither the cult cops nor their fundamentalist Christian sources will ever cite definitive scientific studies that address the crucial questions and demonstrate that such messages, if they do exist, influence people’s behavior[11]

The question of whether backmasked and/or subliminal messages have the effect ascribed to them by the anti-rock crusaders is more important than the question of whether or not such backmasked messages actually exist. In a 1985 research report, cognitive psychologists John R. Vokey and J. Don Read, both of the University of Lethbridge in Canada, show the fallacy inherent in the notion that mere presence necessarily implies effectiveness. “Is there any evidence to warrant assertions that such messages affect our behavior? Across a wide variety of tasks, we were unable to find any evidence to support such a claim.” [12]

Subliminal backward masking, even if present, does not and cannot exert any effect on human behavior. But there are several psychological and cultural factors that do impact our thought processes and influence belief formation in profound ways. In this essay, I explore three such factors that contributed to the development of the backward masking hysteria. These factors are suggestion, narrative, and agenticity.

The Role of Suggestion

The specific role played by suggestion and suggestibility in the finding of hidden satanic lyrics was carefully examined by Stephen B. Thorne and Philip Himelstein of the University of Texas at El Paso. Their findings were summarized as follows:

When large numbers of listeners report that they can indeed hear the demonic hymns, a reasonable hypothesis is that suggestion is playing an important role. There is ample experimental evidence to suggest that, when vague and unfamiliar stimuli are presented, [test subjects] are highly likely to accept suggestions, particularly when the suggestions are presented by someone with prestige or authority. [13]

Evangelist John Muncy, an outspoken anti-rock activist, had much to say about both the obvious and the subliminal in rock music. In 1984, Muncy appeared as a guest on Something Beautiful, a Christian television show broadcasting from KYFC-TV in Kansas City, to present his years of “research” on backward masking. Armed with a tape player and his collection of backwards recordings, Muncy played several songs in reverse for the host, prominent among them a song by Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) called “Eldorado.” Following is what Muncy had to say about this song in his book The Role of Rock, published five years after his appearance on the show:

Electric Light Orchestra

Forward: “Here it comes/Another lonely day/Playing their game/I’ll sail away on a voyage of no return, to see, if eternal life is meant to be.”

Backward: “He is the nasty one, Christ, you’re infernal/Though it is said/we’re dead men/Everyone that does have the mark will live.” [14]

When Muncy played his backward recording of this ELO song on Something Beautiful, the garbled rendering was very indistinct. Muncy stopped the tape and said, “Tell you what I’m gonna do: I’m gonna play this again to slow it down just a little bit more. Watch how clear these phrases come out.” He proceeded to do so, this time repeating back to the viewing audience exactly what they were supposed to be hearing as the recording played. Despite the fact that he found it necessary to engage in blatant suggestion while the recording played at a slower pace, Muncy went on to state, “Now, you got to remember, that’s playing backwards. That is remarkably clear when you take in consideration that’s backwards!” He went on to proffer an explanation:

If you had set down on a piece of paper and write out those words and read it backwards, it wouldn’t say, it wouldn’t make any sense. But it’s the way phonetically it was being pronounced. These guys just went into a recording studio and just started singing a song that’s really kind of . . . doesn’t make much sense. But when that song was played backwards, it comes out a whole different thing. [15]

This was the only “evidence” Muncy offered to support his claim that the backward message on “Eldorado” was the result of supernatural, demonic manipulation of the recording, a manipulation he claimed was orchestrated without the knowledge of the musicians and studio techs. But the fact that he has been shown relying on suggestion to build his case, spelling out to his audience what they were supposed to be hearing, undermines his whole case. In this, the backwards “Eldorado” does not stand alone as an outlier. This was demonstrated by journalist and physicist William Poundstone, who used his own studio, equipment and team of researchers to investigate 20 alleged cases of backward messages on a total of sixteen record albums. Of the “Eldorado” song rumors he writes, “Reversed, this passage [‘on a voyage of no return to see’] becomes the expected syllable salad – no one hearing it cold would describe it as anything but reversed music. Only if you listen while reading along with what you’re supposed to hear will you get anything.” [16]


A screenshot from Eric Holmberg’s documentary Hell’s Bells: The Dangers of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Reel to Real Ministries, 1989).

The Role of Narrative

It is far more plausible and likely that the alleged backward phrase “He is the nasty one, Christ, you’re infernal . . . Everyone that does have the mark will live” originated in the fertile imagination of a religious moral crusader who harbors certain distinctive theological notions. In fact, the role played by suggestion and preconception are apparent when one examines the content of the alleged backmasked messages. As obscure, esoteric, or downright nonsensical as the backmasked messages sound, they often turn out to be informed by a combination of the interpreter’s beliefs and his knowledge of some piece of trivia about the reversed song. One of the best examples of this is in the backward reading of “Hotel California,” the hit song by The Eagles. When played in reverse, the lyrics, “This could be heaven or this could be hell” supposedly turn into:

Yes, Satan, he organized his own religion. . . . It was delicious. . . . He puts it in a vat and fixes it for his son and gives it away. [17]

Anti-rock conservatives who thought they heard this message were primed to interpret the reversed Eagles song in this way because of a rumor that spread within Christian evangelical circles in the 1980s. According to the long-since-discredited conjecture, “Hotel California” referred to a building in San Francisco that Anton LaVey – organizer of the modern Satanist religion – purchased and converted into a temple for his Church of Satan. [18]

People are most vulnerable to suggestibility when the content of suggestion is linked to an enticing narrative that speaks to our fears and purports to offer an explanation. This is well illustrated in the case of the hidden message allegedly contained on the Beatles’ eponymously-titled 1968 record, popularly referred to as the White Album. When the song “Revolution 9” is played normally, we hear the words “Number nine, number nine, number nine” chanted over and over again. But when the song is played in reverse, backmasking theorists tell us that we hear chanted words that are entirely different from the song’s forward-moving lyrics: “Turn me on, dead man; turn me on, dead man.” [19] At the time the recording was released, Beatles fans were provoked by persistent rumors that Paul McCartney had died. These rumors led many of the band’s most devoted fans to search in earnest for any confirming clues they could find as to the details of Paul’s alleged secret demise. Thus, the “cult cops” and self-described “experts” on the occult found in the fertile imagination of Beatles fans a great opportunity to come up with an interpretation of noise which, once suggested as being implanted in the record, would catch on quickly and be readily believed by the “Paul is dead” clue-seekers. But of course, there is no evidence to suggest that the phrase “turn me on, dead man” is in fact what we are really hearing.

In just a little over a decade, backward masking evolved from a quirky urban legend about a cultural icon to a full-blown mythology that evoked the cosmic struggle between good and evil on acid. The most famous example of alleged backmasking is the one purportedly contained in Led Zeppelin’s song “Stairway to Heaven.” Played forward, the lyrics can be clearly made out: “Yes, there are two paths you can go by / But in the long run / There’s still time to change the road you’re on.” When this portion of the song was played backward, many came to believe they heard the words, “Here’s to my sweet Satan.” It was not long before devil-hunters were attempting to interpret longer passages from the reversed song. One result is the following creepy word salad:

Oh, here’s to my sweet Satan. The one whose little path would make me sad, whose power is Satan. He’ll give those with him 666. There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer. Sad Satan.

Belief in this claimed phenomenon was not limited to fringe Christianity or cult followers. The backwards interpretation of “Stairway to Heaven” attracted the attention and concern of Phil Wyman, a Republican assemblyman serving California. In May 1982, not long after Paul Crouch popularized the “my sweet Satan” reading of the song on the PTL show, Wyman proposed Assembly Bill 3741 in the California legislature. This state law would require the placing of warning labels on any records that contain discernible messages when played in reverse. He suggested the label should read, “Warning: This record contains backward masking which may be perceptible at a subliminal level when the record is played forward.” [20] Similar bills were proposed by conservative legislators in Colorado and Arkansas.

The cultural anxiety occasioned by the backward masking mythology was viewed by some anti-rock Christians as a failure to properly prioritize concern, especially in light of the conspicuous lack of evidence to indicate any psychological effects of backmasking. As Eric Holmberg comments in his anti-rock documentary Hell’s Bells, “You don’t need backmasking to pollute someone’s mind and heart. The regular frontwards music is more than enough to take care of that.” [21] But most moral crusaders found the backward masking mythology much too appealing to be discarded. Even Holmberg wasn’t willing to let the issue off the hook entirely. For he goes on to say, “The real question we need to ask here is not, ‘can a listener subconsciously hear a backmasked message?’ but instead, ‘How did it get there?’” Holmberg considers three possibilities: either the backward message is (1) intentional, (2) accidental, or (3) spiritually manufactured. Not surprisingly, he opts for the third choice.

The conspiratorial strains embedded in the “spiritual backmasking” mythology provided Christian anti-rockers with a narrative that allowed them to do more than express outrage at the content of rock lyrics. It gave them an argument that ostensibly avoided sticky issues of free speech and censorship and allowed them to pretend that they had uncovered a sinister plot that they believed should be taken seriously by anyone who values personal freedom and self-determination. In his anti-rock comic-book tract “Angels?” Jack Chick had claimed that “heavy metal has turned millions into rock-a-holics. . . . They’ve become zombies.” [22] Assemblyman Wyman echoed this sentiment when he told the press that rock music “can manipulate our behavior without our knowledge or consent and turn us into disciples of the anti-Christ.” [23]

But intentionally-engineered backmasking of messages can and has been done, and there is nothing subliminal or otherwise sneaky about them. For example, in response to allegations that Electric Light Orchestra’s album Eldorado unwittingly played host to satanic propaganda, the band’s frontman Jeff Lynne took pains to show what backmasking properly engineered really sounds like. The song “Fire on High” from ELO’s 1975 album Face the Music contains the following deliberately-placed backmasked message: “The music is reversible, but time is not. Turn back! Turn back! Turn back!” [24]

The religious prophets of backmasking tend to be far less interested in such deliberate instances of the technique, for obvious reasons. For one, most purposeful uses of backmasking responded in a tongue-in-cheek manner to the fear-mongering directed toward imagined backmessaging, and thus had a distinctly snarky edge to them. Take the song “Detour Thru Your Mind” by The B-52s. When played in reverse, Fred Schneider’s voice is clearly heard scolding the Satan-seekers: “I buried my parakeet in the backyard. No, no, you’re playing the record backward. Watch out, you might ruin your needle.” [25] The song “Nature Trail to Hell” by comedian and parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic contains the hidden backward message, “Satan eats Cheez Whiz.” [26] Even the Christian rock group Petra made a jab at the backmasking controversy. Between two songs on their 1983 album More Power to Ya, they inserted the backward phrase, “What are you lookin’ for the devil for, when you oughta be lookin’ for the Lord?” [27] This message speaks to the non sequitur inherent in the widely-held assumption that a hidden message is necessarily malevolent in nature if it’s embedded backwards.

But more importantly, positing backward messages that appear without the knowledge or effort of either the artists or music engineers implies (in the mind of the faithful, at least) supernatural manipulation by demonic forces. As Pastor Joe Schimmel tried to explain to a congregation at Tetelestai Church in his lecture “Rock ‘n’ Roll Sorcerers of the New Age Revolution,”

I’m not talking really about backwards masking; I’m talking really about backwards messages. In fact, one way to do it, which wouldn’t require demons or higher intelligences to intercede, would be just to take straight words – take seven or eight words in a song – and reverse them. . . . So when people talk about how backwards masking is done in the studio, yeah that kind of backwards masking is done in the studio. No problem. That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about when you hear music and lyrics forward, and then you hear those same lyrics backwards, and it’s a message forward, and those same words are a message backwards.

We’re talking about a song that wasn’t engineered to be heard backwards, but came right from the spirit world automatically . . . you could hear a lot of these same things on live albums backwards, because it’s demonic spirits using these human beings. [28]

Notice that while Schimmel acknowledges the fact that studio-engineered backmasking can be and has been carried out, he is seemingly unable to admit that meaningless random noise also exists. Schimmel goes on to claim that “Led Zeppelin were just four puppets. Satan could have used any four and formed Led Zeppelin. It was Satan’s music.” Schimmel is here invoking a conspiratorial narrative that attributes purpose and intent to the imaginary patterns he thinks he has discerned and of which he is deeply afraid.

Patternicity, Agenticity, and the Intentional Stance

Skeptics can provide simple, naturalistic mechanisms from psychology and neuroscience that account for why people hear what they believe they are hearing when they reverse music recordings. The backmasking phenomenon is a textbook example of what Michael Shermer calls patternicity. In February 2010, Shermer presented a short lecture for the prestigious “Technology, Entertainment, Design” series (TED) on the subject of self-deception and the human tendency to seek out patterns, whether they exist or not. “Essentially,” said Shermer, “we are pattern-seeking primates. We connect the dots: A is connected to B; B is connected to C. And sometimes A really is connected to B, and that’s called ‘association learning.’” Shermer elaborates:

I call this process “patternicity” – that is, the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise. When we do this process, we make two types of errors. A Type I error, or false positive, is believing a pattern is real when it’s not. Our second type of error is a false negative. A Type II error is not believing a pattern is real when it is. . . .

Now the problem here is that patternicities will occur whenever the cost of making a Type I error is less than the cost of making a Type II error . . . We have a pattern detection problem; that is, assessing the difference between a Type I and a Type II error is highly problematic, especially in split-second, life-and-death situations. So the default position is just believe all patterns are real – all rustles in the grass are dangerous predators and not just the wind . . . there was a natural selection for the propensity for our belief engines, our pattern-seeking brain processes, to always find meaningful patterns and infuse them with these sort of predatory or intentional agencies. [29]

During this talk, Shermer displayed a series of pictures on an overhead screen that are, at first glance, somewhat undefinable. When Shermer suggests what should be seen in the pictures, those suggested visuals become immediately discernible to the viewer. This is the same technique to which fundamentalist promoters of backmasking resort in their efforts to convince the public of the dangers of rock music. We have already covered the phenomenon of suggestibility, which turns out to be a very basic principle of pattern-seeking tendencies applies well to backward masking in music. When we are told what we are supposed to be listening for, we find it very easy to hear just that, whether the claimed effect is actually there or not. But there is more to the story.

When our minds are tricked by suggestion, we often attribute what Shermer calls agenticity to puzzling or frightening phenomena we encounter. Agenticity is “the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency . . . sometimes invisibly from the top down, instead of bottom-up causal laws and randomness that makes up much of our world.” [30] In the case of belief in backward masking, people have been prone to prematurely conclude that what they think we are hearing could not possibly be there by accident or coincidence. We all possess a tendency to erroneously attribute our collective pareidolia to what philosopher Daniel Dennett calls the “intentional stance”:

Here is how [the intentional stance] works: first you decide to treat the objects whose behavior is to be predicted as a rational agent; then you figure out what beliefs that agent ought to have, given its place in the world and its purpose. Then you figure out what desires it ought to have, on the same considerations, and finally you predict that this rational agent will act to further its goals in the light of its belief. A little practical reasoning from the chosen set of beliefs and desires will in many – but not all – instances yield a decision about what the agent ought to do; that is what you predict the agent will do. [31]

Dennett goes on to qualify his description of the intentional strategy. “The next task,” he speculates, “would seem to be distinguishing those intentional systems that really have beliefs and desires from those we may find it handy to treat as if they had beliefs and desires.” [32] The belief that secret messages with sinister and manipulative meanings lurk in the grooves of rock albums for the purpose of seducing youth to join Satan’s fold via subliminal indoctrination is an extreme example of the failure to appreciate Dennett’s distinction. It is also a clear indicator of where a person’s or group’s concern really lies. In the research report by Vokey and Read cited above, the authors conclude that “the apparent presence of backward messages in popular music is a function more of active construction on the part of the perceiver than of the existence of the messages themselves.” [33] Tom McIver, writing for Skeptical Inquirer, calls backmasking claims “the precise equivalent of Rorschach inkblot interpretations,” and concludes:

Thus in most cases the alleged subliminal messages indicate not the secret intent of a music or advertising conspiracy, but the concerns and obsessions of the interpreter: sex, death, media conspiracy, and corporate greed for Key; sex, drugs, immorality, rejection of Christ, and Satan worship for the prophets of backmasking. [34]

The list of rock songs that have been cited as containing sinister or subversive backmasked messages is very long. Among the groups and musicians routinely accused of either consciously or unwittingly embedding satanic messages backward into their music are the Bee Gees, Blue Öyster Cult, Rush, Pink Floyd, Cheap Trick, Ozzy Osbourne, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, KISS, Hall and Oates, and many others. In The Devil’s Disciples, Jeff Godwin declared, “More and more backmasked Rock abominations are being discovered every week by dedicated Christian groups and outreach ministries throughout the country. . . . What a backlog of Devil-Rock songs and albums there must be out there just waiting to be discovered!” [35] In other words, decoding hidden messages in rock records quickly ceased to be a matter of careful investigation on the part of self-styled “expert investigators.” Now it was everywhere a concerned conservative cared to look. And by the same token, it was nowhere.

The lists produced by preachers like Godwin stirred up a significant number of credulous parents, teachers and pastors to zealous action. In fits of righteous indignation, several congregations across the United States brought hundreds of rock albums to church, threw them together in large piles, and literally burned them. In doing so, the anti-rock crusaders were performing a primitive ritual to appease an invisible agent they believed was warring against the evil mastermind behind rock ‘n’ roll. It was the end result of a psychological tendency to attribute agenticity and an intentional stance to the cultural objects of their anxiety.


[1] R. Serge Denisoff, Tarnished Gold: The Record Industry Revisited (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1986), p. 408.

[2] Jacob Aranza, Backward Masking Unmasked: Backward Satanic Messages of Rock and Roll Exposed (Lafayette, LA: Huntington House, 1983), p. 1.

[3] Ibid, p. 12.

[4] Jack T. Chick, “Spellbound?” The Crusaders, vol. 10 (Ontario, CA: Chick Publications, 1978).

[5] Jeff Godwin, The Devil’s Disciples: The Truth about Rock (Chino, CA: Chick Publications, 1985), pp. 343-44.

[6] Wilson Bryan Key, Subliminal Seduction: Ad Media’s Manipulation of a Not So Innocent America (New York: New American Library, 1973), p. 34.

[7] Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders (New York: David McKay Co., 1957).

[8] Timothy E. Moore, “Scientific Consensus and Expert Testimony: Lessons from the Judas Priest Trial,” Skeptical Inquirer 20, no. 6 (November/December 1996): 32-38.

[9] Key, Subliminal Seduction, pp. 31-32.

[10] Ibid, p. 38.

[11] Robert D. Hicks, In Pursuit of Satan: The Police and the Occult (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1991), p. 305, emphasis added.

[12] John R. Vokey and J. Don Read, “Subliminal Messages: Between the Devil and the Media,” American Psychologist 40, no. 11 (November 1985): 1231.

[13] Stephen B. Thorne and Philip Himelstein, “The Role of Suggestion in the Perception of Satanic Messages in Rock-and-Roll Recordings,” Journal of Psychology 116, no. 2 (January 1984): 246.

[14] John Muncy, The Role of Rock: Harmless Entertainment or Destructive Influence? (Canton, OH: Daring Books, 1989), p. 272.

[15] John Muncy, “Backward Masking and Subliminal Messages #6” (video), YouTube, August 12 2011, (accessed October 21, 2012).

[16] William Poundstone, Big Secrets: The Uncensored Truth about All Sorts of Stuff You Are Never Supposed to Know (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1983), pp. 203-204.

[17] Tom McIver, “Backward Masking, and Other Backward Thoughts about Music,” Skeptical Inquirer 13, no. 1 (Fall 1988): 52-53.

[18] Bob Larson, Rock (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1980), ch. 6; Kenneth Stoffels, “Minister Links Rock, Sympathy for the Devil,” The Milwaukee Sentinel, September 28, 1982: 6.

[19] Aranza, Backward Masking Unmasked, p. 6.

[20] Yardena Arar, “Does Satan Lurk in the Backward Playing of Records?” St. Petersburg Independent, May 24, 1982: 3A.

[21] Eric Holmberg, Hell’s Bells: The Dangers of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Reel to Real Ministries, 1989).

[22] Jack T. Chick, “Angels?” (Jack T. Chick LLC, 1986).

[23] Quoted in Denisoff, Tarnished Gold, p. 408.

[24] R. Gary Patterson, Take a Walk on the Dark Side: Rock and Roll Myths, Legends, and Curses (New York: Fireside, 2004), pp. 173-74.

[25] Ibid, p. 174.

[26] “Weird Al – Nature Trail to Hell,” Jeff Milner’s Backmasking Collection, (accessed October 21, 2016).

[27] Paul Baker, Contemporary Christian Music: Where It Came from, What It Is, Where It’s Going (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1985), p. 177.

[28] Joe Schimmel, Rock ‘n’ Roll Sorcerers of the New Age Revolution (Fight the Good Fight Ministries, 1993).

[29] Michael Shermer, “The Pattern behind Self-Deception” (video), TED Talks, February 2010, (accessed October 21, 2016).

[30] Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths (New York: Times Books, 2011), p. 87.

[31] Daniel C. Dennett, The Intentional Stance (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987), p. 17.

[32] Ibid, p. 22.

[33] Vokey and Read, “Subliminal Messages,” p. 1231.

[34] McIver, “Backward Masking, and Other Backward Thoughts about Music,” p. 56, emphasis added.

[35] Godwin, The Devil’s Disciples, p. 152.


About Nathan Dickey

I am a freelance writer trying to finish my degree in Journalism. I attended Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon. My interests are many, and include investigative reporting, science, philosophy, history, classic rock music, and pop culture analysis. My motivation in writing is to contribute what I can to the promotion of science and skepticism among the public. My goal is to use my journalism training to be active in the skeptical and freethought movement, analyzing dubious but popularly-believed claims involving the supernatural, the paranormal and religion.
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