Several years ago, the rock group, Judas Priest, was sued because their records supposedly contained backward messages. Here is one of the reversals. The forward, played first, says “Beyond the Realms Of Death”. The speech reversal is clearer than the forwards and it says: I took my life.
Subliminal messages, heavy metal music and teen-age suicide.
Friday, September 29, 1989
By Candy Cooper San Francisco Examiner
Sparks, Nevada – After James Vance demolished his face with a sawed-off shotgun at a church playground, he rode his bicycle around town shocking people with his grotesque disfigurement.
Plastic surgeons had been able to restore his ability to eat and breathe, but were not able to restore his smooth, youthful face.
James’ physical deformity stunned the town, but not as much as the message he later delivered: Heavy metal music drove him and his closest friend to strike a suicide pact, one that only James survived.
“I believe that alcohol and heavy metal music, such as Judas Priest, led us or even ‘mesmerized’ us into believing that the answer to ‘life was death,'” James wrote to his best friend’s mother in 1986, quoting some of the album’s lyrics.
James, depressed and addicted to pain medications after the shooting, died last year in the psychiatric unit of the Washoe Medical Center from drugs and complications from his numerous surgeries.
His message, though, remains alive. Reno Judge Jerry Whitehead decided last month that the First Amendment’s freedom of speech guarantees can’t protect CBS Records and Judas Priest from a lawsuit filed against them by the two boys’ families. A jury should hear the case, the judge said.
The historic case revolves around the idea of subliminal messages – the projection of light or sound so quickly, or faintly that they are perceived below the level of conscious awareness. Those messages, Judge Whitehead ruled, are not protected by the First Amendment.
Expert witnesses for the families, including a man who has found subliminal messages in everything from Ritz crackers to $5 bills, have studied the music literally backwards and forward.
They contend that the words “do it, do it’ — subliminally embedded in the Judas Priest album Stained Class — and other messages that can be consciously heard only when the record is played backward, precipitated the suicide pact.
CBS and the rock group deny the claim, citing instead the boys’ own desperate lives. “I don’t think music causes you to commit suicide” says attorney Suellen Fulstone, representing CBS Records an Judas Priest. “If the circumstances of life make your outlook so hopeless, it has nothing to do with what you hear see or read.”
Phyllis and Emmit Vance don’t believe that, even though their son had a long, troubled history, according to court records.
James Vance had fled from his home 13 times in the two years before the shooting. An only child, he had no contact with his biological father and frequently tangled with his adoptive father, Emmit Vance, a recovering alcoholic.
James’ mother also conceded that she had hit her son too often when he was young. James, in turn, assaulted his mother several times and choked her when he was 8. He once pointed a loaded gun at her head and threatened to shoot her, she said.
James’ grade school once suggested that he and his mother receive psychiatric counseling because the boy was pulling his hair out and tying belts tightly around his head.
Another school psychologist later said there was a good chance that James would “respond violently to stressful situations” as he grew older, according to court records.
Admitted to a drug and alcohol addiction center the year of the shooting, James said he used LSD, speed, cocaine, heroin, PCP, barbituates and marijuana.
Despite these problems, the Vances think music destroyed their son. Emmit, a forklift operator for General Motors, read books about the negative effects of rock music. Phyllis keeps busy with jigsaw puzzles, sewing and church work.
“He would quote lyrics just as if they were Scriptures,” says Phyllis Vance, who several times threw her son’s music away because the young man was moody and violent when he listened to heavy metal.
Two days before Christmas in 1985, 20-year-old James and 18-year-old Raymond Belknap spent hours listening to heavy-metal music in Raymond’s room. They drank a twelve-pack of beer and smoked marijuana. They made a suicide pact, then went on a rampage, tearing at the room’s walls and smashing belongings.
“The only things not broken in the room were the turntable and the albums,” says Phyllis Vance.
Near dusk, the two went to the playground of a local church with Raymond’s sawed-off 12-guage shotgun. Raymond Belknap, seated on a merry-go-round, placed the end of the shotgun under his chin and pulled the trigger, killing himself. A few minutes later, James pointed the same gun at his chin and fired. Somehow, the blast missed his brain and he lived.
Four months later, Raymond Belknap’s mother went to attorneys with James Vance’s letter connecting the death pact to heavy metal music. Reno attorneys Ken McKenna and Tim Post began to examine the music, lyrics and album cover for suicidal messages. They say they found references to blood, killing and the implications of suicide in the lyrics, but no explicit directives to take one’s life. Those they claim to have found in the music and album cover’s subliminal messages.
Mr. McKenna and his experts say they have detected words like “kill” and the image of male genitals in the album cover, which is a head with a projectile moving through it. The attorney says a musical engineer played the album backward and discovered the phrases “Sing my evil spirit” and “(expletive) the Lord.”
“Once you see and hear the subliminals, they’re unmistakable,” Mr. McKenna says.
Ms. Fulstone, the rock group’s attorney, says there are no subliminal messages in the music. The so-called subliminals are nothing more than “a combination of incidental noises,” she says. Even if subliminals are present they do not cause suicide, Ms. Fulstone says.
“People write about, sing about serious subjects.” she says, “I don’t think anyone would accuse Shakespeare, Picasso or writers and artists of various kinds with the intent to harm anyone. I just don’t think art causes anti-social activity.”
The reasons for the shootings may be more easily found in the lives of the two hopeless young men already deeply marked by broken families, family violence and failure.
Raymond Belknap’s life, like James Vance’s, was hard. He had three stepfathers and was beaten by the third, according to the court records. He was on probation for stealing money and under investigation for animal torture after shooting at neighbor’s animals with a dart gun.
Both young men had dropped out of high school, drifted from job to job and had been fascinated with guns.
“They were two young men with nowhere to go, no strong relationships, no futures.” says Ms. Fulstone.
Whatever the roots of their suicide pact, the effects of a trial could be far-reaching for both sides. Ms. Fulstone believes the case already has had a “chilling effect” on free expression and could only get worse.
Worried parents have begun to phone attorney McKenna’s office with horror stories of heavy metal and violence.
Emmit Vance is waiting to retire so the couple can tour the country talking about the ill effects of music. “(President) Bush is always talking about drugs,” Emmit Vance says. “People don’t realize what an effect music has, too.”
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.
Excerpt from Reverse Speech Book:
Hidden Messages in Communication
The second case centers around the heavy metal rock group Judas Priest and their album, Stained Class. A lawsuit lodged in Reno, Nevada in 1986 initially sought unspecified damages from CBS records and Judas Priest, claiming that two youths, James Vance and Ray Belknap, were driven to shoot themselves in a suicide pact after they repeatedly listened to this album while smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol. Belknap died. Vance severely disfigured himself in the attempt and died three years later.
Lawyers for the relatives of Vance and Belknap told Nevada Judge Jerry Whitehead that the band’s music had a “hypnotic” quality and its records contained subliminal messages. They particularly focused on the words, Do it, which they claimed were subliminally inserted after key stanzas that related to suicide, and also the phrase, Fuck the Lord, which they claimed promoted an anti-Christian mentality.
The court hearing took one month and on August 24, 1990, Judge Whitehead handed down his verdict. He concluded that the backward phrases did exist, but no evidence had been put forward to suggest that they were caused by anything other than coincidence of sound. Nor was any convincing evidence put forward to suggest that they could be subliminally suggestive. The 6.2 million dollar lawsuit was rejected.
I contacted the judge before the trial began and he referred me to the respective attorneys. After deliberation, both attorneys decided not to use the research evidence compiled using Reverse Speech technologies. Neither side felt that it was beneficial to its case.
The plaintiff claimed that Judas Priest had intentionally placed reversals on the album whereas the defense claimed that reversals didn’t exist. The truth, of course, is that speech reversals did exist on the album, but they were a naturally-occurring phenomenon. Until people accept that reversals occur naturally, the debate will continue. At this writing, there are four similar cases pending that relate to backward messages in rock ‘n’ roll.
Regarding the Judas Priest album, I believe that the album’s forward lyrics tell a metaphoric tale about a fight between good and evil, the confusion that results from this struggle, and a hero’s death. Not surprisingly, the reversals tell a similar story.
The reversals could have been subliminally suggestive, given the teenagers’ state of mind at the time and a reported history of drug abuse and petty crime. I found over 72 speech reversals on this album, only two of which were quoted at the trial (see above). The attorney for the plaintiff completely overlooked the most striking reversals: God is evil. / An innocent man help us. Get out of it, get out of it. / Say, am I sexy. Give us the truth. / You silly fuck. I took my life. (A powerful complementary reversal, which occurs on the last stanza of, “Beyond the Realms of Death”). Take me out. / We died for glory. / We died sad.
It would appear that people can unconsciously hear reversed messages and, in some cases, be affected by them. I have uncovered no evidence to indicate this to be the case if the listener is not predisposed to be affected. For example, an advertisement containing reversals might influence someone who drinks to buy a particular brand of liquor, but wouldn’t necessarily influence a non-drinker to rush out and grab a bottle of that brand. Likewise, if someone were emotionally disturbed, repetitive, negative reversals might reinforce his or her state of mind.