Every generation gets the witch hunt it doesn’t deserve. Misplaced fear, and cruelly applied judgment and retribution are, frustratingly, a theme that somehow reoccurs throughout history when dogmatic institutions go up against children/citizens who disobey their parents/clerical leadership. We learn about the Salem witch trials in school as a cautionary tale about how mass hysteria and persecution can lead to atrocities that go unquestioned. But that’s really only scratching the surface of a long history of events through history that have led to the executions of tens of thousands of people. The trials and deaths of victims of a German witch hunt are documented in a 1563 pamphlet titled “True and Horrifying Deeds of 63 Witches.” An increase in witch burnings in Denmark followed the Protestant reformation in the 1500s. In England in the 1600s, Matthew Hopkins held the office of Witchfinder General, responsible for sentencing more people to being hanged for witchcraft than at any point in the prior 100 years. And King James VI of Scotland published a manual on witches titled “Daemonologie,” which infamously featured the line “Experience daily proves how loath they are to confess without torture.” Wonder why that is.
Then there was the Satanic Panic. In the ’80s, the same kind of judgmental paranoia in Salem that sent 19 women to be hanged and one man to be crushed by stones, saw Americans grow increasingly paranoid about the influence of Satanic cults creep into their humble suburban communities. The era reached peak puritanism and sensationalism as the rise of evangelical Christianity converged with a sequence of “ritualistic” murder sprees, like that of the Zodiac Killer, who wrote taunting letters in cipher, and the Alphabet murders. Serial killers had put the country on edge, and an increasingly media savvy moral brigade along with TV hosts like Geraldo Rivera had spun these horrors into something much more outlandish. The beliefs in literal demons from religious zealots on popular platforms led to widespread accusations of child abuse from supposed “Satanic cults.” None were ever found, and children were often coerced by unethical, unlicensed therapists to tell stories about how they were abused within those cults. Which, as it turned out, never happened. Perhaps nobody was stoned to death, but people’s lives were still ruined.
The problem is that Satan—lord and master of witches and teenage drug cults, or something along those lines—isn’t a person or an all-consuming force. Satan isn’t a supernatural monster or guardian of a lake of fire. Satan is a metaphor for temptation and free will. But that didn’t stop a righteous brigade from finding an enemy in anything that seemed the slightest bit heretical—like, for instance, the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons and popular music. Heavy metal in particular was singled out for being an untoward influence during the Satanic Panic in part because of metal’s fascination with occult imagery, and in part because of incidents like the murder of teenager Gary Lauwers in Northport, New York by his friend Ricky Kasso, a fan of bands like Judas Priest and Black Sabbath. The sight of a pentagram or a hooded figure, alone, on an album cover might have been enough to give a particularly conservative parent pause, but when murderers started to big up metal bands, that’s when things got especially ridiculous.
In 1985, Tipper Gore and a council of “Washington Wives” founded the Parents Music Resource Center, a committee intended to help parents better police what their kids’ listened to. Among their accomplishments during their decade or so of existence was a list they dubbed the “Filthy Fifteen,” comprising 15 contemporary songs they found particularly offensive. The vast majority of them were singled out for being overtly sexual, like Prince’s “Darling Nikki,” while some were about getting wasted and, in the case of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” promoting “violence.” The minority culprits were those with “occult” themes, probably because there are far more songs about sex than there are about Satan—bands who write songs about Satan also write songs about sex, but the reverse isn’t necessarily true. One of them, ironically enough, was about witches: Mercyful Fate’s “Into the Coven.”
To call Mercyful Fate theatrical is an understatement. The band’s whole persona was built around the outsize personality of King Diamond, a corpse-painted master of ceremonies with a falsetto that could shatter the Crystal Cathedral. He’s a world-class entertainer—seeing him at Psycho Las Vegas in 2017 made me realize just how much of his shows are proper shows. There are storylines, characters, effects and props. It’s almost more like theater than a rock show, but it’s all scored to heavy metal.
Maybe none of this was all that obvious to Tipper Gore or nervous parents in the 1980s, but in hindsight it’s remarkable to think that a flamboyant showman like King Diamond—who sang quite often about Satan, I should note—was going to turn their children into devil-worshipping criminals. But to be fair, “Into the Coven” is essentially an instruction manual for how to join a witches’ coven. “Howl like a wolf/And a witch will open the door,” King Diamond sings. “Undress until you’re naked/And put on a white coat/Take this white cross and go to the middle of the ring.” The instructions are simple yet specific, almost as if he’s going to ask you to fill out some forms and have your form of payment ready to swipe. Standard, boiler-plate coven initiation, it’ll only take about 20 minutes or so. You’ll receive your membership in the mail in 4-6 weeks.
In the mid-’80s, bands like Mercyful Fate certainly pushed the limits of what mainstream popular culture would accept, even if bands pole-vaulted over that line in the next decade (the Norwegian black metal scene? Hot mess!). King Diamond’s ghoulish visage was probably pretty far outside what a lot of Americans considered good taste, but hindsight gives us a lot more perspective. Mercyful Fate is pure escapism, and “Into the Coven” is heavy metal at its most fun. Big riffs, exaggerated lyrical content and a theatrical presentation. Even King Diamond himself has chalked up his interest in “Satanism” to being a complete disinterest in the regressive politics of organized religion. Which is probably true of most “Satanists.”
But Satan is an effective symbol insofar as it freaks out the squares, and what heavy metal has taught us over the years is that sometimes the most extreme imagery you can muster is actually the best form of marketing. From a teenager’s perspective, anything rebellious that makes your parents nervous has to be good. And from King Diamond’s perspective, his music wasn’t any different than the horror films of a director like John Carpenter: “People don’t like our lyrics because it says Satan on it, but they go and watch Halloween, so why don’t they just accept our lyrics? … Just take it as horror stories, that’s all.”
The acts of violence that helped whip this fear campaign into a frenzy were real, and there’s no question that ordinary people commit horrific acts. But by attributing those acts to some invisible being with the powers of a deity who can’t actually be held accountable for those actions, it only trivializes very real tragedies. And rock ‘n’ roll had nothing to do with it.
Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson laid this out in a comic strip in a way that ostensibly responsible grown-ups who should know the difference between real life and fantasy somehow couldn’t wrap their heads around. After Calvin asks to buy an album by a Satan-worshipping heavy metal band, his mother responds by saying, “The fact that these bands haven’t killed themselves in ritual sacrifice shows that they’re just in it for the money like everyone else.” Mercyful Fate’s shock rock wasn’t even necessarily a wholly novel idea by 1985—Alice Cooper gave himself an execution at the end of every show in the ’70s! But they did find a new way to package evil and menace, and if metal’s good at anything—and it’s good at a lot of things!—it’s redefining what it means to be “extreme.” Mercyful Fate left a big impact on heavy metal, including at least two essential albums of soaring occult anthems and operatic vocal performances. But being singled out by a government committee for being more evil than everyone else? That’s as metal as it gets.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.