by Courtney Jerk
People see all kinds of things in everyday objects – Elvis in an especially lumpy potato, the face of Jesus in a Pizza Hut billboard, the Virgin Mary in a cloud of condensation. Seeing these images all depends on a person’s sense of perception and on their reasoning. In the case of the Jesus face in the Pizza Hut billboard, several dozen motorists reported seeing the savior’s likeness, but were they only seeing it because they were looking for it? Was God really sending a message to all these people, as one person claimed, or was it all a matter of seeing something that they thought they were supposed to see? Often, one’s faulty reasoning can have devastating circumstances. Personal perception, internal reasoning, and the subject of interpretation all came into question when two Nevada boys, James Vance (20) and Ray Belknap (18) attempted suicide in the winter of 1985. Belknap died instantly of gunshot wound, while Vance, the less fortunate of the two, lingered on in disfigurement afterward, dying some three years later due to drug complications that occurred during a surgery.
Vance and Belknap’s parents claimed that subliminal messages in the heavy metal music of Judas Priest, which the boys listened to avidly, drove them to form a suicide pact, ultimately leading to their deaths. A suit was filed against the band, CBS Inc (who distributed the record), and Betagrange Ltd, a company associated with production of the album. The case went to trial in the summer of 1990. This was unusual, as most First Amendment court cases never make it to trial.
The defendants were suing for “product liability,” which basically means that an allegedly defective product was put on the market, causing harm. Food additives, mechanical defects, and environmental toxins have all been alleged culprits in product liability lawsuits in the past two decades.
The defendants denied having any knowledge whatsoever of subliminal messages on the record in question, “Stained Class.” They also denied having engaged in any sort of tricks or “mischief” during recording that would lead to hidden messages being put on the record. The defense attempted to argue that any speech, including subliminal speech, is protected under the First Amendment. This argument was unsuccessful, as Justice Jerry Carr Whitehead ruled in a pretrial motion that subliminal speech does not deserve First Amendment protection because it does not perform any of the functions that free speech accomplishes. Since a person is not aware of a subliminal message, the message does not contribute to the pursuit of truth, dialogue, ideas, or personal autonomy. Since there is no information exchange, and the person is unaware of the message, there is no free speech argument. Furthermore, the judge added that people have a right to be free from unwanted speech, and since subliminal messages are unavoidable, they constitute an invasion of privacy. Because of all of these reasons, the subliminals were not awarded First Amendment protection.
On the night of December 23, 1985 Belknap and Vance drank beer, smoked marijuana, and listened to Judas Priest’s “Stained Class” LP for five hours in Belknap’s room. They formed a suicide pact, then trashed the room, destroying belongings and tearing at the walls; the only thing left untouched was the turntable. When Vance’s mother knocked on the door, the boys jumped out the window and headed to a nearby playground. Seated on a merry-go-round, Belknap put a sawed-off shotgun under his chin and pulled the trigger, killing himself instantly. Vance then blew away most of his jaw, mouth and nose, but survived. In the ensuing years after the tragedy, Vance would often ride his bicycle around town, to purposely shock people with his grotesque disfigurement.
Shortly after the incident, Vance wrote a letter to Belknap’s mother, in which he stated: “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.’” He lived for three more years, undergoing several operations and fathering a child before his death on Thanksgiving Day, 1988, from a reaction to his medicine and complications from numerous surgeries.
Attorney Vivian Lynch, representing the plaintiffs, said “This was not a suicide. This was an adventure; a journey to a better place. What they planned was good, because Judas Priest said it was good.”
Four months after the incident, Belknap’s mother went to attorneys with the letter that James Vance wrote. Attorneys Ken McKenna and Tim Post began the process of examining the lyrics, album cover, and music on “Stained Class” for suicidal messages. They found references to blood, killing, and implied suicide in the lyrics, but no outright directives. These were embedded in the music and on the album cover, they said. The album cover, a picture of a head with a projectile moving through it, contained images of male genitalia and the word “kill,” according to the attorneys. The album was played backwards by a musical engineer, who discovered the phrases “Sing my evil spirit” and “Fuck the Lord.”
McKenna claimed that the album, particularly the song “Better By You, Better Than Me” (a Gary Wright/Spooky Tooth cover), contained the subliminal phrases “Let’s Be Dead,” “Do It,” and “Try Suicide.” McKenna stated, “Once you see and hear the subliminals, they’re unmistakable.”
The main focus was on the phrase “Do It.” By itself, this phrase holds little meaning, unless one is aware of what it is that “it” is referring. The “it” could not have been anything that was audible on the album, or visible on the album cover, because those materials are protected by The First Amendment. This put the plaintiffs in a difficult position; not to mention the fact that they would also have to acknowledge that the boys were suicidal to begin with, and the phrase triggered a suicidal impulse.
Vivian Lynch said that Judas Priest’s records talked of violence, destruction, and antisocial behavior. She said that the band “does not advocate this as a way of life. They are not soldiers in the army of Satan.” She claimed that the hidden messages are there to create excitement “as a way of making money.” This led to an accusation of “irresponsible greed” on the band’s part for “embedding these messages” in the records. Lynch also told Judge Whitehead that Judas Priest were “meddling in the mysteries of the human mind.” The two boys were part of a culture that took the words of the band as “scripture,” and the hidden messages “pushed them over the edge.”
Rob Halford, an original member of Judas Priest, said that the allegations were “completely false and untrue.” An examination of the original 24 track recording turned up no subliminals on any one track. So if anything resembling the phrase “Do It” was heard, it was most likely just a blend of sounds from separate tracks.
Both of the boys led troubled lives, and had difficult childhoods. James Vance had run away from home 13 times in the two years before his attempted suicide. He was an only child, and had no contact with his biological father; only his adoptive father, who was a recovering alcoholic. James’ mother admitted that she had hit her son too often when he was young. In turn, James tried to choke his mother when he was 8, and once pointed a loaded gun at her head and threatened to shoot her. His grade school suggested that both he and his mother receive counseling, because James was tying belts tightly around his head and pulling his hair out. The year of the shooting, James had been admitted to a drug and alcohol addiction center, where he said that he used LSD, PCP, cocaine, speed, heroin, marijuana, and barbituates. Despite all of this, the Vances still feel that music was the cause of their son’s death. “He would quote lyrics just as if they were Scripture” said Phyllis Vance. She had thrown away his heavy metal music on several occasions because he would become too violent upon listening.
Like James Vance, Ray Belknap also led a difficult life. He had three stepfathers, the third of which abused him. He was on probation, and under investigation for animal torture after shooting with neighbor’s animals with a dart gun. Both of the young men were high school dropouts, and were fascinated with guns. Belknap had attempted suicide before, and had given some of his Christmas presents out early. Suellen Fulstone, attorney for Judas Priest and CBS, said that the day of the shooting, Belknap was depressed because he had just lost his job. Just before he shot himself, Belknap said “life sucks.” She argued that there was no suicide pact; that Vance didn’t take the oath that the two made earlier seriously. When Belknap shot himself, Fulstone claimed that Vance panicked and shot himself, out of fear that police would charge him with homicide.
“Ray Belknap and James Vance had sad and miserable lives,” Fulstone said. “They turned to drugs and alcohol, which only made their lives worse. In their anger and frustration they had fantasies of killing other people. On Dec. 23, Ray Belknap turned that anger onto himself.”
Expert witnesses were called in for the familles, including a man named Wilson Key, who quite possibly undermined his own credibility in court with the fact that he has found subliminal messages in Ritz crackers, five dollar bills, the Sistine Chapel, Sears catalogues, and the NBC evening news. He also asserted that “science is pretty much what you can get away with at any point in time.”
Howard Shevrin was possibly the most influential person to testify for the plaintiffs; a man who had conducted extensive research on subliminal messages for over twenty years, and had many of his articles published in books and journals. Shevrin stated that subliminal messages are especially potent, because the recipient is unaware of the source, and therefore attributes the directive to his or her own inner motivational state. In other words, when a person consciously hears a command, that person can either comply, or ignore the command as they see fit. But if the command is subliminal, there is a chance that it will become part of our ongoing stream of motives and inner prompting, therefore adding an increment to any current feeling or predisposition, such as suicide. The fault in this argument is that by this thinking, a suicidal impulse requires a trigger, which does not coincide with research conducted on adolescent suicide. Shevrin failed to provide any research that supported his argument, but was persuasive nonetheless. As it stands today, there is no, nor has there ever been, reliable empirical evidence that subliminal stimulation can cause anything other than brief and inconsequential stimulation.
Mrs. Rusk, the guidance counselor at Vance’s school, also testified for the plaintiffs. In the spring of 1986, Vance was questioned by Mrs. Rusk about the shootings. Mrs. Rusk said that Vance told her: “We got a message. It told us just Do It…It was giving us the message to just Do It.” This means that Vance was aware of the presence of the statement on the album. Shevrin had said that the statement was influential because it was subliminal; since the boys were supposedly unaware of the message, they attributed it to their own self-motivation. This means that if the boys could hear the message, that it was not particularly influential, AND it was protected under The First Amendment. When it was suggested by the plaintiff’s lawyers to Shevrin that her testimony supported the idea that the message had been retained in the boys’ memories, he said that perhaps Mrs. Rusk had been influenced by media reports, or was having trouble remembering what Vance told her. Apparently, none of the plaintiff’s lawyers understood the logic of their own “expert’s” testimony.
Three experts were called in for the defense: Timothy Moore, a psychology professor at Glendon College; Anthony Pratkanis, a professor of social psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz; and Don Read, a cognitive psychologist from the University of Lethbridge. Both Moore and Pratkanis stated that there was no scientific evidence that subliminal messages could induce any kind of behavior, including suicide, and talked about an experiment in which subliminal self-help tapes were ineffective. The plaintiff’s lawyers tried to argue that scientific findings were not enduring; what is known today might be abandoned and replaced by a new finding tomorrow. Lastly, Don Read provided evidence of research done on the comprehension and retention of reversed speech.
The hearing took one month and on August 24, 1990, Judge Whitehead determined the verdict. He concluded that backward phrases did exist, but there was not enough evidence presented that they were caused by anything except coincidence of sound. In addition, there was not enough evidence that suggested that anything on the record could be subliminally suggestive. Whitehead stated that “the scientific research presented does not establish that subliminal stimuli, even if perceived, may precipitate conduct of this magnitude… The strongest evidence presented at the trial showed no behavioral effects other than anxiety, distress or tension.” The 6.2 million dollar lawsuit for the band’s “product liability” was rejected.
After winning the trial, Rob Halford said “it’s a great day for Judas Priest – more importantly, a great day for artists all over America.” He added, “it was important that we were there to stand up for ourselves and for our music and, to some extent, for the values of the American Constitution, which is rather ironic considering it was four Englishmen.”
Rob Halford said later that those who blame the boys’ suicides on a rock song overlook the real causes of the tragedy: “These two young men lost their lives because of their tragic involvement in drugs and alcohol and dysfunctional family units in which they weren’t given proper care, attention or guidance. I’m not making light of a tragic situation, but this trial was just an attempt to shift the burden of guilt to someone else’s shoulders.” Though the victims led troubled lives, said Halford, “We gave them a great deal of pleasure with our music.”