Backmasking of Songs: Psychology & Examples

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will explain the strange controversy surrounding the technique known as backmasking. The origins of this concept will be explored and the hysteria surrounding it during the 1980s will be assessed.

Backmasking: The Devil Made Me Do It

Backmasking is a recording technique in which backward or subliminal messages are recorded within a piece of music for the purposes of encoding hidden messages. During the 1980s a moral panic sprang up regarding backmasking that focused on the fear that Satanic or violent messages were being subliminally implanted in the heads of young music fans. Many people, principally in the United States, were convinced that Satanic cults were attempting to subvert American culture through the use of backmasking on rock and heavy metal records.

record player

Although there was no material evidence for the existence of such cults, large numbers of people across the United States became certain that their children's minds could be brainwashed by ulta-secret Satanic organizations through backmasking techniques. The Satanic cult conspiracy theory climaxed in the late 1980s, before being widely discredited by both academic scholars and law enforcement in the 1990s. Today, mind control through backmasking and the Satanic cult conspiracy theory is seen as one of the most bizarre contemporary legends that America has ever produced.

Origins and Precedents

In the early 20th century, many people thought it might be possible to control people's minds through external means, stimuli, or conditioning. These techniques came to be called brainwashing and were taken very seriously during World War II and the Cold War. Soviet Russia and Communist China found that it was possible to torture people into temporary submission, but never accomplishing anything like the permanent obliteration of individuality or free will. In Europe and the United States, advertising firms experimented with hidden or subliminal messages in their advertisements in the hopes of getting consumers to buy their products, but such techniques proved ineffective.

In the 1960s, the Beatles famously included several hidden messages in some of their songs, but these were intended to be little treasure chests for fans to find. On their 1966 single Rain, the line, 'On the end of Rain you hear me singing it backwards,' was included at the end of the track, audible only when played backwards. Although Charles Manson believed that the Beatles were speaking to him about a coming racial apocalypse on their record The White Album, no one really believed that this came from anywhere other than Manson's own feverish, LSD soaked imagination. During the 1970s a few other rock bands, such as Pink Floyd, sneaked in hidden or backwards messages to their music, but these were always satirical or playful. On Pink Floyd's album The Wall the message, 'Congratulations. You have just discovered the secret message,' can be found by patient fans playing the record backwards. During the 1960s and 1970s the idea of Satanic brainwashing through backmasking did not get much traction outside of paranoid fringe groups who were already convinced that rock'n'roll was the devil's music, even when played forward.

Charles Manson

Satanism, Suicide, and Heavy Metal

Conspiracy theorists like Hal Lindsey, an American Evangelist, and Jack Chick, an American Christian publisher, had been talking about the existence of secret, subversive Satanic cults since the 1960's, but it was not until the end of the 1970s that mainstream American culture started getting interested. The late 1970s were a time of political, religious, and cultural uncertainty in the United States. Horror movies like The Exorcist, The Omen, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre articulated social anxieties about the family, religion, and the generation gap. Goaded on by the activities of small, self-proclaimed Satanic organizations like The Church of Satan and the Temple of Set, many people started wondering if Satan might be active in American culture.

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