I position myself on the front line of the skeptic wars and over the past year have engaged cryptozoolgists, dowsers, ghost hunters, mediums, Reiki practitioners, Young Earth creationists, and so on. While conspiracy theorists might occasionally test my ability to do so, I refrain from launching personal attacks.
For one thing, such attacks are at the bottom of the debate pyramid, resting even below an ad hominem, and are unworthy of someone blogging about critical thinking. Moreover, it is going to be irrelevant to the point being made and will drive off potential converts. Finally, it would be hypocritical, since I formerly believed that Nostradamus fired a shot from Roswell’s grassy knoll. I may have some of the details mixed there, but the point is that I once gulped up ideas such as ghosts, demons, the Loch Ness Monster, the Bermuda Triangle, and using red cherry bark to treat the flu. If Robert Todd Carroll, Steven Novella, and James Randi had ridiculed people like me, rather than using facts, logic, and persuasion, I would have never adapted.
One of my first forays into the skeptic movement came during a seven-year stretch in the 1980s when I viewed a series of mostly poorly-produced and reactionary videos centering on backward masking in music.
First, a critical distinction. Taking recorded music and putting it in reverse on an album has happened many times. The Beatles were the first to use it regularly. Frank Zappa employed it on a song when his record company wouldn’t let him say the lyrics forward.
The key, though, is that the sound in these cases is garbled and distorted, and it is clear that backward masking is being used. In contrast, some Protestant Evangelical preachers and broadcasters insisted that bands could make music that sounded normal, perhaps even wonderful, while implanting a sinister message that played in reverse. All record producers queried about this testified to its impossibility. Audio engineer Evan Olcott noted that the allegedly backwards messages were in fact phonetic reversals, with sung phonemes forming new combinations when played in reverse. Olcott explained, “Engineering or planning a phonetic reversal is next to impossible, and even more difficult when trying to design it with words that fit into a song.”
I have never known of an attempt to explain how the technical process would work. And only a handful of attempts were made to explicate why the backward message would matter. One of these few tries was made by Dr. Joe Stuessy during the PMRC hearings in 1985. He said, “These are heard by the subconscious but not the conscious mind. Some experts believe that while the conscious mind is absorbing the forward lyric, the subconscious is working overtime to decipher the backwards message.” He cited none of these experts, nor any evidence, nor any hypothesis for how it would work.
This was not backward masking at all, but a form of mass apophenia and pareidolia that peaked in the mid- to late-1980s. It was part of the Satanic Panic that included the McMartin Preschool injustice, Geraldo specials, and the Night Stalker trial.
Some artists responded to these accusations with witty lines spoken in reverse on their albums. Weird Al commented on how bored the backwards listener must be. An Iron Maiden track included a backward masking of an intoxicated Nicko McBrain doing an Idi Amin impersonation. A backwards message from Electric Light Orchestra announced, “The music is reversible,” in response to having been accused of the practice. Another accusation was launched at Styx, and this served as the impetus for “Kilroy Was Here.” In this concept album, an organization similar to the ones that had attacked Styx gains enough power to ban rock and roll. Some copies of the album came slapped with a sticker bearing the satirical message, “By order of the Majority for Musical Morality, this album contains secret backward messages.” In probably the most delicious irony of the backward masking hysteria, at least one anti-rock crusader took this seriously and included this “admission” in future backward masking presentations.
It wasn’t all funny, however. That same year, the Arkansas legislature voted to require warning labels on any record containing back masking. Though nothing ever came of it, owing to a veto by Gov. Bill Clinton, it took little imagination to envision an agenda-driven prosecutor convincing culturally conservative jurors that Journey needed to pay for paving children’s path to Hell. Attempts at regulation in Texas and at the federal level failed, though California’s legislature passed the only document in jurisprudence history to contain the phrase, “turn us into disciples of the Antichrist.”
One proponent of the sinister backward masking theory agreed that it was impossible to do so intentionally. But he claimed that the messages were still there, with demons controlling the guitarist’s fingers and singer’s vocal chords since them there devils is tricky like that. His evidence (apologies to Noah Webster for mangling the definition) was that all the deciphered messages were homage to Satan or at least his spawn, recreational drugs. Were the backwards messages coincidence, he opined, there would be an equal number of praises to God and nonsensical sentences. Of course, there were many such messages, using the standards of the Peters Brothers, Paul Crouch, Dave Benoit, Jacob Aranza, and many other obscure crusaders. For instance, Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” was said to have announced, “We decided to smoke marijuana.” In fact, the line is more accurately transcribed as “Wheesua arDEEEscher fff Zrv%&$*72 DENONO Jhermin jaja.” Hence, this could also be interpreted as “We love Mary and her son, Sweet Jesus,” or “What’s the optimal way for a Bulgarian to install a carburetor?”
Detecting any of these messages would require, first, that someone play it backwards for you since most people listen to music the other direction. Then you would need to have the supposed message pointed out to you. Next, you would have to be highly susceptible to suggestion, which is easier if one is a teenager or already holds a negative opinion of loud music.
If you can meet all these criteria, you may be all set. As skeptic Michael Shermer noted, “The human brain evolved with a strong pattern recognition ability that was necessary to process the large amount of noise in man’s environment. But today this ability leads to false positives.” Given this tendency to recognize patterns, it’s easy to cram satanic meaning into any sound if one is prepped for it.
Listeners may also suspend incredulity since backwards music has the distinction of being distorted and may sound a little spooky. Combine this with an “aha” moment, and the realization that Satan is in our midst, and people can freak. I may have witnessed the zenith of this hysteria when I watched a friend spin a 45 of “Oh Mickey!” in reverse. In this case, Toni Basil was deemed clean, with no detection of backward Beelzebub beatitudes.
While mostly comic fodder and a lesson in panic, there was one serious manifestation beyond the legislative attempts and PMRC hearings. Judas Priest was unsuccessfully sued over the unfounded idea that one of its songs contained a subliminal message. The trial was not precisely over backward masking since the claim was that the message was subliminal. But one cannot miss the connection between the backward masking hysteria and a heavy metal band being hauled into court for a clandestine evil.
Though associated with the 1980s, playing tunes in reverse goes so far back in antiquity that the first person to listen to it this way was the inventor or recorded music, Thomas Edison. Aleister Crowley suggested in a 1913 book that his minions “train themselves to think backwards by external means, such as by listening to phonograph records reversed.”
Of course, neither of these instances were backward masking. When the Beatles began doing it, rock DJ Russ Gibb encouraged his listeners to find messages from other artists. Fundamentalist Christians soon joined in. They were emboldened by the idea that some Satanists incorporate backward motions into their ceremonies, such as writing in reverse or reciting the Lord’s Prayer that way. The idea that Black Sabbath was incorporating an Alesiter Crowely technique proved a dream for Satan slayers.
The idea mostly died with the CD. While the digital era would seem to create a ripe new market for evil backward masking message deciphering, this has not happened. Demons have apparently moved onto writing Twilight screenplays and officiating gay marriages.