The Devil Didn’t Do It. The Devil Is Us.
“You’re getting rid of ALL of this crap,” screamed Betty Ann Sullivan as she tore a Slayer poster off her son’s bedroom wall. She’d had enough. The clothes, the music, the bullshit attitude. Having just turned fourteen, Tommy was too young for all of this. Why couldn’t he just be……why couldn’t he just be normal?
Long hair. Make-up. Demons. Dragons. Pentagrams and an oblique array of things that a suburban mother couldn’t understand were the cause of yet another fight. Embarrassment. Exasperation. Miscommunication. Fear. All catalysts.
The insults got stronger. The sense of hopelessness growing with each challenging day.
Tommy reacted with the usual burst of expletive-laden threats, flailing his underdeveloped arms at her in what might somehow resemble an assault. Unwilling to suffer any further indignities and, still brimming with rage from yet another confrontation with this increasingly difficult child, Betty Ann left the room and made her way down to the basement to cool off.
His anger became so intense that Tommy could barely think. He tipped over closets and tore shelves from the wall, as books on the occult, candles and models flew across the room. It wasn’t that she didn’t understand what he’d become enchanted by, how he found solace in the dark imagery he now affiliated himself with, it was that she didn’t understand him.
Milton, New Jersey was not the place for Tommy Sullivan and, on January 10th 1988, he decided that neither was this world. Scrawling a rage-fuelled letter, he followed his mother down the stairs and when she turned to confront him one last time, he stabbed her with his 3-inch Boy Scout knife.
It was easier than he expected to puncture her flesh and so he did it again. Then again. Then, with ferocity and hatred accumulating in the physicality of his actions, he continued to thrust the knife into his mother until she struggled no more.
With his father and younger brother still sleeping, Tommy gathered his books on the occult and lay them in a circle in the living room. He bunched up some newspaper and placed the wadded fistfuls in the centre, before setting fire to them and walking away.
He stepped outside onto the grass where, using the same stubby knife, Tommy sliced into his wrist. The police report stated that he cut so deep he severed tendons; his hand was snapped all the way back onto his forearm when they later examined his body.
Somehow, amidst all this pain, Tommy managed to slice himself from ear to ear, his throat opening; a chasm of steam and blood against a frozen Jersey night.
His father, awoken by the smoke alarm which had been set off by the smouldering newspaper, began to search the house in a panic, checking that everyone was okay. His youngest son was fine but he soon discovered his wife’s lifeless body in the basement; the walls and floor awash with fresh blood. A residue of terror lingering in the air like mildew. He couldn’t find Tommy.
In a blind panic, fearing that an intruder had been present, he searched the house for his son, only to find him bled out upon the grass of his neighbour’s yard.
The sirens and flashing lights that lit up the quiet community that night drew the attention of the neighbours, but the incident drew the attention of the entire nation.
Tommy Sullivan’s case was one which, while horrifying, was part of a greater cultural lexicon at the time. This was an America contorted into near-paralysis through fear of an invisible enemy: The Devil Himself.
The media jumped upon the story and used it as a prime example of how the formats of entertainment being marketed to young people was a poisonous and very direct threat to the fabric of American society.
Morris County prosecutor Lee Trumbull was the man who spoke with the newspapers afterwards. He told the media of the suicide note which he had discovered in Tommy Sullivan’s room. One which suggested that he had been contemplating ending his life even before the argument with his mother took place that night.
The note contained “Satan-like” symbols and “cult references,” he said, but he refused to disclose where it was found or what it said. – LA Times
“The boy, Thomas Sullivan Jr., left a note indicating that his actions stemmed from his fascination with the occult,” Trumbull told the New York Times, “The youth’s body was found this morning in a neighbor’s backyard. His wrists and throat had been slashed.”
Investigators found several books on the occult and Satan worship in the house on White Rock Boulevard and a suicide note in which the youth indicated that the murder and suicide were planned and were influenced by his interest in the subjects, Mr. Trumbull said.
”It’s just a bizarre situation for the family,” the prosecutor said. ”There were no apparent problems until about a month ago when he began reading these books and tension began developing in the house.” – New York Times
The Inquirer ran with the headline Town Mulls Young Slayer’s Interest In Satan. The play on words not being lost on the nation’s parents.
A month? Was that all it took for the grasp of mania to take hold of our youth? There were no other factors which should have been considered in this extraordinarily brutal event?
Here we had a representative of the law proclaiming that it was Tommy Sullivan’s fixation with dark media; horror films, heavy metal and occult symbolism, which had led him to murder his mother in this violent and terrible fashion. No more, no less.
The witch-hunt grew, for if there’s ever something America embraces with fervent glee, it’s a place to point the blame.
Light and Dark.
Good and Evil.
Life and Death.
God and The Devil.
One cannot exist without the other.
Some exist in harmonious balance; others locked in eternal conflict.
Some things are ‘the way they should be’, meaning that a certain status quo is maintained provided that those involved toe the line. This is why rebellion elicits fear. Subversive behaviour is dealt with in many different ways across the globe, but one constant remains; it is rarely tolerated.
To challenge or question authority, be it parental, judicial or educational, is something which occurs in most people’s lifetime (unless they be unquestioningly and wholly submissive throughout their existence, in which case sympathies must be bestowed), but there is usually a limit; most of us would stop short of matricide, for example.
Within a predominantly Western, Christian society, for many centuries the worst form of rebellion was that against the church. The denouncement and rejection of God was, to authoritarians, the greatest affront. It was to reject one’s own soul.
To actively seek the attention of the Devil, however, of Satan himself?
This was an act punishable by death up until relatively recent times, and one which maintains a great deal of stigma to this day.
Yet so many 20th Century artists affiliated themselves with Satan and Devilish imagery.
Was this the product of a more puritanical era, or the casting off of religious subjugation; both of culture and the individual?
As a result of those artistic movements, it is entirely possible that society has become so desensitised to such rebellious ideals that they now seem fatuous and trite.
In 2016, Satanism has been relegated to little more than unfashionable cosplay, as opposed to the scourge which it was purported to be just 30 years ago.
It all depends on contextualisation. To examine the crime of Tommy Sullivan, along with a legion of other instances across America which were attributed to satanic activity throughout the 1980s, would reveal a greater and far more terrifying truth. One of a culture with morals askew, in which mental health and emotional pressures were left unattended to the point of neglect. One in which targeting a form of entertainment became easier, neater, than delving into the rotting core of a society which was becoming increasingly hollow and blackened. Like the witch hunts of old, in which herbalists, healers and the outcasts were rounded up and burnt for their involvement in unholy acts, so too were the outsiders chastised and targeted in ‘80s USA for the very same reason; fear.
Institutions fear the outsider, for they pose a threat. An outsider can become a malcontent, who in turn can become a foe. If a malcontent gets enough people to listen to them, then they upset the status quo. Then things are not ‘the way they should be’. This is why our media becomes increasingly blander with each passing year. Entertainment becomes whitewash, with progressive factions smothered by an unsympathetic industry, or drowned out by a cacophony of inertia. That’s what the authoritarian wants, for it creates a sense of calm; no challenge.
When faced with such a momentous challenge as to take this on, is it any surprise that very few artists maintain their rebellious attitudes into adulthood?
If an artist builds up a career based on an aesthetic which challenges the aforementioned status quo, particularly in a religious sense, how can they be expected to maintain that façade later on, even when their own beliefs have outgrown the sense of antagonism which propelled them to create in the first place?
There is also the blame factor. Once murders, suicides and other acts which pose a risk to society are associated with a particular act, artist or performer, it is only a matter of time before the heat becomes too much and they step away. Equally, there is an inherently adolescent quality to the rejection of religion. A direct backlash against church and family which, if chosen by an individual, has usually solidified itself as their ethos by young adulthood. Once their stance has been made, there is a degree of ‘Okay, so now what?’ which leads many artists to deviate from satanic imagery and associations.
The Devil has always been used to provoke and elicit strong reactions. From the church, who use him as a deterrent, to artists who use him as a muse, he has always been there and always will be, but his potency, like God’s in the modern age, is waning.
From the possessed strings of Nicolò Paganini to the Devil’s deal with Robert Johnson, Ol’ Nick has been almost omnipotent in the world of performance, with music being a particularly fond home. It was, however, with the blues that the Devil came to the forefront as a regular character and prominent lyrical force. Whether he be assisting or influencing a protagonist in a series of reprehensible acts, or else serving as the cause of their malaise, the Devil was never far away.
The Blues, along with the Ragtime Jazz of the early 20th Century, was looked down upon by the upper class, predominantly white, establishment due to its perceived ‘ethnic’ origin. To grant power, even in the artistic sense, to a race of people who were currently being treated in every way as second class within American society, would have been to validate them on a certain level. It would have given credit to their worth. Humanised them. This was a terrifying prospect.
This attitude continued when the Blues became Rock and Roll. The problem was that now, middle class white kids had caught on to the craze. This became the ‘Devil’s music’ and marks the transitional phase in which a nation of post-war parents found themselves at odds with a new phenomenon; the teenager.
Up unto this point teenagers were too busy working or being killed in old men’s wars to be concerned with rebellion, but in the 1950s, counterculture, fuelled by movies, music and literature became ingrained in the youth, causing a movement which would take decades to quell once again.
The rebellion contained in the media of the age may seem tame to most teenagers today. It’s doubtful that The Wild One or Rebel Without a Cause would fully resonate with a Snapchat distracted millennial, but the desire for freedom and the click here systematic rejection of all that was held by their parents may still strike a chord.
The Beat writers who emerged from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco; dangerous, unsettled geniuses, influenced a subsequent spate of musicians who wished to ape their carefree and experimental ethos. Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs took the basic rebellious forms of the Rock and Rollers and made it something altogether more caustic and appealing. Their sexual fluidity, dalliances with all manner of substances and a universal lack of trust for all authoritarian figures would assist in opening the floodgates for a cultural revolution; the likes of which America had never seen before.
The 1960s saw the advent of free thought and free love permeate the nation’s young people, resulting in an explosion of new music, art, performance, movies and styles. Most of which was viewed upon with abhorrence and distrust by the elders, the educators and the authoritarians. Musicians such as Jim Morrison, Jimmy Page and The Rolling Stones all flirted with satanic iconography; initiating a new form of aesthetic and tonal darkness.
The most infamous occultist and practicing Satanist of the 20th Century was Aleister Crowley. A public (expensive private) schoolboy, Crowley became involved with the Irish Poet W.B. Yeats when he was in University. Yeats, no stranger to the occult, regularly performed séances, practiced automatic writing (supposedly penned by spirits working through himself and his wife), wrote his own book on the occult entitled A Vision. He was also a member of the Hermetic Order Of The Golden Dawn, a long-running occultist society, which Crowley eagerly joined.
It was not long before Crowley fell out with both Yeats and the Order, who were simply not extreme enough for his tastes. He later referred to Yeats as a “Lank, dishevelled Demonologist.” and went on to establish his own order, Thelema, before leading his loyal band of followers into a spiral of addiction, debauchery, madness and death.
Crowley’s legacy of insanity fit right into the philosophies of the ‘60s, especially his oft-cited doctrine; “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will.” This was (somewhat mis)interpreted as a licence to do whatever one wished without fear of reprisal. It was a stance which was hardened by the morality which was being collectively forced upon them, in conjunction with mandatory involvement in a war (Vietnam) which many young people felt was not theirs.
Throughout the ‘60s Crowley’s presence could be felt amidst even the most innocuous of areas. He featured on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles, an album which conspiracy theorists love to point out was released almost 20 years to the day of Crowley’s death. In what is inarguably a coincidence, the album begins with the line “It was 20 years ago today.” prompting all manner of accusations relating to conspiratorial subterfuge.
Anton LaVey took the teachings of Crowley and expanded upon them with The Satanic Bible, which he published in 1969. This became the doctrine of The Church of Satan, which LaVey founded, as well as a ubiquitous presence in the bedrooms of disaffected teens the world over (including Tommy Sullivan).
The sixties arguably ended with the Manson Murders, when on August 8th 1969 a group of hippie kids carried out a series of brutal slayings under the instruction of cult leader Charles Manson. The incident left several dead, including Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of filmmaker Roman Polanski. A dark decade ensued.
A huge cultural shift took place in the ‘70s, which saw youth culture take on a much darker pitch. The drugs changed from pot and LSD to cocaine and heroin and with it, the music, the literature and the cinema all became tainted with a misanthropy which would define the era.
It was with the advent of Heavy Metal which wholeheartedly embraced satanic imagery, with symbolism being flaunted in a hitherto unseen manner. Black Sabbath, a working class band from the UK, spearheaded a new musical movement with their dark and tantalising lyricism. They were followed by acts such as Virginia’s Pentagram and Witchfinder General, who were also from the UK. Both bands further incorporated similar aesthetics and morbid tonality as Black Sabbath, with a heavily distorted, blues based sound played out over lyrics reflecting darkness, depression and the Devil.
Heavy Metal was equal parts fantasy and freedom; an offer of pure escapism to a generation who felt let down by the promises of the ‘60s. It was so far removed from the banalities of daily life that it quickly built up an ardent following.
That’s what scared the shit out of everyone.
Suddenly, every disenfranchised teenager had an army they could join. One which represented their dissatisfaction with modern life. They could follow the cult of Danzig (if they had taste) or KISS (if they had none), but regardless, the backlash was horrendous. Once the ‘80s came into play and with it, the Regan years, America wanted to get ‘back to basics’, which basically meant good ol’ capitalism and Christian values. There was no room for such outlandish behaviour as was being portrayed in the worlds of Heavy Metal and, to a lesser extent, Horror films.
They wouldn’t give up on this one until they got blood, and blood they got.
In short, it was Baphomet who became America’s scapegoat.
Occult association with high-profile murders, suicides and sexual abuse (including that of children) was almost entirely attributed to the consumption of Heavy Metal and Horror movies during the 1980s. It was a dangerous and underhand media tactic which created an instant damnation in the eyes of parents across the country (and indeed the world), while also shifting the blame from a greater evil; that of societal abandonment. As the Regan ethos demanded people work more (so that they could consume more), kids were being left to raise themselves. As a result, their moral compass was often misaligned. Better to blame that on the bands than on the parents.
Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest were both taken to court by parents who believed that their children had committed suicide as a result of listening to their music. It was even alleged that there were hidden messages encoded in the albums, so that they would play when the vinyl was spun backwards.
As Bill Hicks once famously said:
“Remember that a few years ago, you play albums backwards there are satanic messages? Let me tell you something, if you’ve ever sat around playing your albums backwards, you are Satan…..Destroyer of needles. Ruiner of stereos everywhere!”
Grave robbing on the bayou, animal mutilation and church desecration were some of the activities which local Satanists were blamed for, but there seemed to be a great deal of confusion pertaining to what actually constituted a Satanist.
According to the ‘80s media, a couple of Heavy Metal LPs and a penchant for the macabre was enough to have you hauled up in front of a courtroom for murder, whether evidence was present or not.
There were, however, a number of extremely well-publicised murder cases in which the perpetrators admitted, or at least claimed, that they were doing it for Satan. They associated themselves with their favourite bands and were left in an entirely unsympathetic position because of it.
Malisa Earnest was just 17 when she ritualistically sacrificed a 15-year-old along with her two accomplices, Robert McIntyre and Terry Belcher. They became collectively known as a coven by the media.
Scott Waterhouse was 18 when he murdered 12 year old Gycelle Cote, his deeds apparently prompted by a chance purchase of The Satanic Bible, which further propelled him into the darkness.
‘The Satanism bit … just changed him,’ Doug Waterhouse, the killer’s brother, said after the trial.
Ricky Kasso (The Acid King) killed 17 year old Gary Lauwers after being commanded to do so by a crow. He would bring local kids to view the body afterwards.
The case of Sean Sellers would draw national attention for it was the only instance in which a minor was sentenced to death in America at that time. Sellers spoke with the muck-raking celebrity gossip host Geraldo Rivera in one of the most sensationalist and misinformed documentaries of the 1980s: Geraldo Rivera – Exposing Satan’s Underground. Sellers would later write a book on the subject.
“It was a sacrifice to prove my allegiance to Satan, to prove my hatred of society” he told Rivera on camera.
A case in Carl Junction Missouri is also one to note. Three teenagers savagely beat a 14-year-old to death. Pete Roland was the dead-eyed perpetrator who went on record to state that listening to hours of heavy metal made him commit the crimes. Rivera simply told him “The Devil double crossed you.”
According to the Disaster Centre statistics, there were an average of anywhere between nineteen and twenty four thousand murders in the United States every year in the period of 1980-89. It begs the question of how many were genuinely Satanic? Certainly not enough to warrant the sensationalism.
The aforementioned crimes were grotesque, inexcusable and horrendous for the families involved, yet to point the finger at the entertainment industry seems like an easy way out. In many of the cases there were issues of abandonment, drug use, bullying and mental health issues. Does this excuse any of the actions? Of course not, but it highlights issues which, if addressed and dealt with in time and with diligence, may have prevented these kids (for these are kids we are talking about) from straying down the wrong path.
How did these cases affect the artists?
Did they all continue to fly the flag for the devil in the face of universal derision and chastisement?
Ozzy, who was pretty vacant for the 1980s, did a bit of a U-turn when it came to Satanism, becoming oddly puritanical in his old age.
The ‘90s seemed like a freer time in terms of artistic expression, with the Gen-X youth movement in full swing. Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson all exhibited satanic iconography, particularly the latter whose aim was always to shock. Whilst NIN’s Trent Reznor is now an in-demand and respected soundtrack composer, Manson is still sticking to his darkly misanthropic, creative path.
Morbid Angel, who used to be incredibly satanic, drifted into mythology, as many of their contemporaries did. In Northern Europe, however, something dreadfully sinister was taking place.
Mayhem, Darkthrone and Burzum would all become part of a scene which involved murder, suicide, church burnings and lengthy stretches in prison. Contemporaries Marduk and Satyricon also embraced the movement and aesthetic, only to deviate from it over time.
Deicide, the kings of Cookie Monster metal have long flown the flag for Satan, with singer Glen Benton having an inverted cross carved into his forehead. The problem is, with the majority of the band now in their 50s, it all seems a little silly.
One band who have stuck to their guns in terms of Satanism have been Slayer, which makes sense in that their music hasn’t progressed in the last thirty years either.
Marilyn Manson was briefly cited as the antichrist following a mass shooting in Columbine in 1999, but in contemporary culture, where there are mass shootings in the USA every other day, America’s running out of people to blame.
Black Metal is split between die-hard bores and hipsters. Manson released a well-received album in 2015, but the shock is long gone. KISS are still awful.
In a post 9-11 society, in which the western world has grown increasingly more secular, a parallel rise in religious extremism is omnipotent, possibly due to this seemingly unstoppable detachment from outdated religious tyranny.
In modern times, groups like ISIS create a lot more fear than the devil ever could.
We’ve lost God. It’s only inevitable that the Devil followed suit.