[Myth to Movie] Musical Backmasking and Rob Zombie’s THE LORDS OF SALEM (2012)

Open Wide The Gates of Hell


Urban legends are all around us, playing a part in our everyday lives and becoming ingrained in our culture. Most people are familiar with the more common legends like The Killer in The Back Seat, Bloody Mary, or Bigfoot, but there are others that you might not be as familiar with. Here at Nightmare on Film Street, each month I’ll be taking a look at a different urban legend and revisiting a famous movie (or, sometimes, one that’s not so famous) that plays off that particular myth. For this installment, I’m discussing the influence of hidden messages in music from the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, as seen through Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem (2012).

“Backmasking” is the term given to hidden messages that can only be heard when a song is played backward. The technique is real, but what about the message? One of the earliest backmasking rumors began in in 1969 with The Beatles, who listeners claimed to have heard a message confirming Paul McCartney’s death. The rumor spread, and soon other people and groups were jumping on the bandwagon. Enter the Satanic Panic of the 80s when there was a widespread fear of a large but secret Satanic cult that was in control of the world’s politics and media. The conspiracy spread to include a supposed underground network of Satanists who were responsible for ritualistic abuse, human sacrifice, and recruiting teenagers into the fold.



Of course it didn’t take long for all forms of media to become a basis for conspiracy theorists, and believers of the “panic” were quick to turn to rock and heavy metal bands as somewhere to point fingers. It was already common practice for heavy metal bands to use dark imagery on their album covers and branding, making them an easy target. Take a look at some of those for Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, or Slayer and you’ll get a good idea of what I’m talking about. By the mid-80s, with the Satanic Panic already in full swing, it should come as no surprise that a large portion of the focus was directed at the music industry. It was only a matter of time until the idea of backmasking converged with the increasingly paranoid idea of Satanism. The claim was that the hidden messages in songs were the catalysts for creating teenage monsters and leading them to horrendous acts of violence. One of the most notorious music related cases to emerge from the Satanic Panic is that of serial killer Richard Ramirez, who claimed to have been inspired by the music of AC/DC to commit murder.

From the onset of the panic, media outlets fueled the flames of the controversy and reported heavily on the topic. One of the most well-known and talked TV events surrounding the is the 1988 two-hour Geraldo Rivera special, Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground. Similar to the multitude of TV programming and printed pieces that were published on the subject, it didn’t take long for filmmakers to take the idea and run with it. The latter half of the 1980s saw several horror movies that took aim at the concept. Trick or Treat (1986) and Black Roses (1988) are two films whose story lines directly dealt with evil rock stars.



Even though backmasking is a real recording process that is often used as a tongue-in-cheek gimmick by musicians, most of the bands that came under fire during the days of the Satanic Panic have denied ever using the technique. The extent of many of the accusations during those years might seem absurd, but the speculation of what effect heavy metal music and other horror-related entertainment can have on an already damaged mind is still an important topic of controversy and debate. Musician and film director Rob Zombie tackled both subjects simultaneously in his 2012 feature Lords of Salem.

Lords of Salem is the sixth feature film to be directed by Zombie, following House of 1000 Corpses (2003), The Devil’s Rejects (2005), Halloween (2007), Halloween II (2009), and The Haunted World of El Superbeasto (2009), respectively. The film follows recovering drug addict and radio DJ Heidi Hawthorne, impressively portrayed by Sheri Moon Zombie, who receives a vinyl record from a band known only as  The Lords. After listening to the music contained on the record, Heidi begins to have increasingly disturbing dreams and visions involving a coven of witches led by Margaret Morgan, played by Meg Foster. Is it psychological delusions that Heidi is experiencing, or is she slowly becoming susceptible to something evil?



The film takes the familiar concept of Satanic music having a strong influence on its listeners and amps it up to the next level. WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD! Here, the music of The Lords is literally taking control of Salem’s women, recruiting them to join Margaret‘s coven. If taken at face value, the story of The Lords of Salem seems to be pretty cut and dry, but the cause of Heidi‘s downfall is not that simple. Instead, Zombie wisely inserts an additional storytelling device of a curse into the narrative. By doing so, the issue of fate is brought into the overall structure of the film, and the character arc of Heidi is drastically altered. With this added plot element, the movie ultimately raises the question of whether or not evil is inherent, and the themes of the film circle back to another, deeper layer of the music related trials and accusations of the 1980s Satanic Panic.

Overall, The Lords of Salem seems to be a polarizing movie. Personally, I love it. What is your opinion? Let us know your thoughts on Twitter, in the official NOFS Subreddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook! 


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