On December 23, 1985, two twenty year olds, James Vance and Ray Belknap were hanging out, using illicit drugs, listening to music and becoming extremely aggravated, reportedly trashing Belknap’s room and destroying most of his property. The two both could be described as “troubled,” having a history of mental instability, drug abuse, disciplinary and social issues. At some point that night the two agreed to commit suicide together, using a sawed off shot gun. The two intoxicated young men went to a church playground and sat down to end their lives. Ray Belknap put the shot gun under his chin and fired it, then Vance took the gun and shot himself in a similar fashion.
Belknap died almost immediately after the self-inflicted gunshot, but Vance actually survived the shotgun blast. The blast, however, took off most of his face. His lips and most of his lower jaw were destroyed, as was his nost and most of the flesh on the lower part of his face. He was very fortunate that it did not destroy his eyes, (although it appears to have caused some problems to visual alignment.) It took numerous operations, but eventually, plastic surgeons were able to restore Vance’s ability to eat through his mouth (or what was left of it) and to breathe mostly normally. However, he remained severely disfigured, his face a mass of scar tissue with only a gaping hole for a mouth and no recognizable nose. Vance’s speech was also effected, and he wore a towel around his neck to wipe up the perpetual drooling saliva from his gaping hole of a mouth.
So who or what was to blame for this tragedy? Was it the drugs and alcohol? A congenital tendency toward mental instability? A failure to recognize signs of depression in the boys? Social rejection? Or perhaps it was even just the responsibility of the two themselves?
Well, according to the families, it was no such thing. The suicide and disfigurement was the direct result of that damn rock music and especially their favorite band and the one they had been listening to on that night: Judas Priest.
The families, being strongly Christian, cited how the boys had been church goers and generally had been improving in their behavior, even if they had been a bit difficult in the past. One mother said her boy had been able to quote the Bible and that his upbringing would not encourage him to do such things. Until, that is, that damn rock and roll, heavy metal music came in and polluted their good moral minds.
Sure, these parents were not the first to blame popular music for corrupting young minds. The idea that new music is evil, corrupting and even satanic is almost as old as music itself. At one time parents might complain that “Those gyrations of that young man, Elvis are highly suggestive and immoral.” Before that it could be complaints of “That new fanged Jazz is having nice young girls cutting their skirts short and cavorting with negros.”
The parents contended that the music contained subliminal messages and was designed, in part, for mind control, thus resulting in the suicides. This also was not exactly original. After all, Charlie Manson had claimed that his crimes were inspired by hidden messages in Beatles music and that described an impending race war which he was compelled to initiate. J. Edgar Hoover believed that rock and roll music may have been part of a communist plot to undermine American society and under his leadership, FBI analysts examined the popular song Louie Louie searching for hidden vulgarities in the lyrics.
The family of James Vance ended up filing a lawsuit on the grounds that the Judas Priest music he had been listening to contained subliminal messages which made Vance and Belknap unable to control their thoughts and actions and lead to their suicide pact. The suit went to court in 1990.
Their case was based on analysis of a Judas Priest song “Better By You, Better Than Me” which found what they claimed was the phrase “Do it” hidden in the audio and generally not perceptible when the song was played under normal conditions. In reality, the “do it” sounds about as much as a grunt as it does the words “do it,” but thanks to pareidolia (the human brain’s tendency to search for recognizable patterns in random images or sounds), the message becomes crystal clear and fully audible, once one is informed of what it is supposed to sound like.
Amazingly, the suit was not tossed for being absolutely ridiculous and it actually went to a full-blown civil trial, complete with testimony and cross-examination of band members as well as ‘experts’ on audio and psychology.
The case had a number of obvious problems. For one thing, the effectiveness of subliminal messages is, at best, extremely questionable. There is evidence that it is possible to convey a word or two to the subconscious without a person being explicitly aware of it. (For example: have you ever done a double take and think ‘did I just see the word sexy somewhere in that paragraph. Or some other word, for that matter.) However, the best evidence indicates that this technique is only of very limited effectiveness in effecting a person’s thoughts or emotions. At best, it may be able to remind a person of something, although even that effect is highly unreliable. The idea that it could somehow result in a kind of ‘mind control’ is pure fantasy. The concept of hiding an image or message in a single frame of a movie is not supported by evidence as being effective and the idea that it could be inserted into audio is even more dubious. Although many claims have been made, there’s no evidence at all that the subconscious mind can perceive sounds hidden in an audio track that are not audible directly.
Beyond this obvious flaw is the very substance of the message. “Do it” doesn’t mean very much without context. Do what? Jump up and down? Smile? Eat a sandwich? Kill yourself? The song itself does not have any direct references to suicide and is written from the perspective of a man who has broken up with his girlfriend.
And if that is not enough, the phrase “do it” in the song is so close to inaudible and generally difficult to distinguish without being told ahead of time that the explanation that it is just a coincidence background sound caused by the combining of multiple recording tracks is considerably more plausible than the claim that it was inserted intentionally in a mind control scheme.
Yet, a judge did actually see the claim as being substantive enough to go to trial and not go directly to the “give me a break. Is this for real?” pile. The trial was held before a judge in a so-called “bench trial” as opposed to being held before a jury. This was by choice of the Judas Priest defense team, who thought that a judge would be less likely to be swayed by appeals to emotion and graphic images of the suicide. The families were represented by Attorney Ken McKenna, who remarkably was not disbarred for this ridiculous stunt.
In the end, however, justice and basic common sense prevailed and the case against Judas Priest was dismissed, the judge ruling that the evidence did not indicate the words were inserted intentionally and agreeing that they were more likely an incidental sound in the audio track. The families stated that they would appeal the decision, but this never happened.
Despite the end ruling, this is one example of a major flaw in the legal system, simply because a group of completely innocent and legitimate artists were dragged through all the expense, stress and aggravation of a trial. At least in this case, the defendants were well off enough that it did not cause financial ruin. However, in some cases a lawsuit can, even if the end ruling is in favor of the defendant.
James Vance did not live to see the trail. Although he was involved in the initial precedings of the lawsuit, he died in 1988, two years before the suit finally went to trial. His death was caused by an overdose of painkillers. Although there the cause of the overdose was never formally ruled, the dose level was described as “suicidal,” indicating it was likely intentional.
The Story of the suicides and the trial that followed was chronicled in the documentary film “Dream Deceivers: The Story Behind James Vance vs. Judas Priest“
Here’s the movie, it’s an hour long, but I very much recommend watching it. It’s very compelling and well done:
Note: Sorry about the coloring being a bit off and the movie looking a little bit washed out. I downloaded it from a file sharing network and found it to have some problems with the chroma data. I applied a few filters to try to reduce the color and contrast issues, but they change from scene to scene depending on the lighting, so this was the best I could do without splitting it up and doing each scene on its own.
Click here to view on Google Video
(For browsers that do not support embedded video or to download the video as an MP4 file)
(This movie has been shown numerous times on Public Television and has been avaliable on Google Video for some time without any apparent complaints. It’s also avaliable on Youtube, although split into segments. Since it is already up I’m assuming I’m probably okay to post this and the copyright holder does not oppose it being made avaliable on such sites. This version is slightly better quality than the VHS rips that were previously avaliable. If I get any complaints, I’ll obviously remove the video.)
This entry was posted on Saturday, September 20th, 2008 at 5:26 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Culture, History, media. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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