At my eleventh birthday party, I received an unexpected gift. It was a pool party, and my guests and I were laughing and splashing and getting our fun on, sunlight glittering like diamonds on the surface of the pool around us. Aaron, my only male friend with long hair, walked up to the edge of the pool where I was treading water. He gestured me out of the pool, and curious, I climbed out. The time for opening gifts was past, but I could tell he had something for me. He pulled me aside into the shadow of a nearby tree that overhung the poolside fence, and his demeanor became just as shadowy as the shadow we were standing in. He produced a small gift from behind his back. “Happy birthday,” he said, followed by “don’t tell your mom about this.” He handed me the gift. It was a cassette tape. Metallica: Master of Puppets, it read. The cover was a series of rows of white, cross-shaped headstones, receding into the distance over a dark landscape; tumultuous, red, cloudy sky above, with the band name floating in the air, in the most sinister font face I had ever seen, with a puppet master’s hands manipulating strings attached to each headstone. The way this gift had been presented to me, coupled with Aaron’s dire warning, convinced me: this thing was pure evil. I thanked him, a bit shaken, and nervously tucked it away in one of my other gift bags. I had a dirty secret. I felt like I had already committed a sin.
My parents, our church, and many figureheads in the fundamentalist Christian movement at the time taught that music was the devil’s tool. Artists like Ozzy Osbourne were said to be inspired by demons, or Satan himself, and music was the vehicle through which they would twist and pervert the minds of people, especially youth. Listening to such music was tantamount to allowing the devil a foothold, creating a doorway through which demons could enter. The year was 1986, and the “Satanic Panic” of the eighties was sweeping across the nation. The Geraldo Rivera Show aired their infamous “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground” special (if you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a watch to get a sense of the hysteria, and can be see for free on YouTube in multiple parts starting here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qocBf3_mmic). Satan worship was said to be on the rise, with pen-and-paper role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons being targeted as an influence, alongside musical artists such as the previously mentioned Ozzy. Satan could infiltrate your life in any number of ways – my parents also learned that Cabbage Patch Kids were individually named after evil spirits by occultists in a foreign country, as a way to secretly open doorways in the homes of families across America.
An occult object now in my possession, I was fearful. Had I knowingly brought Satan and his demons into our home? I took a peek at the cassette tape from time to time, but I was terrified to give it a go in my tape deck. Would the act of playing it release the evil within? What would happen after that? What would I become? No, it was too risky. I would seek the counsel of a close friend.
I packed the evil cassette tape with my things, headed out for an overnight at my friend Kyle’s house. His family attended my church, and between the two of us, maybe we could figure out what to do with this hellish abomination. Once in his bedroom, I revealed Master of Puppets. Behold – an artifact of the devil. Kyle instantly understood the gravity of the situation. “What should we do with it?” I said.
“Maybe we should burn it,” came his reply.
“Yeah, but what happens then?” the possibilities were endless, and frightening.
We decided burning it was the best way to go. I wonder if the Puritans had a similar conversation during the Salem Witch Trials. Kyle and I were convinced that once we set the cassette tape afire, we would likely be witness to the release of demons into the air; shrieking, swirling, soaring up into the atmosphere, looking for a new home. We agreed that they could not touch us, because we were saved. We belonged to God. We would be safe. We rode our BMX bikes out into the woods and found a quiet place, where nobody could be harmed. I laid Master of Puppets on the ground, in the dirt. I knew what we were doing was the right thing. The Christian thing. I felt bad that Aaron didn’t understand, and wondered if he understood that he was unwittingly a part of something nefarious, Satan’s operative. I would try to save him someday. It was my duty.
I flicked my Bick lighter, and the flame sprang forth. I touched it to the plastic cassette cover. The flame took, and slowly, the entire think caught fire. I prepared myself for the worst. Tensions were high as the black smoke licked up into the air, the smell of burning plastic surely only a prelude to what would soon be a raging hellscape to which one we would be immune. And then…
“Hmm, that’s weird,” I said. Maybe you couldn’t see demons, or hear them.
I wasn’t sure how to interpret this, and I didn’t give it too much thought at the time. We had done the right thing, so I thought, and that was that. I would never be corrupted by Metallica: Master of Puppets. One less doorway in a world of doorways.
In retrospect, I mark this as the first time it registered with me that what my parents and people in the church were teaching me might not be true. I think some part of me wanted to see evidence of demonic activity that day, tangible evidence that what we all believed was real. I have been looking for evidence ever since, and I have found none. Maybe the nature of demons is such that there is no way to produce evidence, and maybe they don’t exist. Some would say the evidence is more subtle and personal, but among the host of explanations for the things that happen in our lives, the messages that run through our heads… Is the influence of demons the most probable explanation?
Here’s what I know for sure: Metallica’s Master of Puppets is one of the greatest thrash metal albums of all time. It is a landmark achievement in music, and one of my favorites. Thank you Aaron!
Listen to it in full, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6LA7v1PApU