Don Von Taylor’s powerful 1992 documentary Dream Deceivers: The Story Behind James Vance vs. Judas Priest explores the infamous case of two teenage heavy metal fans who were allegedly driven to commit suicide by subliminal messages embedded in the songs of Judas Priest. One kid succeeded in blowing himself away with a shotgun, the other, Vance, did not. He managed only to horribly disfigure himself when the shotgun slipped from his grip as he pulled the trigger.
Fueled by religious extremism, self-deception and grief-induced ignorance, Vance and his parents found in rock and roll the perfect scapegoat for the dysfunction in their own troubled lives.
The film follows the efforts of the parents of the surviving teen to take the English heavy metal band Judas Priest to court based on their belief that the suicide was triggered by the two boys obsession with heavy metal and in particular a track by Judas Priest called “Better By You Better Than Me” from their 1978 album Stained Class which the prosecution alleged contained “satanic” backwards masking which drove the boys to suicide.
This was at a time when the right-wing Christian fundamentalists of America were focusing on the “evil” influence of music on the young and as a response in 1985 the Parents Music Resource Center was set up by politicians wives Tipper Gore (wife of Al Gore) and Susan Baker (wife of James Baker) and led to those infamous “Parental Guidance: Explicit Lyrics” stickers which basically told the kids which albums to buy if you wanted to annoy your parents!
Out of this milieu of rabid censorship came the Christian fundamentalists who believed Satanic influences were at work in the music industry and one of their key propaganda weapons was the belief that certain records contained subliminal messages that were played backwards and masked beneath the song (Stairway To Heaven is probably the most famous example of this deranged belief system).
The film is essentially the story of the court case where Judas Priest and their defense team challenged the prosecution who alleged their music “caused” the surviving teen James Vance and his deceased friend to engage in a suicide pact.
Twenty years on the court case itself may seem absurd and yet the Christian fundamentalists are as powerful as ever and a new “moral panic” is just as likely now as it was twenty-odd years ago.
In this sad and disturbing film, it is the progenitors of the Devil’s music, Judas Priest, who come off as paragons of sanity and clarity.
Dream Deceivers: The Story Behind James Vance vs. Judas Priest has inexplicably never been released on video or DVD. It’s an unsettling experience but well-worth watching.