Day 17 – Hell’s Bells: The Dangers of Rock ‘n’ Roll (1989)

This was obviously an ironic watch. I know of this documentary because my dad referenced it quite a bit when I was younger. He shared the opinions of this documentary, yet he continued to listen to and enjoy the very music it “exposed.” My dad has always had his own Christian beliefs that do not necessarily align with any one establishment. These days, he’s watching a lot of conspiracy theory YouTube videos and making predictions about what major religious event is about to happen. So aside from watching this for a good laugh, I was hoping to maybe gain a little understanding of what goes on inside my dad’s head. Anyway, this one has been on my radar for a long time, and I finally set aside the 3 hours required to view it in its entirety on YouTube on this holy Sunday.

Hell’s Bells was released straight to video in 1989, at the height of the Satanic Panic of the 80s. Eric Holmberg, our mulleted and mustachioed host, produced and directed this “documentary” in an effort to explore popular music “from the perspective of truth.” The 3-hour-long presentation is delivered in 5 parts with Holmberg commenting constantly along the way. He suggests all of the problems in society stem from satanism in popular music, whether it’s blatant or hidden. No one is safe from Holmberg’s “examinations.” The obvious ones like Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Metallica, and Mercyful Fate are presented, but he also suggests pop artists like Madonna, George Michael, and even Whitney Houston are poisoning us just the same.

One of the first clips they show is of Mick Fleetwood coked out of his mind, dancing a weird jig on stage. Of course, we’re asked to wonder if there isn’t something more sinister taking hold of him. It’s a great look into what the rest of the film entails. Just about every popular “metal” song from the 80s is put under a microscope. Everything is satanic. Maybe my favorite segment is the one about “backmasking,” when a sound is recorded backwards to be played forward. Holmberg shows us several songs that when played backward reveal satanic messages! He played the backwards version three fucking times with subtitles, just in case you missed it the first two times I guess.

The theories are goofy, but they’re also so irresponsible. For instance, Holmberg tells us the satanic messages of metal music drove a teen to murder his mother and commit suicide. It’s almost like Holmberg has a moment of clarity when he briefly mentions the kid may have had other issues, but it’s definitely an afterthought for him. Another time he suggests in passing how some of these metal bands may be using satanic imagery and lyrics as a gimmick to sell records (because they are!), but no, there has to be more to it. It’s like you can see the beginnings of all of these nutso Christian conspiracy theories being born right in front of us. It’s sad how he mentions people don’t know they’re ingesting poison when they consume secular music, but he can’t even recognize the poison he is spewing. The theories suggested in this film take responsibility away from the real culprits of any degradation in society, like the lack of resources and help for people with mental illness for example, and boils it all down to religious fantasy. To Holmberg, secular music’s tendency to mock God and Christianity is the worst part of it all. What better way to get back at these rockstars for making fun of him than to make a 3-hour presentation disparaging every aspect of their music?

If nothing else, I’m impressed by how much time and “research” went into making this thing. I also appreciated all of the good music they included. I found myself singing along and tapping my toes pretty often, which was a nice break from Eric Holmberg’s monotonous monologues. As a matter of fact, I heard a really good XTC song I am going to look up when I’m done with this post. I wonder how often this film backfired and got people even more into the music they’re criticizing.

I have a hatred for evangelical interpretations of the media and the world because I spent much of my childhood and teen years believing it. There was a time in my family when we weren’t allowed to consume any kind of media that wasn’t explicitly Christian for fear of falling prey to Satan or demonic possession. My mom even got us a subscription to a Christian satellite TV provider called Sky Angel, which only included channels with Christian content. Even though I haven’t believed in the teachings of evangelical Christianity for a long time, it still feels like I’m trying to catch up on everything I missed. My mind was so preoccupied with how I could be a better Christian and not end up in hell that I didn’t pay as much attention to learning about much else or things I actually enjoyed. I hate how the kind of rhetoric in Hell’s Bells discourages critical thinking and education and essentially ruins minds that could have otherwise been used for something good. But this movie was fun to laugh at too.

Please take 10 minutes to watch the ridiculous intro.

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