By the mid-80s, the Satanic Panic was in full swing. Its favorite targets were horror movies and heavy metal, so naturally, it was only a matter of time before all these factors were exploited to make a buck at the box office. In the years to come, The Gate, Black Roses, Slumber Party Massacre II, and other films would all try to capitalize on the satanic stigma attached to horror and heavy metal. One of the best attempts at this was 1986’s Trick or Treat, which also threw in the rising popularity of the Halloween holiday for good measure.
The directorial debut of actor Charles Martin Smith, perhaps best known as Terry “The Toad” Fields in American Graffiti, Trick or Treat (aka Ragman) both comments upon and sometimes confirms the fears of the Satanic Panic. It is the somewhat Carrie-esque story of the heavy metal obsessed, bullied high school outsider Eddie “Ragman” Weinbaur, played by Marc Price. When his favorite artist, Sammi Curr (Tony Fields) is burned to death during a hotel fire sparked by a satanic ritual, Eddie is devastated. He is gifted an acetate (studio demo) record of Curr’s final recording by local DJ, Nuke (Gene Simmons of KISS), who has made a copy and plans to play it over the air at midnight on Halloween.
Eddie soon discovers that when he plays the record backward, he gets messages from Sammi Curr, who is eventually conjured by the recording. Eddie himself summarizes the plot of the film to his crush Leslie (Lisa Orgolini) late in the film. “You’ve heard of raising spirits from the dead by incantations, right?” he says, “I did that by playing a record backwards.” And that is pretty much the story of the film. It is an often funny, though not particularly scary horror film, and a fairly impressive directorial debut, especially considering its miniscule budget. What makes Trick or Treat particularly interesting is the cultural context and how it pokes a finger in the eye of several societal trends of the mid-80s.
The film feels like a direct response to several events of the previous few years. The Senate hearings on the effects of song lyrics on children involving the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) is a clear target. The group was formed in 1985 by Tipper Gore, wife of then Senator and future Vice President Al Gore, and mostly consisted of Senatorial wives. During the hearings, Frank Zappa, John Denver, and Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which was considering legislation involving the music industry, passionately pleading the case against censorship and labeling of music. Ultimately, the committee was unmoved, forcing the music industry to self-regulate, and the ubiquitous “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” label was added to thousands of albums in the following years, including Zappa’s entirely instrumental offering “Jazz from Hell.” The film deals with this surreal moment in pop culture history with a clip of Sammi Curr apparently testifying before congress saying, “you cannot legislate morality or music or peoples’ minds.” He then goes on to threaten the committee by saying “we will bring you down,” in a very “stick it to the man” moment in the film.
On May 16, 1985, the television news magazine 20/20 aired a special report titled “The Devil Worshippers.” It alleged that satanic ritual sacrifice was running rampant throughout the United States and spends a great deal of time targeting the usual suspects: books like Anton LaVey’s The Satanic Bible, heavy metal albums, specifically those by Ozzy Osbourne, Iron Maiden, and Black Sabbath, and of course horror movies. The piece cites a number of dubious sources but the most problematic (and applicable to Trick or Treat) is Mike Warnke who claimed to be a former Satanist turned Christian comedian and evangelist. He asserts that films like The Exorcist were instrumental in drawing him toward satanism, saying “if the devil has PR, it is cinema.” In the early 90s, Warnke was exposed as a fraud who never had any involvement in any formal or informal satanic activities. The events described in the special are dubious at best. The reporter even admits that “none of it has ever been proved” before a fearmongering final discussion with Barbara Walters stating that these issues are “deadly serious.”
Trick or Treat deals with several related controversies as well, particularly subliminal messaging in music and the targeting of heavy metal and horror by religious interest groups and parent’s organizations like the PTA. The fact that Sammi Curr is conjured through playing a record backward is a response to a real fear of the time. A specific instance cited and demonstrated in the same 20/20 report is the allegation that the phrase “my sweet Satan” can be heard in Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” when it is played backward. Trick or Treat takes aim at protests by parents’ groups in the form of Lakeridge High School’s PTA president Sylvia Cavell (Alice Nunn) who calls rock music “an addiction that is reaching an epidemic proportion.”
One of Trick or Treat’s biggest draws is the cameo performances from rockers Ozzy Osbourne and Gene Simmons of KISS, neither of them strangers to the Satanic Panic controversies. Osbourne had been a target of conservative groups since his days as the frontman for Black Sabbath. The occult imagery he embraced in his solo career in the 80s, particularly on album covers like Blizzard of Ozz and No Rest for the Wicked, and in his bat decapitating stage show only heightened the ire of these groups. In Trick or Treat, he lampoons both himself and his critics in the role of Reverend Aaron Gilstrom, something of a cross between Jerry Falwell and Mike Warnke, who appears on a television talk show decrying the “out and out sick people” who create heavy metal music. In a rare-for-the-time post-credit sequence, he is given the final word on Trick or Treat as well, a showcase for the film’s strong humorous streak. Gene Simmons and KISS were also common targets of the religious right. His stage persona as the fire spitting, blood spewing Demon put him firmly in their crosshairs. Simmons has the more substantial role as the local DJ, Nuke, who gives Eddie the acetate of Sammi Curr’s final recording. He really only appears in one scene, but it is the one that sets the plot in motion and eventually hurtling toward its climax.
The film has more than a few mixed messages. In some ways, it mocks the groups that set their sights on rock music and horror films, but in others it proves them right. Sammi Curr was a practitioner of black magic and satanism, he did plant subliminal messages in his music, and playing his music does lead to violence, sexual assault, and even death. Eventually it even conjures up the vengeful spirit of Curr himself. In the film’s best sequence, the song “Trick or Treat” is performed at the high school’s Halloween dance by the now resurrected Curr who kills teens in the audience by shooting bolts of electricity from his guitar—literally killing them with his song. It is not uncommon for heavy metal and Satanic Panic horror films to contain such inconsistencies. The 1988 film Black Roses contains similar contradictions, but they are confusing thematically in both films. Clearly Trick or Treat embraces heavy metal and horror while rejecting the claims of their critics, but still, these elements muddy the waters a bit.
All this said, Trick or Treat is a lot of fun. It is filled with humor, Halloween atmosphere, and (at least if you’re a fan of the metal of the era) a great soundtrack. Charles Martin Smith may never have reached the heights as a director as his American Graffiti co-star Ron Howard, but he has a strong visual sense and has continued to work consistently since Trick or Treat, mostly making family films and directing television episodes. He clearly brings a passion and sense of humor to Trick or Treat that works wonderfully for the film. Most of the movie’s music is supplied by the British metal band Fastway. Though they never set the world on fire, Fastway is a legitimate heavy metal band rather than the kinds of approximations thrown together by studios that so often appear in movies. The title track is an earworm that will be stuck in your head for days. There are plenty of other great tracks from Fastway and other bands sprinkled liberally throughout the film from the era before what became known as “hair metal” became watered down in the late 80s and early 90s.
The Satanic Panic would rage on for several more years after Trick or Treat thanks to books like The Ultimate Evil by Maury Terry about satanic connections to the Son of Sam murders, specials from Geraldo Rivera and others on unproven allegations of Satanic Ritual Abuse, and the great horror debate between then Fangoria editor Tony Timpone and Morton Downey, Jr. on his talk show. Heavy metal band Judas Priest was taken to court for supposedly planting the message “do it” into their cover of “Better by You, Better Than Me.” The message was blamed for the deaths of two teenagers who attempted suicide, killing one instantly while the other would die from his wounds three years later. Soon, Satanic Panic true believers found a new scapegoat, the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, but heavy metal and horror movies never lost a bit of their disdain.
But then, heavy metal and horror have always been transgressive. At their core, they are meant to cause discomfort. There is a rebellious streak that runs through both, which makes them perfect companions. They seem to fit together so logically that it is amazing it took so long for the two to join forces. A few cult movies in the early 80s involved metal, but it didn’t really hit mainstream horror until Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986) and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) thanks to Alice Cooper and Dokken. Even in those films, metal supplies background music. In Trick or Treat it is front and center—right where it belongs.
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