The Satanic Gaze: Moral Panic, Heavy Metal Teens and the “Acid King”

❉ Ty Matejowsky considers the pop culture permanence of an infamous perp-walk photo.

This snapshot has over the years gone from sensationalised tabloid media fodder to a transgressive touchstone embraced by those trafficking in subversive imagery… However, put in the context of the events that precipitated his arrest and ultimate demise, this sinister freeze-frame image becomes something altogether bone-chilling.”

If purveyors of the overblown hysteria-ridden Satanic panic of the 1980s ever needed a real-life cipher into which to invest all of their fears and certitudes about young suburban metal-heads embracing occultism and mind-altering drugs in the service of some supernatural subversion of traditional Judeo-Christian values, they surely found it in an unnerving albeit indelible press photo that hit the newswires sometime on July 6, 1984.

In an eye-blink instance of camera-flash immediacy, Newsday photographer Tony Jerome captured a perp-walk snapshot of Long Island teenage murder suspect Richard Allan “Ricky” Kasso Jr. aka the “Acid King” that perfectly distilled the image of a white Reagan-era juvenile misfit that resonated as much as an Evangelical youth group boogeyman as a familiar fringe figure to the millions of public school Gen Xers who came of age during the zero-sum game of Just Say No’s ascendant moralism.

However exploitative or morally problematic, this soul-searing photo – arguably the Guerrillero Heroico of hesher iconography – has over the years gone from sensationalised tabloid media fodder to a transgressive touchstone variously embraced by stoner rock acts, heavy metal scenesters, edgy skateboard artists, and others not averse to monetizing or trafficking in subversive imagery.

Tony Jerome’s snapshot of teenage murder suspect Richard Allan “Ricky” Kasso Jr.

The bracing black and white image of Kasso captures the homeless 17-year old drug-dealer from the waist up, turning his head as if to speak, mouth agape, with a bulging Adam’s apple, scraggly longish hair, and penetrating eyes set ablaze by a feral intensity. Looking way more spring-loaded than the typical high school burnout so flawlessly documented in Heavy Metal Parking Lot (1986), the professed devil worshipper and indicted grave robber even sports a white long sleeved (bootleg?) AC/DC concert tee replete with a giant Satan’s head and album cover imagery from the band’s recent Flick of the Switch (1983) promotional tour which included a stop at the nearby Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in December 1983 that Kasso possibly attended. By itself, this candid flashbulb rendering of wasted suburban youth is enough to induce general feelings of unease if not outright disdain, evoking a hometown muscle-car pariah genuinely feared by underclassmen and largely written-off by most everyone else as a hoodlum wannabe not above vandalising playground equipment with spray-painted pentagrams and Satanic misspellings (Kasso allegedly tagged park playsets with “Satin” instead of “Satan”). Put in the context of the events that precipitated his arrest and ultimate demise, however, this sinister freeze-frame image becomes something altogether bone-chilling.

That summer day, finally in police custody and facing arraignment for stabbing 17-year-old drug-buddy/frenemy Gary Lauwers to death in the darkened woods of Northport, New York, weeks earlier in a hallucinogenic rage as others watched and variously abetted (18-year old James Troiano allegedly restrained Lauwers during Kasso’s attack but was later acquitted by a local jury in April 1985 for his part in the killing), a handcuffed Kasso was paraded past a media scrum of broadcast and print journalists at the Suffolk County Jail, all shouting questions to this obviously very disturbed and dangerous young man. Some three days later a still-in-custody Kasso would be found dead, hanging from a makeshift noose crafted out of a jail cell bed sheet, never held to account for his felonious misdeeds.

The horrific details of Kasso’s crimes – purportedly subjecting Lauwers to a four-hour ritual assault that included everything from eye-gouging and commands to worship Satan to bringing others to the murder scene over subsequent days to view the partially concealed body like the wayward teens of River’s Edge (1986) – have been documented elsewhere in sometimes sensationalised, sometimes considered ways. Like other seminal narratives enfolded into the Satanic panic’s fabricated mythos, separating fact from hearsay, innuendo, and speculation has never proven easy when it comes to this sordid tale.

David St. Clair’s Say You Love Satan (1987), a supermarket pulp paperback whose cover conspicuously showcases Jerome’s “iconic” Kasso photo, probably tops the list when it comes to lurid and questionable accounts privileging the salacious aspects of Kasso’s crimes and life story over any reputable recounting of an emotionally troubled minor cut adrift from the internalised norms of sober-minded impulse control and empathetic self-regulation. More thoughtful is Jesse P. Pollack’s The Acid King (2018) which, like Derf Backderf’s graphic novel My Friend Dahmer (2012), moves beyond the caricatured depictions and media-circus misinformation of previous reportage from the likes of Rolling Stone, ABC’s 20/20 (“The Devil Worshippers” – May 16, 1985) and the primetime Geraldo special (“Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground” – October 22, 1988) to consider the real human lives forever upended and rent asunder by this awful crime. 

Whether recounted through print, television, documentary film, stage drama, or increasingly nowadays true-crime podcasts, it seems the cautionary tale of Ricky Kasso’s adolescent descent into illicit narcotics, petty crime, demonic dabbling and finally murder cannot be told without vividly foregrounding the press photo at issue. Like a Chick tract personified, the Ricky Kasso it depicts resonates as more than just another messed-up high school dropout tragically run afoul of the law. Part of the image’s initial mid-1980s impact and ongoing 21st century resonance is the evocative power it wields as a symbolic shorthand for the moral panic delusions interwoven into prevailing beliefs about an underground Satanic network whose tendrils reached well into society’s uppermost echelons (see 1980’s widely discredited but wildly popular Michelle Remembers), ensnaring vulnerable kids through unholy gateway drugs such as Dungeons & Dragons or heavy metal. 

This collective fundamentalist fever-dream manifested itself with the launch of various Evangelical-aligned advocacy groups such as BADD (“Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons”) founded in 1982 by a mother who blamed her son’s suicide on the popular role-playing game and the infamous PMRC (“Parents Music Resource Center”) which not only held a televised Senate Hearing (September 19, 1985) on controversial music imagery and lyrics but also sold a $15 mail-order “Satanism Research Packet” to parents, educators, cops, and clergy concerned about susceptible youngsters. More specific were the ultimately unsuccessful subliminal message lawsuits that put pioneering metal acts Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest on the defensive for ostensibly pushing U.S. teens into suicide through hidden content buried deep in the mix of select album tracks.

Add to these, the purported AC/DC connections with the ‘Night Stalker’ killings of Richard Ramírez (1984-1985) and the backward masking supposedly found on Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven – “Here’s to my sweet Satan / The one whose path would make me sad whose power is Satan,/He’ll give you, he’ll give 666/There was a little tool shed where he made us suffer, sad Satan” (huh?) – and the evocative currency of Kasso’s arraignment photo assumes fuller context.

For those not so easily cowed by sermonising authority figures, however, the visceral intensity of this infamous snapshot wielded a catalysing power, imbuing it with a subversive cachet that flew in the face of moral crusader warnings aimed at impressionable youth and others predisposed to dark-side flirtations. Going on to enjoy an extended shelf life well past what anyone could reasonably expect from a mid-1980s cultural artefact so utterly awash in heavy metal depravity, Kasso’s menacing photo somehow metamorphosised from an allegorical case study in Satanic adventurism gone awry to a badge of Hesher identity whose recurrent foregrounding feels more akin to aesthetic provocation than any genuine approval of Kasso’s heinous criminality. Indeed, amid an onslaught of 1980s fundamentalist fear-mongering about metal-head music and all the trappings of this oft-maligned working class subculture, some of its more assertive taste-makers eventually flipped the script on Evangelicals, co-opting this image as well, using it as a symbolic cudgel to fend off blatant scare tactics geared towards suppressing teenage expression and experimentation. 

Even today various heavy metal/stoner/grunge rockers brandish Kasso’s press photo as a badge of nonconformity. While not as ominous as the green Charles Manson featured on early paperback editions of Ed Sanders’s The Family (1971), this unsettling Kasso image still retains much of its original shock value, leading various bands to include it on tour merch, album art, and show handbills. To wit, San Francisco stoner rock perennials Acid King – who derive their band name from Kasso’s grandiose drug-dealer handle – feature the Kasso photo on the cover of their demo cassette as well as on some tour shirts and posters (That’s Melvins’ drummer Dale Crover wearing one on a 1993 MTV Headbangers Ball interview).

According to a recent Iron Fist interview, frontwoman Lori S. states, “I read this book called Say You Love Satan – a true crime book – and there was a bit about Ricky Kasso. I remember on one of the pages, which we have a song about (‘One-Ninety-Six’), it said ‘Nobody messes with the Acid King!’  When I read that, I said ‘I’m gonna name my band ‘Acid King!  So I already had the band name before I had the band, because of that book.”  

Beyond metaldom, manifestations of Kasso’s disturbing likeness also find expression in skateboarding, a sport/lifestyle long recognised for its anti-establishment tendencies. Hockey, a skate company founded in 2015 by Jason Dill and Anthony Van Engelen, released a line of Kasso-themed products a year or so after their public launch. Decks available in multiple colours and sporting silkscreen reproductions of the notorious arraignment photo were sold alongside similarly designed t-shirts, the most disquieting of which was a black long-sleeved tee with a photo-negative rendering of Kasso’s visage. Ostensibly taking a page from Acid King’s and Hockey’s playbook, some independent online crafters ply shirts, posters, patches, and other gear bearing this 1984 image to anti-establishment clientele presumably interested in provoking reactions.

Tony Jerome’s snapshot froze Ricky Kasso at a very specific moment in time that summer day. In a sense all of the good and bad things that Kasso ever accomplished over his brief life were rendered moot by the unflagging fervency of this perp-walk photo. Not only does it visually convey the disturbed state of a troubled young man who senselessly took the life one of his peers, Gary Lauwers, it also viscerally embodies the pop culture trope of a mid-1980s teen sociopath/outcast whose bedraggled look audiences instantly recognise. 

Indeed, the Kasso of this enduring image prefigures the not-so-harmless wasted adolescent metalhead Kent from Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio (brilliantly played in Oliver Stone’s 1988 film adaptation by Michael Wincott) just as much as it does Beavis and Butt-Head’s Todd Ianuzzi whom the titular characters both fear and idolise. Moreover, one-hit wonder Wheatus made a global splash in 2000 with Teenage Dirtbag, a pop-rock single directly inspired by Kasso, who grew up in the same neighbourhood as songwriter and bandleader Brendan B. Brown.

Considered altogether, Kasso’s ill-famed legacy resonates nowadays more as a symbol of dangerous juvenile disaffection than as a real-life individual beset by myriad personal demons who ultimately invited serious retributive justice on himself for crossing the moral line into murder. Over the past 35 years or so, however, his shocking story and harrowing image have both transcended the one-dimensional strictures initially imposed upon him by those pushing Satanic panic moralising and bottom-feeder tabloid journalism to emerge as an improbable, enduring, and still highly problematic emblem of heavy metal outsider identity. 

❉ ‘The Acid King: The Story Of Ricky Kasso And The Birth Of Satanic Panic’ (2019) received a re-edited digital release on 9 November 2021. Directed by Dan Jones and Jesse Pollack. Run time: 2h 23m.

❉ Ty Matejowsky is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. He has published various pieces with We Are The Mutants, The Middling Spaces, and Sports Literate. His book Smothered and Covered: Waffle House and the Southern Imaginary (University of Alabama Press) came out in 2022.

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