After a night of drinking and drug use intermixed with the music of heavy metal band Judas Priest, James Vance and Raymond Belknap went to a playground in a nearby church park and shot themselves. While Belknap did not survive his wound, Vance did. Shortly after, the Vance family blamed the incident on the influence exerted by Judas Priest. Accusing the band of placing subliminal messages on their records, Vance’s traumatic experience became a national scandal. Latched onto by the media for its sensational aspects, this tragedy was quickly picked up by national news media. A civil trial ensued and several conspiracy theories attributing Judas Priest with all sorts of nefarious motives began to circulate. The effects of the scandal and the conspiracy theories spread to other areas of the heavy metal music scene.
Occupying the space between public and private life, the Judas Priest scandal ruptured the fabric of daily life. Scandals are events that undermine the stability of the social order, tearing through the lives of individuals and leaving them grasping for a handle with which to make sense of the events happening around them. Weather originating in the public sphere or in private spaces, as with the actions of Belknap and Vance, scandal disturbs the division between public and private spheres of social interaction. Conspiracy theories often flourish in the wake of these disturbances. In the case of the Judas Priest scandal, conspiracy theories blaming evil forces beyond the borders of Reno provided a source of stability for those grappling with the horror of this event. Similar to the way the Fredrick Jameson talks about conspiracy narratives as a type of mapping mechanism, these conspiracy theories developed as a way to smooth out the resulting uncertainty from this scandal.
Scandal and conspiracy theory can be thought of as kissing cousins. What is left for us is to determine is where these two categories overlap and diverge. What seems to be at the core of these two phenomena is the panic of agency created by the shifting boundaries of public and private life. If John Thompson is correct when he insists that the development of new communication technology has altered understandings about the functioning of the private/public divide, then how could the dynamic changes in media lead to anything besides a rapid proliferation of conspiracy theories -- and how can we theorize the relationship to scandal?