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The "practice" of embedding "evil" messages in songs, by recording them
backwards - somehow we were supposed to receive subliminal commands this way.
It comes from one of the Beatles little studio tricks of recording parts
backwards, as a means of inventing new textures. In the 70's, some Christian anti-rock crusaders used "Stairway to Heaven" ("Here's to my
sweet Satan") as "proof" that rock was evil; in the 80's, Judas Priest
were sued in a murder case for BM.

Backward masking is also a term found in psychological experiments that deal with visual processing. It is a phenomenon that occurs when items already stored in visual memory are interfered with (or even obscured by) newly added stimulus; they are masked. The term was later "appropriated" by the religious right to describe hidden messages -- chosen because there were already mentions of it in scholarly journals. It was hoped that the right's snake-oil arguments would appear (upon brief examination) to have scientific reasoning behind them.

Backward masking was shown in experiments by Averbach & Coriell (1961/1973). They used a tachistoscope -- a device capable of displaying a given frame or slide for any amount of time (all the way down to milliseconds) -- to flash sequences of letters for the subject. In the control condition, the letters were flashed for 50 ms, a bar was flashed under one of them for 50 ms afterward, and the subjects were asked to report the underlined letter. In the experimental conditions, an empty or filled circle that would have surrounded the letters was flashed instead of a bar, and the same thing was asked. Results from the circle conditions were dramatically worse than those from the bar; it seemed that the circle had erased memory of the given letter.

Recent findings by Vince DiLollo (1999) suggest that if the subject isn't looking for an identifier mark, the backward masking effect doesn't occur. That is, if a set of letters is shown followed by a mask, but the mask isn't mentioned by the experimenter, recall of the letters is unaffected. This is important because it shows backward masking to be a cognitive effect (top down) rather than one based on visual processing alone (bottom up).

In the song "Empty Spaces" (or "What Shall We Do Now") on Pink Floyd's The Wall, there is a good example of backwards masking. From about 1:28–1:14 (just before the last verse of the song), you can hear Roger Waters very clearly (but quietly) saying, "Congratulations. You have just discovered the secret message. Please send your answer to old Pink, care of the funny farm, Chalfont." As he says "Chalfont," a voice in the background calls out "Roger, Caroline's on the phone."

On the vinyl, it's only in the right channel, but on my copy of the CD it's in both. Caroline was Waters' wife at the time. There is a Chalfont St. Giles and a Chalfont St. Peter in Buckinghamshire, but I don't know if there's a funny farm in either.

Many Floydians consider this a reference to Syd Barrett: "Pink" is the name of the main character in The Wall, and even though Waters says the story is semi-autobiographical, many fans see Pink as a symbol for Syd because he goes crazy in the end. The "funny farm" bit helps, too.

Roger Waters' album Amused to Death has another good example of backward masking, in the beginning of the third track, "Perfect Sense (part one)." The first minute and 50 seconds have a very slow, drawn-out message: "However (1:23), in the light and visions of the issues of Stanley (1:08–1:03), we changed our minds (0:51–0:50). We have decided to include a backward message (0:45–0:39). Stanley, for you, and for all the other, book burners (0:27-0:14). [Incomprehensible, angry screaming] 0:05–0:00)."

Rumor has it Waters wanted to use a couple clips from 2001: A Space Oddysey, notably HAL's voice and the heavy breathing, but Kubrick refused (supposedly because Pink Floyd refused to let him use music from Atom Heart Mother in A Clockwork Orange). After Kubrick's death, Waters used the clips in live performances of the song.

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