How The Media Used Hard Rock As Scapegoat For A Serial Killer’s Crimes

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Lost Parables from Ballymena, Northern Ireland. ©jameshughes, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons Los Angeles Police Department, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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Let’s be clear about something: In no way, shape, or form has a mainstream band ever set out with the intention of inspiring their fans to kill people. While there are extremists out there who advocate for genocide, no group who are actively trying to make a living by playing music want the kind of heat that comes when somebody commits a serious crime in their name. 

This doesn’t negate the existence of a small minority who are all too willing to use heavy metal as a scapegoat to dodge accountability for their own serious actions or truly disturbed individuals who misinterpret art and use it for nightmare fuel. 

When Australian hard rock icons AC/DC released their sixth studio album, Highway to Hell, in July 1979, notorious serial killer Richard Ramirez was 19 years old. By the time of his apprehension on August 31st, 1985, the man the media had dubbed “The Night Stalker” would be connected to more than 15 murders, sexual assaults and other violent crimes between Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

At a murder scene from March 17, 1985, the killer left behind a hat bearing the AC/DC logo. As evidence was shaky at the time, news outlets and law enforcement attempted to forge a connection between the band and the violent attacks. “Night Prowler,” the closing track of their 1979 Highway To Hell album, was singled out as inspiration for the chaos. “That song is not called ‘Night Stalker,'” lamented Malcom Young as reported by Ultimate Classic Rock. “It’s called ‘Night Prowler’ – and it’s about things you used to do when you are a kid, like sneaking into a girlfriend’s bedroom when her parents were asleep.”

Ray Garcia, a childhood friend of Ramirez in Texas, unwittingly confirmed that the Night Stalker was indeed an AC/DC fan. This small affirmation of a media suspicion turned into a sensationalistic hellscape for the band, who suffered indignities such as reports suggesting that AC/DC stood for “Anti-Christ/Devil’s Child.”

For their part, the band’s co-founding brothers Malcom and Angus Young have long maintained that they chose the name after they saw those initials (which stand for the electrical term “alternating current/direct current”)  on their sister Margaret’s sewing machine. “It’s been called everything since, you know – the meaning of the letters,” Malcolm Young said. “You tell them a sewing machine story, and they’re still going to think, ‘no, there’s more to this.'”

On Nov. 9, 1989, Ramirez was sentenced to death. During the trial, the killer periodically blurted out “Hail, Satan,” and even carved a pentagram into his own palm. Of the death penalty, Ramirez remarked, “Dying doesn’t scare me. I’ll be in hell. With Satan.” While AC/DC played no role in his conviction whatsoever,  “Night Prowler” remains inextricably connected to these events. “The press assumed an awful lot,” homicide detective Gil Carillo said. “And the press put a lot more to the significance of the hat than the homicide investigators.”