director David Van Taylor
They loved Judas Priest.
Then one night in 1985 in Reno, NV, after drinking beer and smoking pot, they made a suicide pact. Ray Belknap, 18, took a rifle, put it under his chin, and killed himself. James Vance, 20, almost immediately, took up the gun, put it to his chin, and pulled the trigger too. We see documentary footage of the crime scene, their bodies near the playground equipment they had been hanging out on.
Only Vance didn’t manage to kill himself. By a stroke of either great or maybe horrible luck, he was saved by the doctors at a local hospital. His face exists as masses of flesh, a mouth that cannot really close, and though hidden by bandages most of the time, a massive crater in his skull at the top of his head.
Though apparently after many surgeries and recoveries he became a born again Christian and blamed the music for his actions, on camera he speaks of his love for Judas Priest and how much their music meant to him and his friend. His life, captured at the time, must have been horrific: terribly disfigured, his best friend gone, surrounded by family who have little grasp of his inner life.
His mother, a temple of denial, thinks his survival is her very own miracle. She very much believes that heavy metal led the two to suicide. She describes how Vance has to feed himself, with only two teeth and a forefinger, mashing food into his mouth. He won’t eat in anyone’s presence.
Vance and Belknap were like any number of kids with whom I, or perhaps anybody, went to high school. Their lives, beset with depression, abuse, were quiet tragedies, maybe unknown to friends until the trial and publicity. Vance’s stepfather relates on camera how he punched James in the face when he heard he smoked pot. He tells this story proudly, how James said he’d never smoke pot again after that. James Vance never knew who his biological father even was.
Of course, it was music that led them to suicide.
The 1990 trial, absurd as it sounds today, was par for the course in the late 1980’s, the heyday of the “Satanic Panic”. Rob Halford and the other members of Judas Priest take the trial very seriously, defending their work, denying the ridiculous claims of subliminal messages, offering sympathy that seems utterly sincere.
Produced locally for PBS at KNPB, David Van Taylor’s 1992 documentary Dream Deceivers: The Story Behind James Vance vs. Judas Priest is an astonishing film. It’s heartbreaking. It’s also amazingly cogent, capturing the events and time and place on the ground with a keenness and acuity that usually only time and distance gives one.
James Vance died in late 1988 from a drug overdose.