Could it be… Satan?

In the fourth season of Stranger Things, we witness the 1980s “Satanic Panic”—an actual phenomenon I remember, though I was thankfully not much affected by it. The Satanic Panic was a fairly broad phenomenon, much of it originating from a rash of false allegations against daycare centers that were supposedly committing “satanic ritual abuse.”

There were antecedents to this. For example, America was exposed to ritual murders in the late 1960s with the Manson Cult. Anton Szandor LaVey published The Satanic Bible in the 1960s and Satanic Rituals in the 1970s. This same period also saw the novel The Exorcist quickly adapted into a movie (as well as movies like (Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen). America was thinking about Satan. Add to that the founding of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and the rise of Christian fundamentalism in the early 1980s, and you have all the key ingredients.

What does this have to do with RPGs—particularly Dungeons & Dragons? A game filled with pentagrams, demons, devils, and magic spells? (And a lot of Rated R artwork….)

Dungeons & Dragons was blamed for a child prodigy disappearing into steam tunnels in 1979. This became the inspiration for the novel Mazes and Monsters—which was turned into the (very) early Tom Hanks movie of the same name.

Irving Pulling committed suicide in 1982, an act his mother blamed on Dungeons & Dragons, to the extent she sued TSR—a case which was eventually dismissed—and formed Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons. Pulling’s mother described Dungeons & Dragons as:

[A] fantasy role-playing game which uses demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, satanic type rituals, gambling, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning, necromantics, divination and other teachings.

Pulling’s message was well received in the Fundamentalist Christian media of the time. Still, she also found her way onto mainstream media like 60 Minutes, appearing in the same segment that featured Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax. Having recently rewatched this segment, I’d have to say it skewed heavily on the sensationalist, with a tone along the lines of (paraphrasing)  “well, sure you didn’t mean D&D to make all these kids kill themselves, but clearly that’s the only link between them.”

One of the more effective defenders of RPGs against such panic is the RPG and fiction author Mike Stackpole who published The Pulling Report to debunk such sensationalism.

I would be remiss if I neglected Jack Chick’s Dark Dungeons tract, which is among the gaming community’s most parodied and mocked attacks on RPGs. However, I imagine some people took it seriously. It features a nice girl who gets pulled into the evils of Dungeons & Dragons, loses a friend to suicide after her friend’s character dies, and her Dungeon Master tries to enlist her into a witch’s coven where she learns real magic. She is saved and literally burns her Dungeons & Dragons books.

The influence of this panic can be found in the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which dropped demons and devils from the game and removed the assassin character class.

I was fortunate—in the Connecticut town I grew up in, D&D was perhaps considered a little weird and nerdy, but I never encountered any Satanic panic personally. However, it was definitely in the culture—I remember watching the Gygax 60 Minutes interview as a teen, as well as seeing Mazes & Monsters on television. As the Satanic panic died down (and games like Vampire: The Masquerade grew in prominence), D&D publisher TSR slowly reintroduced such content into the game—like restoring devils but giving them a different name, Baatezu. Late in AD&D, after TSR had been acquired by Wizards of the Coast, a Greyhawk advertisement asked, “What the Hell is a Baatezu?”

Does anyone have more severe experiences with the Satanic panic than I did? I’ve heard tales of people’s D&D books being literally burned in a bonfire. Let me know in the comments…


Research beyond personal experiences and memories includes:

BBC – The great 1980s Dungeons & Dragons panic

The Revealer – Michelle Remembers and the Satanic Panic

Vox – Why Satanic Panic never really ended

~ Daniel Stack

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Archimedes says:

    A newspaper story about the Pulling disappearance caught my eye when I was in junior high. The article described the game, and said that Pulling had entered and gotten lost in the school’s steam tunnels. I remember thinking, “Cool game! What kind of idiot goes wandering in the steam tunnels?”
    The only blowback I got was when a local priest held up a Players Handbook and told us it was the devil’s work. Given the art, I can see why he might have thought that, but my group just made sure we didn’t leave any more books lying around, and the issue went away.

    Liked by 1 person

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