D&D and the “Satanic Panic”
Yes, your kids are OK playing Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). No, they will not be drawn into demonic worship through the game. If the thought of Satan and D&D never crossed your mind, then you haven’t lived through the “Satanic Panic” — the national furor that arose in the 1970s and 80s over D&D and its supposedly demonic effects on America’s children.
I wish I was exaggerating, but it was very real. I was late to start playing D&D, in part because of the devilish cloud around the game when I was a teenager, and also because I had found the wonders of video games on my Apple II computer. No one I knew was playing D&D and I couldn’t fathom messing around with something the media was equating with cults and demonic worship when I could safely power up my computer and start battling!
Still, a question nagged at me about the D&D media coverage: What happened to cause all this craziness surrounding a game? How did the Satanic Panic, as it came to be known, get started?
On August 15, 1979, James Dallas Egbert III, a brilliant but troubled, Michigan State University (MSU) student went missing from the school’s campus. His family hired William Dear, a private investigator, who drove to MSU to search for the lost student in parallel to the police investigation.
Dear was an ex-Florida Highway Patrolman and, before being hired to find the missing boy, had made his money as a “cult de-programmer.” After checking around, Dear’s theory was that Egbert was playing a live-action version of D&D in the utility tunnels that ran for miles underneath the MSU campus and got lost or was murdered by one of the rival players.
Actually D&D had nothing to do with Egbert’s disappearance. He hadn’t gone into the tunnels to play D&D – though he had done so previously – but to take his own life by overdosing on sedatives. Fortunately he failed, but when he awoke, he fled the tunnels and took to hiding out in a series of friends’ houses before leaving for New Orleans, where he tried to kill himself again. Sadly, he succeeded the following year.
Despite evidence Dear himself had uncovered showing that Egbert was depressed, lonely, struggling with homosexuality and drug usage (including pot, cocaine and PCP), he continued to believe D&D was the cause of the young man’s disappearance.
Meanwhile, the police investigation took a weird turn when cops drove 5 hours to D&D headquarters in hopes of deciphering what they thought was a mysterious configuration of thumbtacks on a corkboard in Egbert’s dorm room. The cops hoped the people at D&D headquarters could decipher the “thumbtack message” and help them locate the missing boy. After 3 days, the people at D&D concluded the thumb tack positioning had no relevance.
That was enough for the police, but Dear was unsatisfied. He went to the press and claimed D&D was at fault, and the story went viral. Multiple news reports were published, all with the same themes – demons, magic and the occult all led to the disappearance of an innocent youth.
Although D&D was not the cause of Egbert’s disappearance, the negative press coverage about it increased, causing sales of the game to take off. Despite its popularity, media stories about D&D became more sensational, associating the game with everything from ritual abuse in daycare centers to heavy metal music, Satanism, and communism.
The first big backlash to the game began in May 1980, in the “Footloose”-like Heber City (a Utah Mormon community), parents rose up to ban a D&D after-school club. Why? They claimed the D&D organizers at the school club were working with the anti-Christ and turning their kids into devil-worshiping communists.
To step back: Five months earlier in January, two school teachers got approval from their principal, Bill Dudley, to start an after-school D&D club. The goal was to help their students increase critical thinking and communication skills (what schools now refer to as social-emotional learning or emotional intelligence).
A few parents made their dissatisfaction with the game known and Mr. Dudley wisely brought the issue to the local parent-teacher association (PTA). They expressed zero opposition, but Linda Burnes from the regional PTA felt otherwise. Therefore, the issue was brought to the next level, the county Board of Education, which was where this minor situation became national news.
At the first Board of Education meeting, Ms. Burnes railed against D&D. She cited an interview from some Napa Valley College students who talked about how much they loved the game, particularly its focus on violent combat. Ms. Burnes argued that these violent aspects led directly to negative psychological effects.
Since she acknowledged she’d never seen the game played herself, the Board formed a 32-person committee to watch the game being played. The committee’s report was overwhelming — 25 of the members approved of the use of D&D in the gifted after-school program. (There were five negative votes and two uncertain responses.)
By the time of the second Board meeting, a change was in the air. A sort of moral fervor had gripped D&D opponents, with religious organizations attacking the game as blasphemous while nationalist groups argued it weakened America by promoting communism!
Since D&D is a cooperative game, these groups believed it sacrificed the will of the individual to the will of the group. It’s silly to say now, but fear of the Soviet Union then was real and communists lurked around every corner. In fact, the Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan, President Carter talked about the draft being reinstated, the U.S. boycotted the Olympics, and nuclear war made its way onto television sets across the country in made-for-TV movies like “The Day After”, which depicted a Soviet nuclear attack on America and a post-apocalyptic hellscape. (It was watched by more than 100 million Americans.) The Red Fear was a legitimate topic, and the “satanic game” helped focus that fear.
Throughout the 80s, other events continued to keep the Panic hysteria alive:
Rona Jaffe writes “Mazes and Monsters,” a book based on James Dallas Egbert III. The book was popular enough that it became a made-for-TV movie starring Tom Hanks. The movie is what people who never played the game imagined it to be. It popularized the association with D&D and devil worship — see for yourself, you can watch the whole thing free on youtube.
Oklahoma School District bans D&D, citing satanism.
San Diego lawyers try to use D&D as part of their client’s insanity defense in a murder case.
BADD (Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons) is formed by Patricia Pullings, who blamed D&D for her son’s suicide. She filed numerous lawsuits against her son’s principal, the makers of D&D, and others, all of which were dismissed. BADD describes D&D 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.” For many years Pullings traveled the country speaking out against D&D and appearing as an expert witness at trials.
The infamous 60 Minutes episode, which supercharged the Satanic Panic. The episode starts with naming at least 7 murder/suicides that police blamed on D&D. (There was no evidence to support these claims.) Pat Pullings was featured as a sympathetic mother who lost her son due to the game. Despite being presented with evidence that contradicted their reporting, 60 Minutes never issued a retraction.
Tipper Gore, future 2nd Lady of the US, began to express outrage about D&D (including it in her campaign against profanity and sex and violence in music). She claimed she didn’t want to censor anything, just reassert some parental control by putting warning labels on everything. Gore claimed that 50 kids had committed suicide due to playing D&D.
After more than a decade of negative press (and increasing sales), the Satanic Panic finally faded. Zero evidence was found linking D&D to any type of satanic occult activity or mental behavioral issues. As the Panic faded though, a new evil took the spotlight — video games. Although the culprit was different, the hysteria about these “dangerous games” was the same.
And, as we see with book banning today, the wheel keeps turning for those who need something to demonize.
This article is a summary of a blog post originally published on AdventuringPortal’s blog (April 2022).
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