Monday, April 22, 2024

#AtoZChallenge2024: S is for Satanic Panic

I survived the Satanic Panic
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 Now, this is always a fun topic.  It would be difficult to talk about the history of Dungeons & Dragons and not talk about the 1980s moral panic known as The Satanic Panic.

Note: I will liberally use outside links in this one because I want to cite my sources and educate. 


Let me set the stage first. It is the start of the 1980s. Regan is in office riding a wave of conservatism and backed by "The Moral Majority." The 1970s were a time when there was a great Occult Revival (mentioned many times here) and this was the natural reaction.

In addition to flamboyant fashion choices, some really excellent music, and questionable hairspray techniques, we also got a strange moral panic in the form of everyday people accusing their neighbors of being secret practicing Satanists.

While there are a lot of triggers for this panic, the one that almost everyone agrees on is the publication of a book called Michelle Remembers, a lurid tale of repressed memories of Satanic Ritual abuse. Now, reading this there are just a lot of things that don't add up. At all. A recent Skeptical Inquirer article goes into more detail, but suffice to say that despite no tangible proof, this was the spark that lit the flames and the model that all so-called Satanic Experts would follow. This book leads to the tragic travesty of the criminal court system in the McMartin preschool trial. People lost their careers, their homes, and their lives, all for nothing but a panic. It was The Crucible all over again. This is not the last time I will use a witch analogy.  While that was going on other forms of media were not immune. Rock and Roll music took a hard hit, and it led to the creation of the PMRC. Movies had had their troubles before with the Hays Code, and comics had the Comics Code Authority, which had kept both mediums very conservative. But what didn't have those was the brand new pass time of mostly young high school and college age kids with higher than average IQs and a penchant for not conforming. That pass time was Dungeons & Dragons.

How does the Satanic Panic lead to Dungeons & Dragons?  Well, there is a great summary of the Satanic Panic and how D&D was involved from Goddless Panther.

I LOVE that he used my Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of the cover of Dark Dungeons track.  It is too bad that no more of this series was produced.  I also got a kick out some of the picture of old D&D stuff.  He had another series on his older account.

The first one is here: (the production values are a bit low). There is a playlist by another user of all these videos, warning there is a lot of crazy here.

Dungeon & Dragons & Devils

Going back to 1980 to 1985, the most popular version of the Dungeons & Dragons game was the 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules.  While all the above insanity is going on D&D is about to take a hit.  That hit comes in the form of James Dallas Egbert III and private investigator William Dear. James was a smart but depressed kid who had gone missing from his Michigan State University dorm room in 1979. He had played D&D and listened to some Metal music, but had suicidal thoughts. Mostly around him coming to terms with his own homosexuality (the 1980s were shit for many kids). He went down into the steam tunnels under the University (where it was rumored that people would play D&D) and had planned on killing himself with some quaaludes. He was not successful and went to hide out with some friends, and then he traveled around.

Enter William Dear. Egbert's mother hired Dear to locate him after what she perceived as the authorities' inaction. Dear went to Egbert's dorm, saw his D&D books, and came up with this notion of a cult conspiracy whole-cloth. This was substantiated in his mind when reports came out that he had been spotted at the Gen Con game fair in nearby Wisconsin. 

Egbert was a troubled kid. I don't want to make light of that. He did finally kill himself and it is sad. He needed therapy, and at that time, he would not have gotten it, and he certainly didn't get the support. 

No. This sad tale was made worse by the utter incompetence and attention seeking of Dear. He recounted his investigation in the book The Dungeon Master.  You can read more about it in this article in two parts by Shaun Hately, The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III, Part I and Part II.  The events would be fictionalized in Rona Jaffe's novel Mazes and Monsters, and the movie of the same name starring a very young Tom Hanks. Every gamer I know hated it, and every mother in 1982 had to ask me about it.

Then 60 Minutes happened.

D&D's 60-Minutes of Fame

D&D's popularity made the target of some sketchy reporting back in the day. Watching some of the videos from back then are always entertaining; at least now they are with the distance of time. 

CBS, the station that not only aired the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon on Saturday mornings and the rather terrible Mazes and Monsters made for TV movie also was, more famously, the home of the weekly TV news magazine 60 Minutes. Ed Bradley presented what was supposed to be a balanced view on the game with interviews by D&D creator Gary Gygax and someone who we (the gamers that is) had not heard of, but would soon know all too well, Patricia Pulling of B.A.D.D. or "Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons." She would team up with former Dr. (he lost his license) and convicted sex criminal Thomas Radecki to try and discredit the game. 

Here is the clip below. If it looks like a bad VHS copy...well it is.

Reports from many credible sources and even Gygax himself (in the pages of Dragon magazine) was livid and called the whole thing a "Witch hunt." However, one thing is certain. After the 60 Minutes clip aired there was a rash of D&D book burnings. If there is ever a side that is burning books your best place is to be on the side they are not on. Ben Riggs, in his Slaying the Dragon, comments on how anytime the staff at TSR saw a book burning advertised, they would increase the number of books going to that town's retailers because they knew they would sell out. 

Pulling, Radecki, and BADD would be around to bother D&D players for a while. Pulling had started B.A.D.D. due to the suicide of her son Irving. I get she had pain and grief and a need to lash out. But her target was all wrong. Long story short, while Pulling, Radecki, and Dear would all get pulled into high-profile cases, which all seemed to involve the same secret cabal of D&D Playing Cultists (weird, I never got a call from them for the meetings), eventually, they were shown to be the frauds they were.

One of the biggest blows to Pulling and B.A.D.D. was from game designer Michael A. Stackpole who piece by piece dismantled Pulling and all her arguments in his Game Hysteria and the Truth. I would read this later when he re-published it as The Pulling Report.

You could not believe the elation I felt when I had discovered that on the internet. Everything I had heard for YEARS from "concerned people" and all the shit I got from ignorant fucks. Stackpole destroyed them all. Every single argument. I am still friends with Michael today.

Eventually, they would fall into disrepute.

The FBI would also release a report that essentially said that there is no evidence of any sort of systemic Satanic ritual abuse in the United States. The New York Times followed up with an article saying something similar.

Too late for some who were destroyed by this bullshit.

What happened to D&D?

Soon after the 60 Minutes piece, Gary was out of TSR for unrelated reasons. The specter of the Satanic Panic still held over them, though. When AD&D 2nd Edition was released, demons, devils, and overt signs of evil had all been removed in an enforced morality

And like the pendulum that swang to make things more conservative, it swang back the other way. I can recall a LOT of books, both in stores and online, in the early days of the Internet, that were like, "Oh, you think D&D is evil? I give you fucking evil!" I am not blameless in that, either. 

My Life with the Satanic Cult

Now, I am not a Satanist. I am an atheist. But growing up in a small mid-Western town, the average person on the street doesn't know, or even care to know, the difference. Add in my D&D playing in the 1980s? Yeah. 

There was this time, I think around 1985-1986 or so, that "someone" had found a "satanic altar" in the cornfield just south of my High School. The panic that shot through the school was amazing to watch. I was equally fascinated and horrified. Fascinated by how much it affected everyone and horrified by how quickly it ripped through the school and what it did. The next day, people were wearing their "satan busters" armbands. These were homemade armbands with an inverted cross in a red "busters" circle with a slash through it. 

Something like this
The "Satan Busters." Yes, this is what they wore.

The assistant principal, who was always a pretty good guy, came to me and some of my other gamer friends and basically said until this stupid shit blows over, we should keep our D&D books at home. I chaffed under the notion that something *I* wanted to read had to be dictated by a mob of scared idiots. It pissed me off, but the guy had a point. Plus, he was a 6'2" guy who would regularly bench press 350+ lbs, and I was an asthmatic 15-16-year-old who weighed 125 soaking wet. I wasn't going to argue. Plus, over the next few days, shit got really weird.  I think my love of psychology was certainly strengthened then. As was my love for witches. I felt I understood them a little better after that. Not that anyone was trying to burn me (far from it), but they were trying to burn the things they feared. There were at least two or three book burnings in my town by people on the conservative religious side. Which was, in truth, the vast majority of the town.

As the panic spread, the stories got crazier and crazier. One involved one of the few openly gay kids in my glass, which sucks, really, but sadly all too predictable. Rumors that "they" were going to sacrifice a cheerleader. I remember seeing girls crying. And more. People were going to have prayer vigils to keep the cultists back, and some were going to bring weapons (mostly knives).  

It all began to sound like a pretty cool D&D adventure. The characters would have been the ones fighting evil. But it also had about as much to do with reality as a D&D game.

It blew over, of course, and a few days later, the whole thing looked rather silly. I never really knew if someone had found something and thought it was an altar or if it was all made up whole cloth. Hard to say. I never really got over how insane everyone was. 

I have to admit my own (at the time) anti-theism influenced my early D&D games. So, there were lots of undead, demons, and (you guessed it) witches. An immature reaction? Yeah, of course! But I was a teen at the time, so by definition, I was immature.

Present Day

I would love to say that this happened in the past, and then we woke up. But that is never the case, is it? Yeah, Dungeons & Dragons has largely been fine for the last few years and is gaining incredible support from high-profile players like Stephen Colbert, Vin Diesel, Joe Manganiello (who I just missed at Gary Con), Deborah Ann Woll, Anderson Cooper, and the entire cast of Critical Role. 

D&D is largely safe these days, but the Satanic Panic still rears its ugly head. Pizzagate is just one recent and really stupid example.  Another making the rounds is the "fact" that Taylor Swift is the daughter of (or a clone of) Zeena Schreck nee Lavey. Even better, she is the daughter of Zeena and Zeena's own father, Anton Lavey, the founder of the Church of Satan. So Anton is her father AND grandfather.  

Taylor Swift & Zeena Lavey. Not related. Or clones.

Seriously. I wouldn't put this into a game because my players would never believe it. 

So, put on some Ozzy or Iron Maiden, grab some dice, and let's play some D&D! It's 2024, all of those critics have been shown to be frauds, and none of the rumors about D&D from 40+ years ago ever came close to coming true.

Remember, "If Dungeons and Dragons is Satan's game, then Satan is a giant nerd."

Tomorrow is T Day, and I am going with the company that started it all, TSR.

The A to Z of Dungeons & Dragons: Celebrating 50 years of D&D.


John de Michele said...

I think you mean it was a an Occult Revival, not Rival :). There are people still handing out the Jack Chick tracts -- I got hit up by a nice old lady while food shopping a few months back.

15 Minute Classics said...

Now I want a Satan is a Huge Nerd t-shirt...

Srivalli Rekha said...

Whoa! That's scary! Gives me shivers.

PT Dilloway said...

I vaguely remember people talking about D&D and Satan but I was too young to really know anything about. It's like a lesser version of the Salem Witch Trials or McCarthy hearings with all the unfounded panic and finger-pointing.

I really liked most of Stackpole's Star Wars and Battletech books in the 90s though I never read his Satanic Panic book. I should go look that up.

Amrita said...

I absolutely had no idea about all this!

Lady In Read said...

had no idea of all this.. but that picture of Taylor and Zeena is like freaky.. one of those weird coincidences that happen

Anne M Bray said...

The Satan Buster armbands! People will believe the nuttiest things.
Thanks for visiting my Shoe A-Z.

JB said...

I think that's the first time you've ever written about your childhood experiences during the "Satanic Panic." If it isn't, it's the first I remember...thanks for sharing. It sounds pretty wild.

My own experience was...nothing like that. I grew up in a Roman Catholic family. Went to church went to Catholic school. No one in my parish / family / community cared or believed any of parents had zero issue with me playing D&D (except when I would neglect my schoolwork for the game). The ONLY problem I ever encountered was when my best friend's mom became a Born Again Christian and then forbade him from playing D&D...but we still played Marvel Superheroes, which was great. Eventually we drifted apart, mainly due to her having an issue with Catholics generally. Ah, well.

Chalk it up as "liberal Seattle;" but Seattle wasn't quite the city in the 1980s that it is now.

My best friend growing up was also a diehard atheist (and still is). She was also a damn good DM. But she doesn't game any more.

Gonz said...

I never lived the Satanic Panic, as I'm from Peru, but I've always thought about it as something fascinating to read about... and just now I realize that someone actually LIVED through it and it stroke me as real.

goeticgeek said...

The Catholic High School I went to wouldn't allow the students to have a role-playing game club because of the whole Satan thing. We were finally able to convince them to let us have a club by naming it the YCGGA, the Young Christian Gentlemen's Gaming Association. That seemed to assuage their concerns. I eventually started a second gaming club by disguising it as a military history club where we played Twilight 2000 exclusively.

Kristin said...

I never knew about any of this. My kids were elementary or younger. We were in rural Mississippi raising goats and a garden. Does sound like the witch hunts. People can be so out of control.