So, yeah, I’m old. I, in fact, remember the 1980s Satanic Panic, where everything from music to movies were tools of Satan just waiting to corrupt and destroy American culture and our way of life. One of the “victims” of the Satanic Panic was Dungeons & Dragons. According to Jack Chick’s “Dark Dungeons,” as well as other concerned Americans, the spells in D&D were real. The “slavish devotion” children showed to their gaming groups demonstrated that it was really a CULT. And a bunch of other horseshit including the TV movie “Mazes and Monsters” based on a novel erroneously linking D&D with the disappearance of a Michigan State University student in 1979 helped fan the flames of fear and paranoia that the 80s were so famous for.
Parents across the country panicked about D&D, as well as Judas Priest, Ozzy Osbourne, and other elements of pop culture. Horror movies were satanic, for some churches even Christian Rock was secretly satanic, as another Chick tract explains, using “African Natives” as mouthpieces, that it is the rhythms that summon the demons… So racist AND idiotic. Good job, Jack Chick. This was also the era in which “repressed memories” of satanic sexual abuse started to emerge, that particular trend kicked off largely by the book Michelle Remembers. Michelle Remembers is an interesting relic of it’s time, if you feel like reading really graphic descriptions of the supposed ritual abuse that the patient recounted, including being impregnated, giving birth and being forced to eat the fetus. Yeah… It’s kind of gonzo, and helped fan the flames of the moral panic of the 1980s.
Widely publicized burnings of satanic materials were held at fundamentalist churches across the country, including rock albums, D&D books, horror novels, and videotapes of horror movies. These were burned to cleanse the taint of devil worship from the congregation. Kids all over the country had their belongings confiscated and burned by their parents, who accused them of being drug addicts and Satanists because they liked to imagine a world where they could be a hero, committing feats of derring-do, as well as kids who just wanted to listen to hard music.
So why do I say that the Satanic Panic helped the RPG Industry?
Let’s face it, prior to the satanic panic, very few people knew what Dungeons & Dragons actually was, if they’d heard of it at all. It was a niche hobby amongst a fairly quiet minority of the population. Nerds weren’t exactly loud and proud back then. Mostly we just tried to lay low and hope we didn’t get stuffed into a locker. But the hue and cry about D&D, as well as the other things the fundies had their knickers in a wad about, brought D&D to national attention. The game was implicated in several murders and suicides, mostly by parents desperate to blame something other than themselves, depression, or their children for what had happened. And, being as teenagers are contrary and rebellious, purchases of D&D skyrocketed, especially as some players had to replace burned copies, or keep replacing copies that their parents kept throwing away.
Now the Geek Husband What Rules disputes this, and says he thinks that D&D was somewhat popular at first, THEN the Satanic Panic happened and did, in fact, make it more popular. I don’t know abut that. I just know that I hadn’t heard of it before junior high when a boyfriend introduced me to the fact that it existed, and then when fundies started panicking about it, I finally saw reference to it in popular media. There’s probably truth to both versions. If you were a nerd in other nerd hobbies you probably did see reference to it, I have some older comics in my collection that have D&D ads in them.
Regardless of how popular D&D, and by extension other RPGs, was before the Satanic Panic, I don’t think anyone denies that the Panic definitely bolstered the hobby and popularized it. It certainly gave the hobby a certain hint of rebellion it didn’t have before. Here’s a list of other articles talking about this time period:
How We Won the War on Dungeons & Dragons – io9
The Great 1980s Dungeons & Dragons Panic – BBC
As BADD as it Gets: An Anti-Dungeons & Dragons Propaganda Booklet – The Escapist
Days of High Adventure: Satanic Panic – Escapist Magazine (Different Escapist – this is the one with Zero Punctuation)
The “Satanic influence” of role-playing games as an incredibly stupid defense was alive and well, well into the 1990s. In 1997 Alex Baranyi murdered a girl he had a crush on, and her family, with the help of a friend. To this day many articles about the murders address the fact that the two played role-playing games, Vampire: World of Darkness in particular. The GHWR and I were working on the Rustycon con com at the time. The murder happened just before Rustycon in 1997, and the trial happened during Rustycon in 1998 leading to two years of rude reporters trying to find out more about the malign influence of role-playing games in the case. I would not wish that on anyone running a convention ever. It sucked. We trained all con staff to escort reporters to either a member of the con com, or Wade Racine the lead Vampire storyteller in Seattle at the time. No one else was to talk to them if it could be avoided. Yeah… so glad that bullshit is over.
Now, that said, there are a couple of things I would like to address. I’ve actually had people ask me about D&D being a cult. And while I try not to grit my teeth at the stupidity of that question, I don’t always pull that off. This is how I explained it to a boss I once had: “So, you read books, right? How would you feel about a book where about a quarter of the way through it one of the main characters just disappeared with no explanation, just gone. And after a few chapters, that character pops right back in without a word of explanation, no mention that they were off doing other important things to further the plot, nothing. Just gone, and back, or just gone, someone pivotal to the plot who just never comes back? Role-playing games are like a collaborative story, and it can be really hard to successfully tell that story if your main characters aren’t always there.” Yes, it can be done. And as we’ve gotten older we’ve gotten better at explaining away character absences. I mean, we’ve all got jobs that require overtime, many of us have kids, or elderly pets that require care on certain schedules. We get it. It’s one of the topics we cover in our “Gaming as Grown-Ups” panels at Norwescon and Rustycon. But if you aren’t used to the idea that a game can be a shared fiction, then I can see how you might think an insistence on attendance for a game is a little weird.
Repressed memories have been repeatedly debunked, particularly the ones that are wildly and profoundly extravagant and exotic, like entire communities rallying around sacrificing children and household pets to Satan and repeatedly raping other children. Yes, as a person you can “forget” and “remember” memories, including unpleasant ones, but not like this. Dr. Elizabeth Loftus who teaches at both the University of California Irvine and the University of Washington is one of the leading experts on debunking repressed memories.
There is no “real” magic in D&D, apart from the magic of imagination. Full stop. You cannot become a Wizard or Sorceror by playing D&D anymore than you can by reading the Harry Potter books. Just… stop. You sound stupid when you say shit like this. Your character in D&D being cursed is not going to result in you, the player, being cursed. Annoyed, maybe, but actually cursed? No. Just no. I do not know or know of anyone who became a Satanist because of D&D or any other role-playing game. A Jethro Tull fan, definitely. A Satanist, no.
I hope that clears a few things up for people and explains why a large chunk of older nerd-dom are so incredibly defensive about a lot of things.
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2 thoughts on “Geek Girls Rule! #308 – The 80s Satanic Panic and the RPG Industry”
Hey there…was doing one of those periodic searches of my name and found this. I do recall that whole mess, but I think we all handled it well…the strategy was “give the press no story, and they’ll get bored and go away.” I think it worked. Not sure who you are (wasn’t able to find a name on your blog very easily), but regardless, thanks for the work you put in on RustyCon over the years. I miss it and the PNW in general. Take care.
Hi! Yeah, Mickey, I was a friend of Aron Anderson’s. You guys handled it really well. The hard part was keeping the folks who wouldn’t have handled it so well away from the microphones.