Updated: May 4
player art: Tor Vitrus, Dragonborn Fighter, aged 14
Why was Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) associated with a Satanic Panic?
Yes, your kids are ok playing Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). No, they will not be drawn into demonic worship through the game. But the Satanic Panic around D&D was real. I was late to start playing (D&D) due to the devilish dark cloud around the game that reached its height when I was a teenager. No one around me was playing D&D, and I was super happy playing computer games on my Apple II. I started with Zork, Ultima and then Might and Magic which took me through college. If I wanted to game socially, then there was plenty of opportunity playing ping-pong or crowding around a pinball machine or an arcade video game. (My favorites: Asteroids, Missile Command, Defender, Tempest, Marble Madness, Robotron as well as good pinball machines.)
I have a distinct memory of watching the 60 Minutes episode on D&D thinking, why would I want to go downstairs to the basement with all those steam pipes and tunnels, risk getting murdered or forced into some Jim Jones-like cult, when I could safely power up my computer and start battling! What happened to cause all this craziness surrounding a game?
The Satanic Panic Origin Story:
D&D was first sold in 1974, and by the early 80’s its popularity was exploding. James Dallas Egbert III, a Michigan State University brilliant troubled young college student went missing on August 15th, 1979. His family hired William Dear, a private investigator, who drove to Michigan to search for the lost college student in parallel to the police investigation. Dear was an ex-Florida Highway Patrolman and right 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 James Dallas Egbert III was playing a live action version of D&D in the basement and got lost or was murdered by one of the rival players in the network of steam tunnels that ran for miles. The police and Dear, the private investigator, had no idea what the game D&D was all about and mistakenly concluded, without evidence, that playing the game D&D was directly to blame. The direction of the blame toward D&D was surely influenced by Dear’s deprogramming work. After all, Dear did collect and ignore evidence that showed him that Egbert was depressed, lonely, under much parental and academic pressure, struggling with his homosexuality and was using pot, cocaine and pcp. The police drove 5 hours away to the D&D headquarters in hopes of deciphering the mysterious positioning of thumb tacks that James Egbert had in his dorm room on some cork boards. The Police hoped the people at D&D headquarters would provide answers that would help 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 went to the press and claimed D&D was at fault, and the story went viral. Multiple news reports were published all the same – demons, magic and the occult all led to the disappearance of an innocent youth. In hindsight we now know that Egbert went on his own on a bus 1,000 miles away to New Orleans, stayed there a while, and then went home on September 13th, 1979. Tragically he committed suicide a year later.
Although D&D was not the cause of Egbert’s disappearance, the negative press coverage around playing D&D continued. D&D sales went even higher. Despite the phenomenal growth numbers, the bad press kept growing and D&D was put right next to ritual abuse in day care centers, heavy metal music, satanism and communism.
First Big Backlash:
May 1980, in the Footloose-like Heber City, Utah Mormon community, parents rose up and had the local school board ban the D&D after school club. The claim? The D&D organizers at the school club were working with the anti-Christ and turning their kids into devil worshiping communists. Five months earlier in January 1980, 2 school teachers who saw the game as a way to help their students, got together with the one lone hobby game shop in the area and started an after school D&D club. The club’s goals were to increase critical thinking and communication skills for their gifted students' club. Bill Dudley, the middle school principal approved the club. At the time D&D was only associated with helping students grow as people with what 40 years later we 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 is where all this event becomes national news.
At the first Board of Education meeting Ms. Burnes railed against D&D. She cited an interview from some Nappa College students who talked about how much they played the game and that the game focused on violent combat. Ms. Burns said these focuses were direct paths to negative psychological effects. Since Ms. Burnes acknowledged she had never seen the game played herself, the Board formed a 32 person committee to watch the game being played. Anonymously, (25) people approved of D&D being in the gifted after school program. There were (5) negative responses and (2) uncertain responses.
Before the second meeting on 3/27/80, a moral panic fervor had been reached. There was local harassment, mudslinging and an assault from different religious organizations - all which caused a national spotlight. During the meeting the opposition to D&D was fierce. The opposition found Dr. Victor Cline, a big defender of traditional roles for women. Cline declared publicly that husbands and wives should not have identical roles in the home, and that women should accept “the husband’s presidency in the home.” Dr. Cline showed up at the meeting and spoke against the game in terms of the psychological harmful effects. Communism was even brought up as a factor. Since D&D is a cooperative game, the opposition said that in the game, the will of the individual is not as important as the group, so the game must promote communism. This was a real fear at the time. Truth: the Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan, President Carter talked about the draft being reinstated, we were boycotting the Olympics, and there was talk about a bunch of MX missile silos being built close by. The Red Fear was a legitimate topic, and the "satanic game" helped focus that fear.
Other major events that turbo charged the Satanic Panic
After Heber City, there were numerous news stories that blamed playing D&D as the cause for horrific things. None were substantiated.
· 1981 – Rona Jaffe writes Mazes and Monsters, a book based on the Michigan State University student James Dallas Egbert III. The book was popular enough that there was a movie made starring Tom Hanks. This movie is what people who never played the game imagined. It popularized the association with D&D and devil worship.
· 1982 Oklahoma School District bans D&D citing satanism.
· 1984 – San Diego lawyers try to use D&D to get their client off of a murder charge with an insanity defense
· 1984 - BADD (Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons) was formed by Patricia Pullings whose son tragically committed suicide and blamed D&D. ** Sooo many articles on this person exist. Pullings travels the country speaking out against D&D and is used as an expert witness at trials.
· 1985 - the infamous 60 Minutes episode. This was the final fuel needed. The episode starts with naming at least 7 murder/suicides that police blamed on D&D. (There was no fact checking.) Pat Pullings was featured as a sympathetic mother who lost her son due to the game. She then formed Bothered Against Dungeons and Dragons (BADD.)
· Dr. Thomas Rodecky, a phycologist, from the University of Illinois was brought on the show to denounce D&D and its harmful effects. (He lost his license a few years later.) (60 Minutes never issued a retraction despite being presented with evidence that contradicted their reporting.)
· 1987 - future 2nd Lady of the US, Tipper Gore paused her assault on profanity, sex and violence in music and railed against D&D. (She didn’t want to censor anything, just reassert some control through warning labels on everything.) Gore claimed that 50 kids had committed suicide due to playing D&D.
Could something like this happen today? Times were different right?!? Daycare workers building secret tunnels and abusing children, forming occults doing satanic stuff, was in the headlines and in the back of people’s minds. The McMartin preschool trial lasted for 7 years over a hearsay incident! After over a decade of negative press and increasing sales, D&D’s satanic panic spotlight finally faded. Zero evidence was found linking D&D to any type of satanic occult activity causing mental behavioral issues. Probably of more relevance, to the fading rancor aimed at D&D was that there was a new evil in the room - video games. Now we get to focus on social media.
Are times so different? I am not so sure …
· April 2022 Florida, through their “Parental Rights & Educational Bill,” bans 42 out of143 textbooks due to references to Critical Race Theory (CRT). Not only is CRT off limits, but the newest evil is eliminating Social Emotional Learning (SEL).
· There is a current satanic panic scandal going on now at a huge essential oil selling MLM. If you do just a bit of Internet searching, headlines for articles like America's Satanic Panic Returns — This Time Through QAnon, Why Satanic Panic never really ended, or Astroworld Tragedy Fuels A New Satanic Panic On TikTok and so on appear.
It is upsetting to sit back and see a moral panic resurgence. I find hope and comfort knowing that the power of facts is greater than rumor and innuendo, but only through time.
I completed this blog post using many sources. Most I included above via hyperlinks.
My primary source was a book called Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It by David M. Ewalt
I also loved:
· Marx and the Devil in Desert: The Heber City, Utah Anti-Dungeons & Dragons Campaign of 1980 by Dr. Chris Danielson – unpublished paper presented at the PCA/ACA National Conference
· Misguided Paladins: A Sympathetic Investigation of Cultural Factors That Gave Support to the Factually Inaccurate Campaign Against Dungeons & Dragons by Elias Gannage, Spring Semester 2020 HIS490 History Senior Thesis, Dr. Spinney’s class (not sure how Google found the above thesis paper. This is a great 85 page well researched paper with an awesome reference section if you want to go deeper)
Paul Lazrow is the founder and one of the Storytellers at Adventuring Portal, an online service that focuses on running live-guided fun, safe D&D games for kids. Find out more at AdventuringPortal.com.