I know that in American culture at least, kids of a certain age often get a talk that is colloquially referred to as the birds and the bees. This cringefest is basically a homebrew sex education class taught by parents who, in their turn, are probably even more embarrassed by the discussion than their kids are. Like most kids, I got that talk. But when I think back to parental conversations, that one wasn’t the worst one I ever got. No, that honor belongs to the one during the height of the Satanic Panic where my mom had to ask me if I was learning Satanism during my D&D sessions. Compared to the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) talk, though, the birds-and-the-bees talk wasn’t even a blip on my mortification radar. I think it’s important to remember these missteps from right-wing Christians–because they sure haven’t learned their lesson yet.
The Satanic Panic was, at its heart, a moral panic that ran through the late 1970s and 1980s. A bunch of Christian conjobs had figured out that dramatic testimonies got them a lot of attention–and testimonies that involved real live demons and magic and spellcasting and spiritual warfare were even better for that purpose.
Middle-class Christians, especially the white Protestants who viewed themselves as society’s parents, were getting their first taste of alternative religions at the time as well–and they viewed those religions with deep suspicion and fear. As more and more people dabbled in Wicca and actual Satanism, Christians sounded the alarm. Anything that even pretended to be about spellcasting or the supernatural scared them pantsless.
Of course, I didn’t know anything about that moral panic going on all around me. I was raised Catholic, and that’s already a pretty superstitious folk religion deep down. I already believed that magic was real and that the supernatural realm was totally all around us. The knowledge didn’t so much alarm me or scare me as exhilarate me. My task in life, as I saw it as a kid, was to figure out how to plunge beneath the surface of everyday life to tangle with it all and learn about it. I didn’t have any problems at all, either, with reconciling this viewpoint with my firm faith in Jesus.
I reckon I was pretty much the target demographic for the brand-new sensation to hit gaming: Dungeons & Dragons.
Best. Game. EVER.
I’ve mentioned that I grew up a Coastie brat–and that meant that my family could visit other military branches’ bases and shop in their stores. My sister and I particularly liked visiting the base’s general-goods store, called the Exchange, or just the PX. They sold stuff like clothes, shoes, electronics (what few there were in those early days of the 1980s), and most importantly board games. My family loved games, and the PX seemed to have all the cool ones.
The PX also sold the weird higher-level boxed games such as the ones published by the then-popular game producer Avalon Hill. They sold mostly wargames and wargame supplies, but they had a lot of interesting, intricate board games played on hex grids and the like. So when my sister and I first ran across Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), we thought it was one of those sorts of games. We had no idea what was contained within that strange colorful box. We already had a board game called Dungeon! that we loved; it was a bit like Monopoly except with fantasy classes and way more swordfights. Well, I loved D&D at least. I think my sister wasn’t fond of the reading and math involved. But she played it with me anyway.
It didn’t take long, once my family had moved to Alabama, for me to find a group among the kids at school and start playing regularly with them. We’d meet up around noon and go home around 7 or 8, happy and laughing and excited.
As far as I knew, my parents weren’t worried about it–at least at first.
Everything Was Going Great Until…
I first got an inkling that my mom might be alarmed by D&D when she left some Satanic Panic tracts floating around the house. I read them with total mystification. I can only think she got the tracts from a work friend or something, because she wasn’t really going to church at the time.
The tracts talked about the reality of demons, about being possessed by the spirits that infested D&D, and about how innocent children were being taught spellcasting and engaging in depravity. None of it made a lot of sense to me. I knew what D&D sessions looked like: five or six kids camped out around a table setting fire to pencils, eating snacks, sketching on graph paper, and yelling across the table about what their characters were doing. (Not much has changed except the ages of the people around the table, either, from what I can see.) Nothing whatsoever that happened during these gaming sessions could be qualified as “depraved,” much less as “spellcasting.” I found the whole thing bizarre.
Around that time my family visited my grandparents in Baltimore for Christmas. That’s when I got my first look at one of the most infamous products of the Satanic Panic: Mazes and Monsters.
Nooks and Nincompoops.
Mazes and Monsters was a TV-movie based off of a novel by the same name. It aired toward the end of 1982 and starred a super-young Tom Hanks (really!) trying his very best to look dignified while decked out in a silly cape. The storyline was based on what its author thought was a true story about a young man named James Dallas Egbert who got into D&D in college, got overwhelmed, and vanished into some steam tunnels beneath his school.
Now, the real actual situation with the young man was that he had some emotional problems. He hadn’t died under the school at all; he’d left the tunnels, hidden at a friend’s house, and from there fled the city itself. Unfortunately, he did eventually succeed in killing himself in 1980–but D&D didn’t have anything to do with his life or death, it seems. The problem was that he was gay at a time when being gay was really frowned upon–and had nobody really in his life who understood him. But because of the Satanic Panic, his brief foray into D&D became the scapegoat that was blamed for his suicidal ideation, his disappearance beneath his school, and his eventual death.
Nobody knew that stuff at the time, though, especially not the people responsible for the travesty that was Mazes and Monsters.
It’s a storyline most of us know in our bones even if we’ve never seen it played-out: a group of young people get into D&D. One of them wigs out and takes the game way too far and thinks he is totally his character and does something terrible. DEMONS AND MAGIC ARE REAL Y’ALL ZOMG. The end.
So my mom made me and my sister watch this horrible movie. She sat and watched it with us. And as excruciating and mortifying as that experience was, something was about to follow that would be even worse. Seriously.
Back then, networks sometimes aired TV movies that were meant to teach a serious message. Then afterward there’d be this panel of experts and talking heads who would discuss what had just aired, contextualizing it and giving parents ideas about how to discuss the movie with their kids.
Years later, I’d make the mistake of trying to watch The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert with my Fox News-adoring dad and super-Catholic mom. But even that memory doesn’t even half compare to the sheer writhing white-hot mortal agony of the panel discussion that followed Mazes and Monsters.
All I remember of it now was telling my mom in a heated voice that absolutely none of the people on that panel knew what they were talking about. My sister and I were quite shocked by the movie and promised her that it was literally just a game and that’s it.
But Christians gonna Christian. They had a movie now, and quickly this one became part of their lore about real live supernatural stuff. A couple of years later it would become a quoted source document in the repertoire of Tom Radecki, another big name with Satanic Panic crusaders. The best-known of those brave crusaders, of course, was probably Pat Pulling, whose son “Bink” had committed suicide in much the same way as Mr. Egbert had and probably for much the same reasons. After his death, she went on a rampage blaming D&D for everything.
And in fundagelicals, Ms. Pulling discovered a whole network of people who’d hang on every word she said about the game.
Right Into the Ditch.
Mr. Radecki and Ms. Pulling clearly developed a lot of their own ideas about D&D from propaganda like Mazes and Monsters, which in turn drew from Christians’ weird misconceptualizations of the occult. (Much like how modern Christians seem to draw a lot of their ideas about the occult from the hit show Supernatural.)
Not one of the Christians involved, of course, ever actually tested a single one of these crusaders’ claims. It would have been easy to do, but as far as I know, however, not a single crusader involved in the Satanic Panic did that. They took it as read that yes, D&D was dangerous for occult reasons, and that all the testimonies and stories about kids going nuts after playing D&D were absolutely true. As happens with people who are not strictly tethered to reality, the Christians pushing this narrative constantly expanded and embellished it to sound more scary–made them much more money.
After concocting suitably scary stories, these hucksters regurgitated these fattened-up tales of theirs to Christian audiences, who had no idea in the world that nothing they were hearing was based on reality. They had no reason, they thought, not to trust the speakers their pastors hired to talk to them about this super-important topic. So they heard these stories, didn’t realize they were balderdash of the worst kind, and breathlessly retold these stories to whoever they could.Eventually, rank-and-file Christians created, in their Low Christianity folk religion, a whole cosmology about devils and angels fighting for people’s souls and corrupting the innocent in any way possible. That cosmology and the fear it created and stoked in Christians made them fertile hunting-grounds for the mountebanks pushing stuff like Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness and Bob Larson’s 1991 novel Dead Air—not to mention the rash of TOTALLY TRUE AND FOR REALSIES first-person “testimonies” of people who’d escaped from Satanic and Wiccan cults, such as the debunked Michelle Remembers by Michelle Smith and Satan’s Underground by the equally fraudulent Lauren Stratford/Willson. The explosive false biographies of evangelist Mike Warnke and supposed ex-witch Doreen Irvine, who claimed to have been ex-Wiccan Satanists, sat beside them in Christians’ growing collections.
The distinction between Satanism and Wicca was largely semantic to the Christians who bought into the Satanic Panic, really, since they thought that Wiccans were all Satanists. See, a central idea in the Satanic Panic was that rank-and-file Wiccans were Satanists without realizing it, while their leaders were all completely aware that they were Satanists–until reaching a certain level in Wicca, of course.
Yes, it was kind of a really lame The Last Starfighter with demons, witches, and spells instead of arcade machines. And also yes, that is actually more or less the plot of the infamous Chick tract and movie we reviewed last year, Dark Dungeons.
None of the audiences noticed or seemed to care that their leaders’ knowledge of Wicca and Satanism was nonexistent.
The Original World-Wide Web (of Satanism).
Slowly, the still-nascent gaming industry began to respond to these attacks. Probably the very best response to the Satanic Panic is a must-read report prepared by Michael Stackpole, a well-known game designer at the time (he’d later become an author of various BattleTech and Star Wars novels as well as the leader of the Phoenix Skeptics for a while). Michael Stackpole’s comprehensive work “The Pulling Report” gives readers not only the how and why of Pat Pulling’s path to becoming a Satanic Panic crusader, but also an examination of her actual expertise versus her stated expertise levels in both occultism and D&D.
Mr. Stackpole modestly says his report is “hardly exhaustive” in its introduction, but it’d be hard to find anything as well-prepared or articulate on the topic. He eviscerates Ms. Pulling’s claims, sensitively handles discussion of her son Bink’s death, and moves on to expose what appear to be the various deliberate deceptions and outright falsehoods that Ms. Pulling resorted to in order to achieve her various goals.
Among her weirder claims was the astonishing assertion that 8% of the people in Richmond, Virginia were Satanists “at some level” and that 300,000 people were involved in Satanism across the United States alone–with some of them being the fourth generation of Satanists in their families. Another central pillar of the Satanic Panic, of course, is that there’s some vast, underground network of Satanists who are slowly infiltrating and gaining control of all cultural and political power-bases in America: the government at all levels, law enforcement, the military, the fashion world, you name it. From their dark nests, they seek to ensorcel and enslave innocent children who think D&D is just a fun little game.
Christians particularly love to feel totally outmatched, like they’re the underdogs in the movies in their own heads, so this particular part of the Satanic Panic made them feel gooey in all the right ways. They were the embattled heroes fighting against the vast forces of their enemy! Plus they were totally fighting to protect their own children!
So yes, they wrote stories in newspapers about how children and teens were totally being corrupted by D&D and the growing number of games like it. They campaigned to make the game illegal. They blamed every single kind of societal ill on these games.
And Then POOF.
And then suddenly it seemed like every one of those freaked-out, panicking Christians vanished.
They had, literally, been totally into this culture war one day and then they checked out of it completely on the next morning. I was Christian toward the end of the panic, and I didn’t even notice that nobody seemed to be talking about the Satanic Underground or whatever anymore.
Where’d they go?
They went kinda quiet, is where they went.
When the panicky Christians dragged the staff of various daycares into court to face criminal charges of molestation, that may well have been the movement’s swan song. The cases (particularly the first one involving McMartin’s Pre-School in 1983) quickly became media circuses. No matter how bizarre or far-fetched the accusations sounded, courts and juries seemed eager to lap up the details. And innocent people got thrown in prison for years on these false charges that Christians concocted in their hysteria and paranoia. “Jesus” sure didn’t tell them that the people they were demonizing–literally!–were innocent.
Christians didn’t learn a thing from the denouement of their big moral movement, either. The causes of the Satanic Panic are still right there in their hearts, waiting to be exploited: their gullibility, their tendency to obey authority figures without questioning them, their inability to tell fact from fantasy or to assess claims, their tendency to believe the very worst about people outside their tribe, their inability to admit that they were totally wrong (much less make real amends for having offended), and worst of all their total inability to learn from previous misdeeds or errors, it’s all there.
Like that real-estate developer did in 1982’s Poltergeist, they moved the headstones of the Panic, but they never dug down to the bones beneath the headstones–so they’re all but guaranteed to fall for whatever next big scam comes their way.
Old News That Remains Relevant.
The reason I talk about the Satanic Panic is to remind people of what happens when a toxic group with real power has absolutely no tethers to reality.
Most Christians seem like they’d really rather everyone just forget those embarrassing years when they destroyed people’s lives and got a lot of people upset and scared for no good reason at all.
I don’t think they have the right to expect us to forget about it along with them.
At any point during the panic itself, I truly believe that major Christian leaders could have put a stop to what was happening in their pews. But they didn’t. At any point, someone in charge could have demanded that these accusations be tested and assessed. But no leader appears to have made that demand. And well before people got thrown in prison and their reputations destroyed, someone could have stood up and said “Look, this was all just a big mistake,” but nobody important enough to matter to Christians did so. When a few Christian groups even tried to debunk some of these liars-for-Jesus (like Cornerstone‘s brave journalists), you can imagine the pushback they got.
So instead of enjoying my Christmas with my grandparents, I had to watch idiots on TV blather for hours about stuff they literally had no idea in the world about. Those idiots frightened my mother when she should have been enjoying what would be one of our last times together as an extended family. I’m just incredibly thankful that Mom didn’t allow that made-up hysteria to govern her decision-making; she not only allowed us continue to play, but in time she even got into the game herself.
The vast majority of people who love D&D and other such games understand where the line is between fantasy and reality, but Christians don’t have that same lifeline. Thankfully, roleplaying games are much more of a mainstream, popular pastime–with even evangelicals playing them nowadays (I’ve had dozens of them tell me so over the years of this blog’s life, too, usually with a rueful chuckle over how older Christians still see the hobby). It’s harder to see roleplaying games as the boogeyman anymore. So these games’ power to terrify Christians is considerably diminished.
Plus, Christians simply don’t have the cultural clout anymore to push a moral panic to the general public. Certainly smaller moral panics come and go in the religion constantly, but a big widescale hysteria like the Satanic Panic seems beyond their reach. I shudder to imagine what they’d do if they could get back that level of dominance, but it doesn’t appear to be in the cards for them.
Or should I say in the dice?
Yes, I do believe I should.