Content warning for discussion of murder, suicide, and mentions of child abuse.
Through the 1980s, Satan made regular headlines. Folks kept blaming the devil for luring kids to murder, suicide, and ritual sacrifice. Police dutifully investigated. The falsely accused sometimes went to prison only to be cleared years later. And the media trumpeted every lurid moment. Concerned parents found the devil’s work in heavy metal music, Dungeons & Dragons, and especially day care centers. The fervor became known as the Satanic Panic.
The panic started in 1980, but its power came from the culture of the seventies.
Throughout the seventies, the counterculture of the sixties lingered as a new age passion for astrology, crystals, and such. To some, things like tarot cards and witchcraft just seemed like a way to explore their spirituality in daring ways, but Christian fundamentalists saw the fad as an invitation to the devil.
In 1969, Charles Manson led his followers to perform a series of murders. The group staged the killings to appear ritualistic, leading the public to search for other murderous cults potentially inspired by the devil. The seventies had no more serial killers than other eras, but serial killers now got nationwide attention. The public learned how killers could seem like friends and neighbors, and how their bloody crimes might follow a ritual pattern. The Zodiac Killer even coined his nickname from astrology.
In the media, The Satanic Bible by Anton LaVey reached bookstores in 1969 and went to sell over a million copies. In 1973 the The Exorcist set box office records. The movie claimed to be based on a true story.
Meanwhile, the number of women working outside the home surged. They put their children in day care, but they felt guilty about it and feared time outside the home might somehow damage their children.
To battle what seemed like a rise of a depraved and godless culture, conservative Christians like Jerry Falwell organized the religious right into a voting block and helped elect Ronald Reagan as president.
Together, these trends created the right culture for a panic. The furor started when a 1980 book titled Michelle Remembers became a bestseller. The book tells how its author, psychiatrist Dr. Larry Pazder, treated a housewife named Michelle Smith using a technique called “recovered-memory therapy.” Prazder claimed to have uncovered Smith’s repressed memories from when she was five years old. She claimed to remember being given to a satanic cult and enduring 14 months of captivity and torture, while seeing ritual murders and mutilations, often involving babies. Today, recovered memory therapy is discredited as pseudoscience, but then many accepted Smith’s stories as fact. Pazder and Smith established themselves as authorities in “Satanic Ritual Abuse,” and they became resources for psychologists and law enforcement authorities. They made television appearances on shows like Oprah.
An anxious public came alert to the threat of satanic cults hiding next door, and they started seeing the devil’s influence everywhere.
In 1983, a California mother named Judy Johnson accused staff at her son’s preschool of abusing him. Questioned by investigators, her accusations grew to include sexual encounters with animals and a story of one teacher flying through the air. Prosecutors found no evidence, but the investigation expanded to interviewing several hundred children who had attended to school. Interviewers used suggestive techniques that invited children to pretend or speculate on supposed events. Children told of sexual abuse, and also of flying witches, hot air balloon trips, animal sacrifices, and a goat man. During the interviews, one child identified Chuck Norris from a photo as one of the abusers. Based on media reports, the day care seemed like a front for a satanic cult. The investigation lasted until 1987, and trials until 1990, when all charges were dropped without convictions. After a 12-day psychiatric examination during the affair, Judy Johnson was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.
News media and talk shows made the scandal into a national spectacle. Across the country, people found clues that seemed to reveal satanic cults hiding everywhere. Rumors spread that the consumer goods corporation Proctor & Gamble supported Satan. The evidence came from the company’s man-in-the moon logo from 1882. Part of the man’s beard resembled a reversed number 666 and the image included thirteen stars, a reference to the thirteen original U.S. colonies. Law enforcement officers trained to spot cult activities and traded information about satanic calendars, symbols, and supposed organizations. Authorities spent millions investigating hundreds of accusations of satanic abuse, especially in day care centers. They put suspects in jail and ruined lives and families. Eventually though, the cases proved baseless.
While this panic raged, D&D featured devilish-looking creatures and idols on the covers of its rule books. Inside, concerned parents found descriptions of demons, devils, and spells that could summon them. In 1979, the public learned about the game from reports that painted the game as “bizarre” and its players as “cultish.” During the Satanic Panic, D&D became a lightning rod.
D&D co-creators Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson both identified as Christians. Gary’s devotion even led him to refuse to celebrate Christmas, in part because of the holiday’s pagan roots. But Gygax recognized D&D as make believe and happily added elements from real Christian religion to the game. That included holy men who could walk on water and turn sticks into snakes. He added demons named in Christian sources. If demons and devils served as foes to kill, Gygax saw them as fair game for pretending.
However, fundamentalists saw the game differently. In 1980, Utah parents demanded that Wasatch High School ban its D&D club because the game’s lack of holy reverence for biblical miracles like water walking and resurrection. Christian Life Ministries examined D&D and reported on the dangers they perceived. “If it’s only a game, why do they use hundreds of traditional Christian terms? And why do they use them in such blatantly blasphemous ways?? Why??” Across the country, parents fought to rid D&D from their schools.
In 1982, teenager Irving “Bink” Pulling II committed suicide. The Washington Post reported that the boy had trouble fitting in. A classmate said, “He had a lot of problems anyway that weren’t associated with the game.” On his death, his mother Patricia Pulling learned for the first time that Irving had been playing D&D for the last two years. She blamed the strange game for her son’s death and started a crusade against D&D. She founded the group BADD, short for Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons. She sued her son’s high school principal for negligently allowing D&D play at the school. She sued D&D publisher TSR and accused the company of brainwashing kids and leading them to the occult. “If kids can believe in a god they can’t see then it’s very easy for them to believe in occult deities they can’t see.”
Televangelists like Pat Robertson, whose Christian Broadcasting Network reached millions, connected the game to “news reports of murders, suicides, fantasy mental changes. Young people are going totally crazy as a result of this game.” Evangelist Jack Chick published Dark Dungeons (1984), a comic that aimed to show readers how D&D led to Satan.
Many parents saw the alarm about devil worship as silly, but they still worried that the game blurred reality and fantasy in unhealthy ways, potentially causing psychological damage. The news offered plenty of stories to support that fear. For a while in the eighties, anytime a young victim of suicide happened to play D&D, the media reported on the D&D angle. A youth convicted in a murder case even tried to use D&D as part of his defense, claiming the game accustomed him to violence and led him away from God. Whenever tragedy struck the lives of young people who happened to play D&D, parents looked for something to blame, and the strange new game they didn’t understand seemed like an obvious culprit.
In 1985 more than 22 million people watched a segment linking Dungeons & Dragons to suicide and murder on the prime-time news show 60 Minutes. The report interviewed Pat Pulling and her tearful daughter. Gygax defended his game, but he stood little chance against the emotional appeal. On 60 Minutes, part of the entertainment comes from showing apparently guilty culprits squirm under the camera. Gygax tried to explain that D&D’s surging popularity meant that millions of kids played the game and, separately, some of those kids happened to be involved in tragedy. He aptly called criticism of D&D a witch hunt. The segment steered away from the devil-worship angle and toward the notion that the game damaged young minds. Still, psychiatrist Thomas Radecki talked about parents who saw their son “summon a Dungeons & Dragons demon into his room before he killed himself.”
To defend D&D from claims that the game threatened emotional harm, TSR hired psychologist and TV personality Dr. Joyce Brothers. TSR avoided ever showing gameplay that blurred reality with fantasy, so Gen Con banned any “live action events.”
To defend D&D from claims that the game lured kids to the occult, TSR removed the devilish idols and efreet from the covers of the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide in favor of more wholesome pictures in 1983. Then they renamed Deities & Demigods to Legends & Lore. The game’s second edition removed the words “devil” and “demon” and replaced them with the purely make-believe terms “tanar’ri” and “baatezu.”
Today, most parents’ opinion of D&D completely reverses the fears of the eighties. Parents see the game as a creative activity that teaches teamwork, encourages reading, practices arithmetic, fosters social skills, and creates real-world friendships. Today’s parents fear that children spend too much time glued to screens, so best of all, D&D games encourage kids to spend time with friends together at the kitchen table.
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