When you hear the words “Dungeons and Dragons,” you may think about an epic role-playing adventures with your friends. Even if you’ve never played the game yourself, you’re probably at least familiar with it because of movies and TV series like Stranger Things. But in the 1980s, some Christian parents thought Dungeons and Dragons was the work of the devil. They believed that the fictional spells children learned in the game were actually real, and it was like a gateway for joining a Satanic cult.
If you thought witch hunts ended with the Puritans in Salem, think again. The so-called Satanic Panic had parents worried that Lucifer himself was ready to steal the souls of teenagers everywhere, and he was using demonic entertainment to lure them in. Whether it was through heavy metal music, Ouija boards, or video games, nothing even remotely fun was safe from fundamentalist Christians.
Now, this idea didn’t just come out of nowhere. It took quite a few years for society to quietly slip backwards with their progress in logic and scientific thinking into a full-fledged fear that demons were coming to get their children.
After the horrific killings of serial killers like Charles Manson, and an uptick in awareness about cults, people had a difficult time digesting how this kind of evil could exist in the world without a real Devil to blame for it all. Every time people turned on the news, something else horrible was happening.
For fundamentalist Christian groups, this was a sign that the end of days was upon them, and the battle of good versus evil was just around the corner. It was a perfect opportunity for new hyper-Christian groups and so-called experts to appear, and people found comfort in believing that they were one of the good guys.
One of the instigators of this movement was a conspiracy theorist named John Todd. He claimed that he was raised in a family of real witches, and it was only through the power of Christianity that he was able to escape the clutches of the devil. He claimed that the Illuminati and Satanists were trying to come after Christians, and that there was a war on the horizon. This was all fiction, of course, and Todd changed his name more times than a catfish on a dating app. One of his many lies was that Dungeons and Dragons had contributed to his occult upbringing, and that it was a sort of guide book on how to do real-life magic.
For anyone who has ever actually played Dungeons and Dragons even once or twice, you’ll know that you’re more likely to fall asleep waiting for your turn than to feel compelled to do Satan’s bidding. But that didn’t stop parents from completely misunderstanding how the game worked. But these fears became justified in the minds of parents when the game began to be connected to a series of murders and suicides.
One of the most notable cases happened when a Michigan State University student named James Egbert III disappeared from his dorm room. James enjoyed computer programming, and played Dungeons and Dragons with his friends. Kids in that area spent a lot of time exploring tunnels that went under the local power plant, so when he went missing, Egbert’s parents hired a private detective named William Dear to find him. Since Dear knew about these tunnels, he decided to check to see if Egbert had gone there as well. Sadly, he was right, and he found the body of James Egbert, who had committed suicide by shooting himself.
The fact that someone who was so young and with such a bright future ahead of them chose to take his own life is a hard thing for people to wrap their heads around. Instead of recognizing that he was suffering from depression, and he had a history with drugs, the media used D&D as their scapegoat. He was playing this “evil” game. They tried to claim that he and his friends live action role played their games in the underground tunnels, and that when his character died, he needed to die, as well. For anyone who has ever played the game, you’ll know that it’s relatively easy to just pull up a new character sheet, but parents decided all on their own that this was the reason why he died.
The Tom Hanks movie Mazes and Monsters was made based on the story. In the film, the players don’t just sit around rolling dice. They take the game out into the real world, and Hank’s character, who is based on James Egbert, becomes brainwashed into believing the game is all too real.
Sadly, the deaths and suicides related to D&D did not stop there. But as the owner of Dungeons and Dragons pointed out during a 1985 interview with 60 Minutes, millions of children played D&D during the 1970s and ’80s, and 5,000 kids committed suicide in America in 1985 alone. So if one or two kids just so happened to play the game, it was a coincidence. And as they rightly pointed out, school sports or TV wasn’t getting the blame for their deaths, even though there it was even more likely for teens to share those kinds of hobbies.
Just like every fear-mongering epidemic in the media, there is always a so-called expert witness. In this case, it was a psychologist named Thomas Radecki. He called Dungeons and Dragons “violence worship” and even tried to claim that he witnessed kids summoning demons and astral projecting while they played the game. When asked for proof of the mental disorders caused by D&D, he cited Mazes and Monsters, which we have already established is a complete work of fiction. He later formed a group called the National Coalition on Television Violence. In the end, Dr. Radecki wasn’t exactly a saint, himself. He ended up going to prison on charges related to drugs.
Despite the logic that was right in front of them, Christian parents still tried to ban the game, and they raised their children to stay away from it. One Evangelical comic artist named Jack Chick wrote a story called “Dark Dungeons” about a young girl who gets pulled into the “cool crowd” of D&D players, and she also loses touch with reality. He claimed that the game was training for practicing the occult, and that children would eventually be invited to partake in Satanic rituals. In the comic, he claims that if you truly love Jesus, you would go and burn all of your rock music and expensive D&D materials right away.
In 2014, a group called Zombie Orpheus Entertainment decided to make a movie based on Dark Dungeons. While they decided to play out the story exactly how it was portrayed by Jack Chick… it is clearly a parody. It’s easy to see how ridiculous the concept is that someone could get addicted to D&D like drugs and alcohol at a college party.
But, of course, as the number of D&D players around the world has grown to 20 million people and counting, and the world still hasn’t caused a portal to Hell to open up below us, the idea that the game was to blame for death and destruction fizzled out of the memories of the public.
Now, the culprit for brainwashing young people happens to be video games. If we can learn anything from the Satanic Panic, it would be that fundamentalist Christian groups are going to find a way to blame the devil for nearly every new thing kids happen to love, and it’s best to use your logic before you fall prey to fear mongering.