Satanic panic

A typical D&D session

The “Satanic panic” is familiar to people of a certain age, and apparently is not well understood by younger folks.

Two good references about the general phenomena of the ‘satanism scare’ of the 1970s/1980s are:

  • The Satanism scare / James T. Richardson, Joel Best, David G. Bromely (eds.). New York : Aldine de Gruyter, c1991. [isbn 0202303780]
  • Satanic panic : the creation of a contemporary legend / Jeffrey S. Victor. Chicago : Open Court, c1993. [isbn 0812691911 ; 081269192x]

Those two are fairly ‘academic’ but each has a chapter specifically discussing D&D in the Satanism scare (as well as other references passim).  Both arrive at the conclusion that those who criticize and condemn the game do so not on the basis of any particular facts (including game content and the actual behavior of players) but for thoroughly ideological reasons, having more to do with the desire to control leisure activities in secular settings and their conviction that any imaginative use of fantasy opens one up to satanic attack or unwitting deals with devil (no, seriously).  I am a little less comfortable with the first book because the chapter on D&D is co-authored by Gary Alan Fine, who also wrote the book Shared fantasy, which is relatively well-regarded in academic circles (being the first and for a long time only academic exploration of RPGs) but despised by some of his interview subjects who felt betrayed by what they feel were sensationalism.  Another thing that struck me is that both books were published in the 1990s, and mention satanic panic-type attacks on the game even into the 1990s.

Pretty much any book about Satanism and the Satanism scare in America will touch on D&D or RPGs generally.  Online I guess you could just as well look over Michael Stackpole’s The Pulling report, or CAR-RPa (the Committee for the Advancement of Role-Playing Games), or even Wikipedia’s article on D&D controversies . Oh, and an honor’s thesis on game censorship which examines moral panics mainly in Australia about both FRPs and computer/video games.  The Escapist has a nice timeline too.  I’d look for more on this online but I’m exhausted by all this.

Growing up in New Jersey in the late 70s and early 80s, I remember the ‘Satanism scare’ being a fairly serious topic, even in a relatively liberal suburb of Philadelphia.  Reports about Satanism were everywhere. Satanic serial killers and ritual abusers were the rage on talk shows. Satanic motorcycle gangs were described by enthusiastic middle-school kids (the ones I knew, anyway).  Televangelists described backward masking and secret messages in rock music (and not just heavy metal … I recall Pink Floyd and the Eagles being singled out by a show I saw on cable, called “The Eagles’ Nest”).  It wasn’t just a meme among fundamentalists either — one of the “CCD” teachers at the local Catholic church would go on and on about how things as disparate as the ‘peace symbol,’ KISS, and Johnson & Johnson products held satanic messages. (The “Johnson & Johnson’s is Satanic” legend actually originated among Amway salesmen, looking to knock the competition!)

Some very conservative relatives in New England worried that D&D may be a bad influence on me & my brother, but no one I knew took the D&D-is-Satanic claims very seriously.  At least, until I moved to Kansas.  In the summer of  1986 my family relocated to Olathe, Kansas.  Olathe was considered a fairly liberal place, located not far from Lawrence, Kansas.  But it was in Kansas that I began hearing serious discussions about whether rock music etc. was satanic.  One of the regulars in the high-school gaming group my brother assembled had extremely conservative, Southern Baptist parents (who claimed, for example, that Roman Catholics are not Christians)  — but they nonetheless allowed us to game at his house on occasion.

Finally in early 1989 (or maybe late 1988) we relocated again to northeast Ohio.  Among my highschool peers I met several people who were either forbidden to play D&D or who had been under constant threat of being banned from the game and/or the gaming group, and in every case it was for religious reasons — the game is evil, teaches witchcraft, etc.  In Ohio I first saw the infamous Chick tract “Dark dungeons” and, in my student job in the public library, began to see books like Bob Larson’s Satanism : the seduction of America’s youth. (If you haven’t seen this, there is hilarious chapter on RPGs…except that it isn’t really funny when you think about how this sort of stuff affects kids, who are hounded by their parents or pastors to give up something that is harmless.)  One guy we gamed with had an absent father and an overzealous mother and sisters who mocked and berated him for playing D&D, and ultimately destroyed his game books.  Another guy stopped into a hobby shop in the next town over and asked if they had any D&D stuff, only to be kicked out by the owner — “None of that Satanic junk here!”

Based on the stuff I have been reading in newspaper archives from the 1980s, this was pretty normal.  Schools and libraries started D&D clubs in the early 1980s and parents banned them in the later 1980s.  A lot of nerdy kids who found friends and joy in gaming were pressured to give it up.  In the wider satanic panic, I don’t  think many gamers were unjustly accused and convicted of crimes (as a number of day care workers, rock fans, and others were!) but still, the social ostracism was real and it had almost nothing to do with the actual content of the games.

When TSR tried to clean up D&D’s image, it didn’t do any good among the critics.  It might have removed some of the “evidence” they could point to, but honestly, this stuff is never about “evidence.”  Removing devils and demons and assassins does not solve “the problem.”  Look at the way the same zealots are still condemning stuff like Harry Potter, for crying out loud.  Reading the batshit crazy book The truth about Dungeons and Dragons reaffirmed my conviction that what really bothers the critics is not the magic, the monsters, or the mayhem.  It’s the make-believe.  Maybe stuff like the Grindhouse edition of Raggi’s game throws a little kindling on the fire, but in truth the zealots will be just as inflamed by the Mouse Guard game as they are by D&D.

But don’t take my word for it.  Here are some excerpts from the panicked:

From The truth about Dungeons & Dragons by Joan Hake Robie:

Dungeons and Dragons can be described as follows:

  • The bizarre cast list of characters includes demons, dragons, witches, zombies, harpies, gnomes, and creatures who cast spells and exercise supernatural powers.
  • It dabbles with demonic spirits and promotes the influence of the occult.
  • It encourages sex and violence.
  • It is a form of Devil worship.
  • It has been banned from public schools in Utah, summer recreation programs in California, and a minister in Kansas wants to collect money to purchase and burn every copy he can find. (p. 11-12)

Not much new there; but keep reading and you discover that the main objection is not to the particular trappings of black magic or diabolism you find in the 1st edition AD&D manuals. Robie and her ilk object to magic, the supernatural, and fantasy as such, because they apparently tempt people to invite the Devil or evil spirits into their lives…just by talking about or imagining them.  She concludes her book with a “letter from a DM” who tries very badly to defend D&D against some of these charges.  Robie responds, paragraph by paragraph, with some fascinating and insane stuff, but she saves the most revealing one for last (elipses in the original):

(DM): So you can see, every person who plays D&D is not corrupted, or turned away from Christ. This game has taught me how to co-operate with people, how to get along with them, and with God’s blessing it will continue to do so … Jesus provided an escape for us, but when we want to get something off our mind, there’s nothing like a diversion.”

(Author’s response): Sorry, Dungeon Master, God will never bless D&D or its works. You are right when you say “Jesus has provided an escape for us.” But that escape is through Himself–not through Dungeons and Dragons. (p.74)

Robie is saying that any escapism is inherently Satanic.

She also ghostwrote most of Phil Phillips’ book Turmoil in the Toybox, which argues similarly that Saturday morning cartoons and the children’s toys based on them are teaching Satanism to children. (No, really: read an excerpt here.)  It’s not just Elminster and Robilar that are Knights In Satan’s Service*, but He-Man and the Smurfs** too.

I would also refer the morbidly curious to A Christian response to Dungeons and Dragons, a 23 page pamphlet available in PDF here.  In some ways the views here are more measured but ultimately it is not that D&D players might take on the role of an assassin or necromancer that is problematic, it is that the DM assumes a ‘godlike’ role and the players dabble in any kind of activity not specifically permitted to real life Christians, like magic use.  Clean up D&D all you want; the problem is not that PCs might be evil; it is that PCs might use magic at all:

Dungeons and Dragons is a dangerous game. It serves as an introduction to evil, a catechism of occultism, a primer for the ABCS of the New Age. It is a recruiting tool of Satan. It can alter the daily behavior of regular players. It stimulates the seamier side of our imaginations. It is an enormously attractive and effective escape for people frustrated with life. For many it becomes pure, obsessive fantasy, in its most destructive form. It is no longer a game, an imaginative diversion, but a substitute universe in which the player pretends to be his own God and to make his own rules. (p. 16)

Bob Larson’s Satanism: the seduction of America’s youth (1989) devotes one short chapter and two appendices to D&D and FRPs generally.  Although he does cite specific “evil” and demonological content in the games, his problem with D&D is mainly that such games invite real demonic entities into one’s life:

… the truth is that Dungeons & Dragons guides participants into a world of nonmaterial entities, forces, and spirits. Obviously, if such beings exist, the line of demarcation between fantasy and reality can easily be blurred. Warn anyone you know who plays D&D, “There is no assurance that conjuring an imagined entity will prevent a real spirit from responding!”(p. 54)

Larson includes an appendix on D&D, largely culled from the extravagant claim of  Dr. Thomas Radecki, which has gems like “Unfortunately, fantasy role playing games like D&D encourage evil. They reward players with power points for casting curses and remorselessly slaughtering each other.” And “in D&D manuals, Gygax encourages players to become their characters and even uses Adolph Hitler a role model for charisma.” (p. 202)  One appendix lists “occult games” other than D&D and it mentions Powers & Perils, Warhammer (Roleplay), Stormbringer, and Warlock of Firetop Mountain alongside the kabbalah and dowsing rods as tutors of evil. (Powers & perils? Was that even still in print in 1989?!?)  (Appendix C of Larson’s book, which purports to identify “Black metal music,” lists: Anthrax, Danzig, Dio, Exodus, Grim Reaper, Helloween, Iron Maiden, Megadeth, Metal Church, and Metallica as the prominent ones and Celtic Frost, Sam Hain, Satan, Sodom, and Possessed as minor bands.  Sounds more like a roster of thrash and power metal to me, but  I think at least a couple of these may actually qualify as black metal, and his comments focus almost entirely on the album covers.  An earlier chapter focuses on King Diamond and Slayer — two unambiguously Satanic acts, at least on stage — and their obvious progenitors: The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin!)

In all fairness, it is not just Christian fundamentalists who were behind the D&D=Satanism meme; Patricia Pulling (of BADD fame) was actually a fundamentalist Jew.  I strongly suspect Moslem extremists would be no less opposed to such things too.

Anyway my point is, there is no use trying to ‘clean up’ or ‘sanitize’ RPGs to satisfy their critics.  Those who think them evil or dangerous might focus on the inclusion of demons and devils and pentagrams in the monster manuals and art, but what really bothers them is not the darkness of some of the fantasy, it is the fantasy itself.  The magic, the imagination, the escapism.

I never fully understood the label of “escapist” till my friend Professor Tolkien asked me the very simple question, ‘What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?’ and gave the obvious answer: jailers. –C.S. Lewis,”On Science Fiction”

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*My CCD teacher in 5th or 6th grade claimed that the crappy rock band KISS’s name stood for Knights In Satan’s Service or Kids In Satan’s Service.  She also loved to tell us various urban legends (many of the very ones you’ll find in books like The Choking Doberman) and claimed they were all true.

**The Smurfs are obviously Communists, not Satanists.  Nota bene: Papa Smurf wears a RED hat.  Communal living arrangements; sharing food and all the goods in the village; and the blatant shibboleth/jargon they use, much like real Communists.  Their enemy?  The obviously capitalist Gargomel, who wants to literally turn them into gold — a powerful and easily understood metaphor for the exploitation of labor!

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Published in: on August 24, 2011 at 2:00 pm  Comments (7)  
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  1. In one of your footnotes, you mention CCD teacher. What does “CCD” mean?

    • Confraternity of Christian Doctrine … the Catholic equivalent of Sunday school, except it was usually not on Sundays and continues from about grade 1-8. You learn Church history, catechism, prayers, and have to do good deeds.

  2. Great article Mike! I missed most of this stuff in my youth but did see some of it during the year I spent in Texas right after graduation.

    All I can really say is that I am bummed that I am missing tonight’s satanic session! Hope you guys have fun and that I don’t seem too obsessed.

    • Thanks, Chad!

  3. “They reward players with power points for casting curses and remorselessly slaughtering each other.”

    Okay, there’s a new party game: PVP free-for-all, winners get real life POWER POINTS. Man, this brings back memories, the KISS acronym, the Johnson & Johnson logo, I heard it all too. I was lucky that my mother trusted me when I said “the ugly things on the covers are the bad guys, we fight them,” even though being pressured by the family to stop our satanic play. Of course, in my church we weren’t supposed to dance, or go to the movies, or swim with the opposite gender . . .

  4. Excellent analysis of the situation. We didn’t get all that in our CCD classes, but our elementary music teacher was an evangelical type and was always up in arms about things like that, especially KISS.

    Luckily, my family trusted me and my cousins and realized that the game was good for us, not some secret pathway to… EEEEEVIL!!!

  5. Here’s an article from Mental Floss that covers some examples of how D&D was covered in the 1980s:

    http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/155782


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