The scariest thing about playing Dungeons & Dragons these days is that someone will think you’re a geek. (They’d be wrong; D&D is awesome and fun, especially if you need something to do with your friends over Zoom.) But in the 1980s, the tabletop role-playing game was widely considered to be a gateway to Hell. Literally.
If you’ve ever played Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, or any other tabletop RPG, then you know that it’s not actually going to teach you dark magic or devil worship. At worst, it’s a geeky way to enjoy a few hours with your friends. There will probably be cussing, possibly drinking, but hardly ever ritual Satanic sacrifice. I mean, not unless you really need to roll a nat 20.
So why did D&D have such an image problem during the 1980s? In part, it was due to the overarching theme of “satanic panic” during the era. But the mostly harmless game became the focal point of conservative paranoia thanks to two high-profile suicides and a host of propaganda.
In 1979, a teenager named James Dallas Egbert III attempted suicide in the tunnels beneath Michigan State University. He survived, however, and hid out with a friend for several weeks instead of going home.
Egbert’s family hired a private detective named William Dear who speculated that the boy’s hobby of playing D&D was linked to his disappearance. Dear spun a story to the press about students LARPing (that’s live-action role-playing) in the tunnels beneath the university. He believed that Egbert had been injured or killed during the fantasy game.
Meanwhile, Egbert made his way to Louisiana, where he attempted suicide again before reaching out to Dear. The detective arranged for Egbert to be placed with the boy’s uncle. Tragically, Egbert succeeded in killing himself the following year.
William Dear later released a book about the ordeal called The Dungeon Master, which in which he tried to set the record straight about the depressed, abused young man he’d tried to save. However, Rona Jaffe beat him to the punch with the fictionalized account in her novel Mazes and Monsters in 1981.
Mazes and Monsters was popular enough that it spawned a terrible made-for-TV movie starring a young Tom Hanks. In her version of the story, a group of college kids who get sucked into a role-playing game, losing touch with reality. Hanks’ character has a complete mental breakdown as a result of playing Mazes and Monsters.
If you’re wondering how bad the film could possibly be, the answer is: worse than you can imagine. Here’s a clip featuring (future Oscar winner) Tom Hanks.
In 1982, two years after the death of James Dallas Egbert III, another young man died by suicide. Irving “Bink” Pulling II was an active RPG player who enjoyed a campaign with friends at his school. After his death, Pulling’s mother became a campaigner against the alleged occult influence D&D had on her son.
Patricia Pulling founded BADD (that’s “Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons”). She claimed that Irving’s character had been cursed in the game shortly before his death. She furthermore claimed that the game promoted demonology, witchcraft, and murder, as well as homosexuality, gambling, prostitution, and cannibalism.
She wrote a book the game’s evils and went on both evangelical programs and mainstream news to denounce D&D.
Although they seem like satire now, Jack Chick was quite sincere with his series of black-and-white comics about the evils of tabletop RGPs. In “Dark Dungeons,” impressionable young kids get sucked into a world of real black magic by their darkly sexy dungeon master.
Chick apparently believed that D&D was conditioning children to join satanic cults and cast actual magic spells. Poor Debbie–AKA Elfstar–eventually repents after one of her party hangs herself. You can read the whole thing here.
These tracts seem laughable now, but at the time there was a real paranoia about Satanists infiltrating suburban America.