For longtime tabletop roleplaying game (RPG) fans, a February 16, 2010 Boston Herald article by Laurel J. Sweet, "Suspect in slays fan of 'Dungeons,'" brought unhappy flashbacks. Sweet claimed Dungeons & Dragons "has a long history of controversy, with objections raised to its demonic and violent elements"; she linked D&D to violent crime, a claim popular in the 1980s. For most of that decade, American society fell prey to a moral panic that linked RPGs with suicide, murder and Satanic ritual abuse - in the shorthand of the time, SRA.
Begun by fanatics, fomented by opportunists and hysterical media coverage, the Satanic Panic made life hard for tens of thousands of roleplayers. The furor should sound familiar to today's players of, say, Grand Theft Auto. This brief chronology hits some of the panic's lowlights and draws lessons from 25-30 years ago that apply strongly today.
[Note: These opinions are mine (Allen Varney) and don't necessarily represent those of The Escapist, its associated sites or its owners.]
• Even one or two solitary cranks can be dangerous. A "national organization" may well be one busybody with a letterhead.
• Moral panics originate from the public's sincere (if often misguided) concerns over some new thing, usually child-related. But the public quickly falls prey to opportunists, bullies and frauds, who (with enthusiastic media cooperation) escalate the panic to gain power, money and ratings.
• Parents who don't pay attention to their kids' activities may be easily alarmed and manipulated.
• Appeasing a bully never, ever works. Bring the fight to the attacker. Capitulation to a bully seldom brings good results.
1979: Michigan State University sophomore James Dallas Egbert III, 16, disappears from campus shortly before exams. Egbert's family hires private investigator William Dear to locate him. Because Egbert, a socially awkward gay epileptic drug addict, subscribed to Dragon Magazine and once attended Gen Con, Dear publicly speculates Egbert vanished in the steam tunnels beneath campus while playing D&D. Dear's claims (later downplayed in his 1985 book The Dungeon Master) provoke a media circus. In "The Devil in Ms. Pac-Man," Escapist editor Russ Pitts summarizes Egbert's sad history:
Egbert, a deeply troubled soul, had attempted suicide in the campus steam tunnels (not while playing D&D) and after failing to end his life (having not been trained well enough in weapon use by playing D&D), sought refuge at a friend's house, where he hid from his family and authorities for several weeks. He eventually succeeded in killing himself , but no connection to his death or his madness was ever convincingly made with D&D, save that he played it.
1980: Michelle Remembers by Canadian psychiatrist Lawrence (Larry) Pazder and "Michelle Smith" (Michelle Proby) is the first published SRA survivor account; in it, Pazder coins the term "ritual abuse." Pocket Books pays a $100,000 hardcover advance and $242,000 for paperback rights. Pazder divorced his first wife the year before; court documents indicate Pazder and Proby disappeared for lengthy intervals together starting in March 1977, while she was his patient. Pazder later marries Proby.
Michelle Remembers sells strongly, and Pazder goes on to a lucrative career consulting in more than 1,000 ritual abuse court cases. The book's success spawns many imitators, including The Satan Seller by Mark Warnke and Satan's Underground by "Lauren Stratford" (Laurel Rose Wilson).
Publisher TSR's Fiend Folio is the last D&D/ AD&D product that dares depict a nipple.
1982: High school student Irving (Bink) Pulling II, 16, of Richmond, Virginia, commits suicide with his mother's pistol. Like Egbert, Bink Pulling was troubled; he once disemboweled 17 pet rabbits and a neighborhood cat. When his mother, Patricia Pulling, learns Bink played D&D at school the day of his suicide - the first time she's heard of the game - she becomes convinced he killed himself due to a "curse" placed on him in a game. She sues both the school (Pulling v. Bracey, 1984) and TSR. When both lawsuits are dismissed, Pulling founds a small advocacy group, Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (BADD). She describes D&D as "a fantasy roleplaying game which uses demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, satanic-type rituals, gambling, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning, necromantics, divination and other teachings."
Classmate Don Moss writes about Bink Pulling, "D&D had nothing to do with his suicide; in fact, Katherine [Moss's wife, who had for a time dated Bink] told me he probably wrote that in his note just to mess with his mom, who he truly despised and was not a nice person."
Pulling soon allies with Illinois psychiatrist Thomas Radecki, who runs another one-person organization, the National Coalition on Television Violence. In numerous petitions, lectures, talk show appearances and "expert" legal testimony, the two moral entrepreneurs energetically link RPGs, along with pagan religion and heavy metal music, to the SRA scare. At one point Radecki quotes as fact a fictional "letter to the editor" in Mazes and Monsters.
CBS airs a TV adaptation of Mazes and Monsters, starring 26-year-old Tom Hanks.
The publicity brings unpleasant surprises for D&D/AD&D players. Young gamer Andy Vetromile (later a GURPS writer) phones a Georgia toy store seeking D&D products. "I was aware the couple who owned it had a strong Christian background. I hadn't considered this until the wife told me, 'No, we don't carry that. We had a couple of suicides because of it.'"