A Sympathetic Investigation of Cultural Factors That Gave Support to
the Factually Inaccurate Campaign Against Dungeons & Dragons
Spring Semester 2020
HIS490 History Senior Thesis
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: The History of Dungeons & Dragons and its Opponents...………………………… 6
Chapter 2: The Satanic Ritual Abuse Panic……………………………………………..…….. 29
Chapter 3: The Evangelical/Fundamentalist Movement and the War for the Nation…………. 48
Chapter 4: Parental Anxiety and Demonized Children’s Media………………………………. 62
Once upon a time in the late 1970s, a couple of friends made a game called Dungeons &
Dragons where players could tell stories of fantasy heroes defeating the forces of evil and
seeking out long-lost treasures. A game of imagination and teamwork, it swept the nation with
millions of young adults playing. But there were many who thought it was a carefully crafted
introduction to the occult and a mental health hazard. They held seminars, wrote books, and went
on TV shows fervently warning parents to keep their children away from this corruptive and
potentially dangerous game. Though players of the game protested this representation, arguing
that there was no clear evidence to back up such claims, many parents and evangelical leaders
accepted these claims as fact. Later, sociologists and scientists studied the effects of playing
Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) and were unable to find conclusive evidence for any claims of
suicidal or occult influence.
Humans have always been susceptible to narratives shared by adamant proponents. It is
easy to hear several pieces of anecdotal evidence from a passionate source and accept his or her
claims as true. It is much more difficult to remain distanced from a hot-topic issue until a clear
picture has surfaced, separate from emotion.
This thesis seeks to urge readers to be discerning when a new hot-topic issue comes to the
forefront. It also desires to encourage readers to look with grace upon past generations. Hindsight
is 2020 and it is vital to give individuals the benefit of the doubt when studying past mistakes. It
is easy to perceive one’s self or generation as morally or intellectually superior to those of the
past because their mistakes look so avoidable. One must understand past generations culture and
surroundings before passing judgement. In today’s society it is far too common to judge past
individuals based on the circumstances and paradigms of today.
Thus, this thesis has one purpose: to provide a more sympathetic explanation of the
parental concerns regarding D&D in the 1980s. This is particularly necessary since most anti-
D&D proponents had religious backgrounds. Academic scholarship on this topic is often harsh or
demeaning towards those who were on the “wrong side of history,” either discounting their
mental faculties or including their capacity for belief in a God as a lazy explanation for why they
could not tell the difference between fiction and reality. Instead, this thesis gives a more
balanced explanation for why individuals would have believed that a game of scratch paper and
dice could directly cause suicide or occult activity.
Chapter One gives an overview of the history behind Dungeons & Dragons. It tells how
complex wargaming simulations set in motion the eventual design for a multiplayer collaborative
storytelling game where players take the roles of detailed custom fantasy characters. Legal
difficulties behind the scenes did not stop D&D from becoming a massive hit despite fervent
detractors. A couple of highly publicized incidents of disappearance and suicide were falsely
associated with D&D and sparked a nationwide concern over this strange new game. Books,
tracts, and newspaper articles were written spreading unverifiable claims that D&D caused
suicide and occult behavior. By the end of the 1990s, anti-D&D rhetoric faded from the spotlight
as D&D was well established and no longer new news. Chapter One concludes with an overview
of the academic studies done on the effects of D&D, none of which give any validation to the
passionately held concerns of many parents.
Chapter Two describes the largest occult concern of the late 20th century, the Satanic
ritual abuse (SRA) panic. As the D&D scare was not an isolated incident of occult concern,
understanding what caused the SRA panic will in turn help explain the cultural setting in which
D&D came on stage. Increased awareness of sexual abuse, specific judicial and psychological
treatments of victims and perpetrators, fears over cults and Satanism, and questionable
advancements in psychology all played an important role in the wave of absurd accusations of
ritual sexual abuse by children against child-care and preschool workers. Soon people all over
the nation were afraid that organized satanic cults had infiltrated child-care facilities across
America. The thesis concludes with a discussion of moral panics, what they are, and how the
SRA panic compares to and bolstered the D&D scare.
Chapter Three delves into the evangelical movement and why it was so willing to accept
the anti-D&D narrative. Christians teach that Satan and his demons are in an active war to
subvert the nation’s morals. Accordingly, they will be more open to believing a suspicious game
with associations to the occult, however dubious, is essentially a children’s primer into the occult
and can cause suicide. The resurgence of the evangelical subculture into the public and political
sphere gave anti-D&D ideas a strong platform for dissemination. To a community that expects
Satan to be attempting devious ways to infiltrate the family and steal young adults away from the
faith, D&D seemed like an obvious threat.
Chapter Four shifts focus away from 1980s culture and circumstances and instead shines
the light on the past legacy of American parenthood. A mid-1900s paradigm shift left parents
seeing children as fundamentally fragile and vulnerable to the influences of the world. The
anxiety laying on parents’ shoulders continued to grow as parenting advice became increasingly
focused on parents doing everything right. The massive spike in suicide rates for young teenage
men only exacerbated the fears of anxious parents. Past precedent had parents blaming many
social ills on innovative forms of media for children that with each decade became increasingly
explicit. Penny dreadfuls, radio, movies, comic books, and television all had their turn as the
target of campaigns for decency and censorship. The blame D&D received as a cause of suicide
fits nicely beside the other forms of entertainment as another target in a long line of children’s
media accused of causing social degeneracy.
In the decades following the D&D scare, as D&D continued to grow in popularity and the
hype surrounding its alleged dangers faded from lack of support, gamers explained the D&D
scare phenomenon as a result of unreasonable and deluded conservative and Christian parenting
communities. However, this seems like a lazy and unfair explanation. To claim a whole
generation of parents lacked the mental capacity to “clearly” see that D&D was not problematic
is to fail to understand the situation these parents lived in. The parents of the 1980s were not
irrational in their condemnation of D&D; rather, a perfect storm of more universally
acknowledged occult/satanic concerns, the return of combative traditional/fundamentalist
Christian worldviews to the public sphere, and a precedent of anxious parents considering forms
of children’s media to be fundamentally corrupting made concerns about D&D a natural
The History of Dungeons & Dragons and its Opponents
Dungeons & Dragons quickly moved from small hobby game, to nationwide
phenomenon, to social scapegoat in a matter of a few short years. Parents and journalists had
difficulty wrapping their heads around this unfamiliar and strange new concept called tabletop
roleplaying. Disappearances and suicides misattributed to D&D eventually lead to an entire
movement, educating people on D&D-related suicide and satanic activity. This chapter will
discuss the wargaming origins of D&D and its rise to national sensation, the source and extent of
the anti-D&D sentiment, and what the academic research shows about the validity of the
The roots of Dungeons & Dragons and tabletop roleplaying games in general stem not
from traditions of narrative and storytelling, but historically complex and serious simulations of
war. As early as the 19th century, Prussian soldiers used simulations as a way to teach military
strategy. In these kinds of "games," two opponents would face head to head with miniature
armies and using their knowledge of military tactics, out-maneuver and overcome their
opponent. Usually a senior officer oversaw the simulation and was the final arbiter on what the
results of a maneuver would be. These simulations required complex mathematical calculations
and were designed to experiment with and work out the science of war. When the Prussian
military defeated France in 1870, European powers attributed this success to their war games and
consequently, other Western militaries began to design and run war games for themselves. These
were not considered an escape from reality but were expected to help officers work out military
strategy that would directly improve their effectiveness in actual warfare. In 1913, one of the
first amateur war games for recreation was published by Orson Welles and entitled Little Wars.
These complicated mathematical war simulations became a pastime for a small portion of the
population. This continued into the 1960s and beyond.
In the 1960s, there was a thriving wargaming community in the United States. Clubs for
wargaming began to appear on campuses and it became a pastime for college students. As the
hobby of wargaming grew, recurring cases of games falling into bickering over rules drove some
people to reintroduce the impartial referee that had been removed when the war games had been
converted for civilian use. Another difficulty these war games presented was that they were
designed for two players only. The limited amount of space wargaming groups typically had
meant that a limited number of these multi-hour games could be played at one time and it was
common to see large groups of gamers waiting hours for their turn to play.
The first step in the transition from war game to fantasy roleplaying game was with Dave
Wesley's experimental game Braunstein. He was interested in a more cooperative endeavor that
had many players and did not result in a single winner. He took a relatively simple game called
The Siege of Bodenburg about a Napoleonic siege and gave two players the roles of the opposing
commanders. However, instead of making the game just a competition between two
commanders, he invited others to take roles as the town's banker, mayor, and other civilian roles.
He gave each role objectives and goals, setting himself as the referee. However, the game rapidly
devolved into chaos as the players were far more unpredictable then he expected, deciding to
Joseph P. Laycock, Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games
Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds (Berkeley: University of California Press,
resolve the siege by duel and trying to rally resistance inside the town. He was disappointed
because his carefully crafted rules were not utilized and the players had taken over his game. His
players, on the other hand, loved the experience and the freedom to be entirely creative with how
they interacted with each other. An important future actor in this development, Dave Arneson
was one of these players and his positive experience impacted his view of what games could be
like. This genre of more open-ended wargaming became known in the state as Braunstein.
Around the same time, Gary Gygax, a leader of the International Federation of
Wargaming (IFW), was introduced to The Siege of Bodenburg and loved it, modifying it into a
full medieval wargame called Chainmail in 1969. As IFW grew, a subgroup called the Castles
and Crusades Society formed. This society was dedicated exclusively to medieval battles. Gary
Gygax’s Chainmail was popular among wargamers and successful enough that the following
year Gygax published a fantasy supplement to add dwarves, elves, goblins, orcs, and other
fantasy creatures. All these creatures were pulled from the most popular fantasy novels of the
time, J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings being the most influential. Gygax also designed rules for
individual characters called Heroes which could singlehandedly turn the tide of a battle. These
included warriors inspired by Conan the Barbarian from Robert E. Howard's fantasy novels and
magic users who could throw lightning and fireballs.
The final piece of proto-D&D game design was by the gamer Dave Arneson, who had
previously played Dave Wesley's Braunstein. He was intrigued by the freedom of Wesley's game
and designed games experimenting with this concept. The most successful one of these
experiments was called Blackmoor. In it, players played university students who were sucked
Laycock, Dangerous Games, 35-37.
into a medieval fantasy world similar to the main character in Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in
King Arthur's Court. He reintroduced the idea of a campaign, with each meeting of the players
being a continuation of the prior story and a reentering of the world they had previously created.
Later, he added mechanics to allow for improvement of skills so characters could get stronger
over time and this created the foundation for the gaming concept of levels. Experimenting with
different locations for combat, he moved beyond the traditional battlefield and started running
combat in castles and enclosed areas. In one campaign of note, he sent the players on a heist
through the sewers of a castle, fighting monsters and finding treasure along the way. This gave
him the ability to restrict the player’s freedom without taking it out of their hands. These indoor
environments became known as dungeons. As he said in an interview, "A dungeon is nice and
self-contained. Players can't go romping over the countryside and you can control the situation."
In 1968, Arneson met Gygax at the wargaming convention Gygax had started called Gen-Con.
He incorporated some elements of Chainmail into Blackmoor and the two found a common
interest in these more non-traditional wargames.
In 1972, Arneson and Gygax began collaborating on game designs. Gygax founded a
company called Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) with several friends and began to publish the
games he and Arneson designed. The two of them continued to work on the "Fantasy Game"
which originally had three different types of characters people could play: a hero, a warrior, and
a cleric which represented a religious class. They incorporated many elements from both
Chainmail and Blackmoor, including the experience and leveling system. Gygax wanted to
Laycock, Dangerous Games, 39-41.
continue a paired noun naming system he had used before, so they settled on Dungeons &
In January 1974, Tactical Studies Rules (and later TSR Hobbies) printed an original
1,000 copies of Dungeons & Dragons: Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargame Campaigns
Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures. Though it had a slow start, the game
rapidly gained popularity. Copies of D&D were shared around college campuses and it became
popular in the military, spreading to Europe. Not long after, Games Workshop became the
European provider. By 1979 there were an estimated 300,000 players and in 1980 its gross
income rose to roughly $14 million.
Inc. Magazine ranked TSR Hobbies sixth on the list of fast-
growing privately owned businesses in 1981.
It quickly was becoming a subculture with
conventions where role-players would meet each other. Many supplemental books with
additional rules and settings for campaigns were published. However, D&D’s popularity sparked
similar games and by 1989 there were over 300 different fantasy role-playing games on the
market. The company was plagued with legal disputes, during which it changed hands several
times. In the process, Dungeons & Dragons was renamed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons from
1976 till 2000. Despite legal troubles and periodic mismanagement within the company, the
game itself continued to grow in popularity. From 1983 to 1986, the CBS Network produced a
Dungeons & Dragons cartoon series which aired on Saturday mornings for three seasons. D&D
continued to grow in popularity with 1996 being the highest sales year for the company TSR
Laycock, Dangerous Games, 41-43.
All US dollar amounts in this thesis have been adjusted for inflation and correspond to
US dollar values in 2020.
Stewart Alsop II, “Tsr Hobbies Mixes Fact And Fantasy,” Inc.com, February 1, 1982,
Hobbies, with $67 million in gross income. In 1997, a major distribution error combined with
heavy investment in a failed game caused the company to nosedive and their competitor Wizards
of the Coast acquired it.
Wizards of the Coast has since been purchased by Hasbro. To this day
the number of D&D players has continues to increase. In 2017, there was a report of 12 to 14
million players, at the time, the “biggest year” in D&D’s history.
For this thesis, the first
edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons will be the edition referenced since it was the version
published in 1977 and the most up-to-date edition till 1989, spanning the majority of the time of
A role-playing game is described by Stephen L. Lortz, a renowned game designer, as
“any game which allows a number of players to assume the roles of imaginary characters and
operate with some degree of freedom in an imaginary environment.”
In Dungeons & Dragons,
one player takes the role of the Dungeon Master (DM), creating and narrating the imaginary
high-fantasy world. He acts as a sort of referee and impartial judge. The rest of the players,
usually from two to five, create characters that then travel around the world seeking fantasy
monsters like orcs, goblins, witches, and demons to defeat, gaining treasure and increasing in
strength along the way. It is a cooperative game where players use the strengths of their
characters to support the team and survive the hostile and fantastical world the DM creates.
Laycock, Dangerous Games, 41-43.
Nicole Brodeur, “Behind the Scenes of the Making of Dungeons & Dragons,” The
Seattle Times, May 4, 2018, sec. Lifestyle, https://www.seattletimes.com/life/lifestyle/behind-
Laycock, Dangerous Games, 44-50.
Stephen L. Lortz, “Interview with Stephen L. Lortz,” Different Worlds, 1979.
The combination of imaginary play and concrete limitations creates an interesting
dynamic of interacting levels of communication and reality. There are three distinct levels of
reality or “frames” through which the players pass. The first is the tangible frame of actual
reality—the players sitting around a table, communicating in a particular language, and enjoying
the company of friends. The second frame is where players discuss the mechanics and rules of
the game. The final frame is the imagined world in which the players and the DM play, subject to
a shared acceptance of logic and fixed reality by the players.
Because of these three distinct
frames of reality, rulebooks have passages describing actions in the third frame that in some
cases were taken out of context and assumed to be referring to the first frame, teaching occult
players how to cast occult spells. For example, in some Christian material about D&D, it
describes D&D as containing, “directions for chanting, the use of familiar spirits, speaking with
the dead, uses of occultic symbols to protect the spell caster, and definitions of special spells
used by shamans and witchdoctors.”
Before 1979, mainstream news sources largely were unaware of the growing popularity
of Dungeons & Dragons. One of the earliest news articles on D&D was from Los Angeles Times
on July 11th, 1979, entitled “Dungeons and Dragons: Fantasy Life in a Game Without End.”
Alongside the title is a picture of two pre-teen boys posing, “casting spells” with their hands. The
text of the article describes the game as incredibly complex, explaining that most players in its
growing community were either university students or intellectually brilliant or gifted children
and teenagers. The article fixates on the unending nature of the game and how many children
Gary Alan Fine, Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1983), 185-186.
Leithart and Grant, A Christian Response to Dungeons and Dragons, 8.
seemed to be investing a significant amount of both time and money into this new-fangled
hobby. It mentions one high schooler who spent around $900 (adjusted for inflation) on
materials, playing upwards of fifty or sixty hours a week. It is a largely factual article,
interviewing both adults and children who were players. Since at this point there was not much
controversy, the article does not frame the game as the center of controversy but takes an
informative outlook on a strange new and potentially expensive and time-consuming hobby.
However, several quotes from players point out that because the game allows players to explore
or do what they want, extreme violence and strong sexual themes have at times been explored by
players. One parent is quoted as having found her son in a depressed state after his character died
in an extended campaign. It also describes how the game can be used as wish-fulfillment, to be
the hero that someone has always wanted to be, to go on adventures and explore uncharted
worlds. The article ends with a haunting quote by a thirty-two-year-old accountant: “D&D is an
escape. An outlet for aggression. It’s an ego trip—everything you could want.”
Only a month later, the disappearance of a brilliant sixteen-year-old college freshman
named Dallas Egbert catapulted D&D into the national eye.
On August 15, 1979, Dallas Egbert
disappeared from his dorm room at Michigan State University, leaving only a note behind
saying, "To whom it may concern: Should my body be found, I wish it to be cremated."
wealthy parents offered a $5,000 reward to anyone who had information about Dallas' location.
“Dungeons and Dragons: Fantasy Life in a Game Without End,” Los Angeles Times,
July 11, 1979, http://www.newspapers.com/image/387695865/.
David Waldron, “Roleplaying games and the Christian right: Community formation in
response to a moral panic,” Journal of Religion and Culture IX, no. Spring (Spring 2005),
Laycock, Dangerous Games, 81.
Seven days later, they hired a private investigator named William Dear who claimed to have
previously been a cult de-programmer. Historian Joseph Laycock explained, “A former Florida
highway patrolman, Dear presented himself as a larger-than-life figure and sometimes
demonstrated narcissistic characteristics.”
The most impactful action he made was to link the
young man’s disappearance to a relatively unfamiliar game Dungeons & Dragons.
Dear developed an elaborate theory that Dallas had lost himself in a game of D&D and
became delusional, mistaking fiction and reality. Dear almost certainly drew from his prior
experience as a cult deprogrammer, merging his paradigm about brainwashing cults with his
understanding of this new fantasy game. The disappearance of the son of a wealthy family made
interesting news itself but combined with Dear’s theory regarding a fantasy roleplaying game,
this story made for highly provocative news. The media captured the event with headlines across
the nation reading, “Game Cultist Still Missing,” “Fantasy Turned Real Life May Have Killed
Student,” and “Dungeons & Dragons’ Cult May Lead to Missing Boy.”
Each described a
missing sixteen-year-old college freshman prodigy whom the lead investigator theorized may
have become mentally spellbound after playing a bizarre board game in the steam tunnels
underneath the Michigan State University.
However, Dear’s hypothesis had no basis. There was no past forensic or medical history
of cases of mental instability caused by D&D. Egbert did struggle with several mental and
Laycock, Dangerous Games, 82.
Jennifer Gavin, “No Headline In Original,” The Associated Press, September 6, 1979,
physical problems. He was using recreational drugs like PCP, he felt an incredible amount of
pressure from his parents to succeed academically, he suffered from epilepsy and had regularly
occurring seizures, and had been struggling with his sexual identity, being on the MSU gay
council. However, Dear did not focus on any of this but fixated on his exciting and strange
theory that a game had caused Dallas to go crazy.
More confirmation of Dear’s tendency to exaggerate comes from the memoir he wrote
years later. The Dungeon Master is a hyper-romanticized and exaggerated account of the
investigation in which Dear painted himself as a cool-under-pressure hero, even making up entire
events that never occurred.
Though even he admitted in a press release after the investigation
that D&D was completely unrelated to the case, he still chose to make it the key focus of his
The newspaper could not communicate the unreliable nature of Dear’s investigating work
and therefore the nation read that the resident expert on the case suspected D&D was causing
mental instability. Though Egbert was found several weeks later with no indication of D&D-
related instability, his past time as a potential victim of D&D fantasy appeared in every article
written about him throughout the following year. This concluded when Egbert committed suicide
on August 18th, 1980.
It was made clear through interviews with the parents, high-school
teachers, and classmates that his motivation for the original disappearance and subsequent
Laycock, Dangerous Games, 82.
William Robbins, “Brilliant Computer Student Dies From Gun Wound: Intellectual
Fantasy Game,” The New York Times, August 8, 1980.
suicide was severe loneliness that led to depression.
Dungeons & Dragons had nothing to do
After the Dallas investigation, a book called Mazes and Monsters took the concept that
Dear imagined and made it into a bestselling fiction novel. The author Rona Jaffe was inspired
by the newspaper accounts of the Dallas investigation and decided to write a fictional novel
inspired by the story. The book was so popular it was made into a film starring a very young
Tom Hanks. Jaffe considered the escapism into a fantasy world to be a symptom of a problem
rather than the cause, but her fiction still inextricably linked D&D with vices common to
delinquent teenagers: crime and drugs. Though Jaffe took a more balanced approach and
presented some of the positive aspects of role-playing games in her book, Mazes and Monsters
only helped to foment the unrealistic perception that D&D was a pathological problem.
However, concerns about mental health were not the only charges pressed against D&D.
In Heber City, Utah in 1980, a community of mostly Mormon parents concerned about the
satanic influence of D&D pressured the local school board to remove D&D from their after-
school programs. The New York Times covered the story with the headline, “Utah Parents
Exorcise ‘Devilish’ Game; Fomenting Communist Subversion Complaints Began Right
It describes how local teachers and school administrators were shocked and amused at
the community’s reaction to their program designed to encourage imagination and teamwork in
Robbins, “Brilliant Computer Student Dies From Gun Wound.”
Laycock, Dangerous Games, 90-96.
Molly Ivins, “Utah Parents Exorcize ‘Devilish’ Game; Fomenting Communist
Subversion Complaints Began Right Away,” The New York Times, May 3, 1980, sec. Archives,
talented kids using D&D. Instead of recognition for their efforts, they were accused of antichrist
connections and communism. The article interviewed a non-denominational Christian pastor
who confidently stated that he had studied witchcraft for years and D&D books were full of
images, terminology, and symbols that could be found in any basic witchcraft book. According
to him, D&D was emphatically anti-religious, taking from mythology and witchcraft. Referring
to succubi, that are in the D&D monster manual, he claimed that, “These books are filled with
things that are not fantasy but are actual in the real demon world, and can be very dangerous for
anyone involved in the game because it leaves them so open to Satanic spirits.”
included a response from Brian Blume, vice president of TSR Hobbies, where he explained that
for a game to be about heroic fantasy, it requires obstacles for the players to overcome. “The
things most fun to overcome are things that are evil, foul, rotten and nasty, so we also included
some things that were evil, foul, rotten and nasty for that reason.”
In 1981, the respected evangelical magazine Christianity Today released an article
entitled, “D & D: A fantasy fad or dabbling in the demonic?”
After reporting the incredible
popularity of this complex game, the favorite pastime of over three million children and adults,
the article relays the “barrage of criticism” from evangelicals from all over the nation. It points
out that this criticism is widespread, from a Sacramento suburb banning it from their recreational
facility to a Kansas preacher stating he wants to burn every copy of D&D he can get. After a
Ivins, “Utah Parents Exorcize ‘Devilish’ Game; Fomenting Communist Subversion
Complaints Began Right Away”, May 3, 1980.
Phyllis Ten Elshof, “D & D: A Fantasy Fad or Dabbling in the Demonic?” Christianity
Today, September 4, 1981, https://search-proquest-
largely factual but slanted description of the game as a never-ending fantasy maze where players
grab all the treasure they can get while killing monsters, the article explains several issues
opponents have had with the game. Many evangelicals took issue with the inclusion of bizarre
and supernatural characters such as demons, harpies, gnomes, and witches who use supernatural
powers. They claimed the game encourages the “influence of the occult” and “dabbles with
The article quoted a neurology professor’s article on his experiences as a
D&D player, stating that most D&D games have a high level of violence and include murder,
rape, highway robbery, torture, and arson. Other arguments stated that it can be an “obsessive
retreat from the real world” and players can sink a lot of money into it.
The article’s last issue
was with the inclusion of many mythological pagan gods and goddesses and the close connection
between characters and their chosen patron god or goddess. A short defense by a D&D
spokesperson was included in the final paragraphs, but the telling final two sentences make the
author’s intention and decision on the matter clear. “Here is something for today: a game that
takes lots of time, accumulates status with each $12 addition, mixes demons, demigods, dragons,
and monsters in violent encounters, makes a fad of fantasy…Who could possibly oppose such a
game but a bunch of Christians?”
The harshest example of anti-D&D sentiment was a tract first published by Chick
Publications in 1984. Jack Chick, the founder and manager of Chick Publications till his death in
2016, was called by journalists the world’s most published living author (in 2003) and “the most
Elshof, “D & D.”
widely read theologian in human history.”
In 2003, there were 530 million copies of his 142
little comic-book tracts in print, with translations in over 100 languages.
fundamentalist evangelical tracts, many pointing the reader to faith in Jesus Christ with a fire-
and-brimstone, blunt manner. However, though many of the tracts held standard evangelical
talking points comparable to any other evangelical Christian organization, others were highly
controversial, conspiratorial, and fearmongering. He often sourced his conspiracy information
from self-proclaimed experts who claimed to have been former Wiccans, Satanists, Mormons, or
Masons. However, he is most well-known for his vitriolic anti-Catholicism tracts where he
propounded conspiracy theories about the Vatican’s plans for world domination and how Roman
Catholicism secretly birthed Islam, Communism, Nazism, and Masonry.
His lurid anti-
Catholicism comics grew so bad that Christian bookstores refused to stock them, pastors and
churches decried him, and Christianity Today published an article in 1981 publicly denouncing
his comics on Catholicism.
In 1984, however, Chick turned his sights on Dungeons & Dragons with a new tract
“Dark Dungeons.” In its comic book style, it tells the story of two teenage girls who start playing
Robert Ito, “Fear Factor,” Los Angeles Magazine, May 2003; Sam Thielman,
“Remembering Jack Chick: The Christian Cartoonist Who Tried to Save Us from Hell,” The
Guardian, October 25, 2016, sec. Books, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/25/jack-
Ito, “Fear Factor.”
Jack Chick, “Mama’s Girls,” accessed November 10, 2019,
Ito, “Fear Factor.”; Marjorie Hyer, “Anti-Catholic Comics By Californian Decried By
Evangelical Magazine,” Washington Post, March 20, 1981,
D&D. The dungeon master turns out to be a recruiter for a witches coven who teaches one of the
girls how to cast real D&D spells while the second girl’s character dies, causing her to grow
depressed and commit suicide. The tract ends with a preacher exorcising the first girl of a demon
and charging her to burn all her D&D books, rock music, and occult literature. The first edition
of the tract had an additional footnote stating renowned Christian fantasy authors C.S. Lewis and
J.R.R. Tolkien could be found in occult bookstores, implying that they were also occult
“Dark Dungeons” blended both the medical concern of loss of reality and
consequential suicide with the claim that D&D was a gateway to the occult and demonic
possession. The tract explicitly stated that D&D was preparatory occult training for Wicca.
Though Jack Chick took anti-D&D criticisms the farthest and some evangelicals dismissed him
as radical, the sheer quantity of sold tracts proliferated in Christian circles even into the 21st
century suggest the reach of his organization had an impact on, at the very least, the evangelical
Christian community. However, Jack Chick was not the only one charging D&D with gateway
Though the concern over satanism in D&D was strong in Christian and religious circles,
it was only when a bereaved Jewish mother named Patricia Pulling founded BADD (Bothered
About Dungeons & Dragons), that the secular public began to be concerned.
On June 9th, 1982,
her sixteen-year-old son Irving Pulling shot himself in the chest. Discovering that he had been
playing D&D at school, she became firmly convinced that her son had become entranced by the
“Secrets of Dark Dungeons,” Fecundity, accessed May 16, 2020,
Jack Chick, “Dark Dungeons,” 1984, https://www.chick.com/products/tract?stk=0046.
Laycock, Dangerous Games, 111.
game and was driven to suicide.
In her book The Devil’s Web: Who is Stalking Your Children
for Satan?, she explains that she found a note with a written curse on it and assumed that her son
had taken the curse literally and killed himself.
However, what she does not mention is that
Irving was struggling with serious mental problems. According to a source who asked to be left
anonymous, Irving was dealing with two parents who were both having affairs and that his
suicide was an “act of aggression” against his mother. He had only played nine hours of D&D at
school—hardly enough time to argue that he had lost all sense of reality.
According to this
source, the curse note was a prop used by the DM.
Though Pulling thought her son had endured
psychological trauma causing him to think he was cursed, the general public thought it was a real
curse and even a BADD pamphlet said, “The Pulling boy had a werewolf spell or curse placed
upon him and he shot himself.”
This conflicts with the evidence which suggests depression
instigated suicide as his classmates explained that Irving was not a well-adjusted boy and
struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts.
Laycock, Dangerous Games, 111.
Patricia Pulling, The Devil’s Web: Who Is Stalking Your Children for Satan? (Lafayette,
La.: Huntington House, 1989), 9.
Pat Dempsey, Mary Dempsey, and Patricia Pulling, Dungeons and Dragons -
Witchcraft Suicide Violence, accessed November 10, 2019,
Michael Isikoff, “Parents Sue School Principal,” Washington Post, August 13, 1983,
After failing to sue the principal of her son’s school, Pulling sued TSR Hobbies directly,
but the courts found insufficient evidence to bring it to a full trial.
Though the courts did not
accept these unproven accusations, that did not stop the media from capitalizing on the lawsuits
and by the time the cases were dismissed, the associations had already been planted in the
It was after the court refused to back up her claims that Pulling founded BADD.
She partnered with psychiatrist Thomas Radecki, director of the National Coalition on Television
Violence and together with her pathos and his ethos they created a powerful force.
an incredible influence on schools, churches, and police stations around the nation. They began
to lobby the FTC and members of Congress to pass laws requiring warning labels linking D&D
to suicide. Pulling and Radecki appeared on many talk shows and current affairs programs, most
notably 60 Minutes. She branded herself as an occult expert, despite having no formal education
on the subject, giving public awareness and police seminars linking D&D to the current concerns
surrounding cult crimes, suicide, and Satanic ritual abuse.
At the seminal national law-
enforcement conference on Satanic/cult crime in September of 1986, Pulling joined the list of
featured speakers lecturing on various occult crime-related topics. Holding only a two-year
associate degree in art, Pulling lacked any academic credentials relating to criminal matters.
Nevertheless, she claimed “Those D&D players who irretrievably cross the imaginary line
Laycock, Dangerous Games, 115; Juliet Dee, “Article: Basketball Diaries, Natural Born
Killers and School Shootings: Should There Be Limits On Speech Which Triggers Copycat
Violence?, 77 Denv. U.L. Rev. 713” (Denver Law Review), accessed May 18, 2020,
Laycock, Dangerous Games, 115.
Waldron, “Roleplaying Games and the Christian Right.”
between reality and fantasy sometimes act out torture and killing with deadly results…Family
values are attacked…[The game’s symbols] are used in real sorcery and conjuration of
Both Pulling and Radecki also appeared several times as expert witnesses in high
profile court cases where the defendant claimed that D&D had affected their ability to discern
This “D&D Defense” was notably never successful and every trial in which it was used
ended in a guilty verdict except for a case of a fourteen-year-old boy who was diagnosed with
Laycock summarizes Pulling’s influence well: “Pulling’s authority did not come
from her mastery of facts or cogent arguments but rather from her persona as a bereaved mother,
the strength of the coalition she formed with law enforcement and other moral entrepreneurs, and
her ability to articulate general anxieties about changing social mores as evidence of an evil
One of the pieces of supposed evidence most highly touted by BADD was a list kept of
all reported suicides where the victims had been associated with D&D. This list grew to around
150 instances as time went on. In none of these cases was D&D shown to be the cause, but even
if every one of those instances was the direct result of D&D, it would show a decrease compared
to the national average for suicide. Based on the number of players at this time, around four
million, and the national suicide average, there should have been 6,840 reported suicides by
D&D players. However, Pulling was using a number of one hundred and fifty as proof that D&D
Robert D. Hicks, “The Police Model of Satanic Crime,” in The Satanism Scare (New
York: Walter de Gruyter, Inc., 1991), 177.
Laycock, Dangerous Games, 128-129.
caused suicide. Misleading statistics, unsupported claims about specific events, and heavy use of
anecdotal evidence were widespread in the material published by Pulling and BADD.
Unfortunately, the sloppiness with which Pulling handled statistics did not impact the
effect she had on police departments. Despite having no qualifications, she became a leading
expert for law enforcement on “occult crimes”, giving seminars for police.
She offered a guide
for investigators entitled “Interviewing Techniques for Adolescents” that was designed to help
them know what to do when they suspected a D&D player had committed a crime. However, that
guide was designed, intentionally or not, to confirm already existing biases and create false
A criminal justice analyst and former police officer Robert Hicks wrote in 1991 that
Pulling’s inferences and generalizations succeeded on “gut appeal” but did not hold up to
empirical tests. Her rhetoric cautioned parents to distrust the academic and the intellectual.
By the mid-1990s, BADD’s influence waned. Despite Pulling’s claim that empirical
evidence and academic inquiry were unnecessary, her extraordinary claims began to lose their
grip on society as there was no supporting evidence. Scholars were unable to find links between
suicide and D&D and the anecdotal evidence provided (which was at best tentative, at worst
fabricated) was not sufficient to prove any causation.
By 1991, even clinical psychologists who
took teenage Satanism seriously considered Pulling and BADD to be wildly ridiculous and
Robert D. Hicks, In Pursuit of Satan: The Police and the Occult (Buffalo, NY:
Prometheus Books, 1991) 288-290.
Hicks, In Pursuit of Satan, 294.
Waldron, “Roleplaying Games and the Christian Right.”, 38.
Meanwhile, BADD’s psychologist, Thomas Radecki, got into hot water. His
“expert” testimony, which mainly rested on his credentials as a psychologist, was undercut when
he lost his credentials in 1992 after it was discovered he had been engaging in sexual activity
with a female patient.
Pulling died of cancer in 1997 and BADD faded with her. D&D was no
longer a new and strange hobby, nor a passing fad. Instead of dying out during the height of
BADD, it only grew stronger, with sales spiking after negative media coverage.
Few academic papers discuss the primary fears and concerns of the 1980s regarding
D&D, but the ones that exist cast serious doubt on the vehemently argued, but poorly supported
claims of anti-D&D crusaders. Concerns about appropriateness for children because of the
inclusion of violence or evil fantasy creatures are not the main focus of this thesis or other
academic articles as those claims are based on parental considerations regarding what their child
should be exposed to and are based on subjective opinion. Those concerns alone would not have
caused the uproar over D&D. It is the objective claims of induced mental instability and
introduction to the occult that headlined pamphlets and lectures by the leaders of the anti-D&D
movement and fall under the purview of this historical analysis.
It is difficult to disprove such claims as the burden of proof falls on the claimer to prove
their claims. In the case of such anti-D&D sentiment, no conclusive evidence ever emerged. In
1995, a study was done to try to find connections between D&D players and those dabbling in
Satanism. It failed to find any connections, instead finding that fantasy gamers had significant
personality, belief, and interest differences to “satanic dabblers.” It concluded that “Evidence is
Laycock, Dangerous Games, 135.
Waldron, “Roleplaying Games and the Christian Right.”, 38-39.
not consistent with the hypothesis that fantasy role-playing games are precursors to satanic
Another article appeared in the Fall 1994 Journal of Popular Culture, pointing out
that if those speaking out against D&D are correct then there should be a far greater sample of
suicides and other related incidents in the roleplaying community considering an estimated ten
million people were playing in 1994.
The same article referenced research that hypothesized an
increased sense of alienation in those who play D&D more as opposed to those who played less.
Though the research did find that intense D&D players tended to report higher levels of
alienation, it acknowledged that there was no way to know if the feelings of alienation were the
result of the intense game or the motivation for individuals to become highly invested in a strong
community to find a sense of purpose. The research summarized that it found no significant
differences between players and non-players.
The journal article concluded by stating that
D&D is likely no more dangerous than a book or a movie—that in theory people would not
commit a crime or join a cult solely through playing an imaginary game. It is much more realistic
to imagine that those who do such things have preexisting problems that were potentially
triggered through gameplay. The author stated, “I don’t believe this problem would come from
participating in a role-playing game itself, but rather, the danger may lie in the people with
whom a person associates when playing a game…Investigators and critics should not overlook
Stuart M. Leeds, “Personality, Belief in the Paranormal, and Involvement with Satanic
Practices among Young Adult Males: Dabblers versus Gamers,” Cultic Studies Journal 12, no. 2
Kurt Lancaster, “Do Role-Playing Games Promote Crime, Satanism and Suicide among
Players as Critics Claim?,” Journal of Popular Culture; Oxford 28, no. 2 (Fall 1994): 67.
motive as a fundamental cause of crime.”
This hits at the heart of the problem. Critics made the
fallacious jump from correlation to causation without any evidence. Researchers from the CDC
and others were unable to find a causal link between D&D and criminal activity.
Contrary to these claims that D&D is dangerous for one’s mental health, are several
publications outlining the use of D&D and other roleplaying games in therapy to help children
and adults process emotions which they may have difficulty controlling or understanding.
High-risk children appear to have improved socially, emotionally, and intellectually through the
use of D&D as a safe environment for learning.
In a similar article in the American Journal of
Psychotherapy described the use of D&D to help a suicidal and schizophrenic young man mature
and learn how to manage his emotions.
These are examples of how D&D has been used to
produce effects quite the opposite of those main critics believed it would cause. Though few
academic articles discuss the accuracy of Pulling and Chick’s claims regarding D&D, more
psychology articles discuss D&D’s use as a healing and therapy tool, implying that the academic
community does not consider claims of suicidal and occult dangers in D&D worth considering.
Lancaster, “Do Role-Playing Games Promote Crime, Satanism and Suicide among
Players as Critics Claim?”
“When Dungeons & Dragons Set Off a ‘Moral Panic,’” The New York Times, April 18,
Laycock, Dangerous Games, 193.
“Dungeons and Dragons Discussed in Child Fantasy Symposium,” Gifted Child Today;
Waco 10, no. 1 (January 1987): 20,
Wayne D. Blackmon, “Dungeons and Dragons: The Use of a Fantasy Game in the
Psychotherapeutic Treatment of a Young Adult,” American Journal of Psychotherapy;
Washington 48, no. 4 (Fall 1994): 624–32,
If there was never any conclusive evidence to support D&D’s connection with suicide
and satanism, why was it so well-accepted as reality? A heavy mix of colliding factors likely
made it difficult for parents to have an accurate viewpoint on a strange and unfamiliar hobby.
Eye-catching headlines tapping into already existent concerns about occult behavior coupled
with dedicated individuals like Pulling and Chick, confident in their explanation of the situation,
could not have made it easy for parents, unfamiliar with the gaming world, to see past the
misconstrued statistics and barrage of muddy anecdotes. More balanced reputable sources like
Christianity Today communicated more subjective concerns, including more extreme concerns
as only an additional point on the list. However, the denouncement of D&D by more balanced
sources likely placed parents in a frame of mind that was far more likely to accept fantastical
claims. Claims of occult influence were not uncommon at this time, so an argument that D&D
could cause suicide or occult behavior was not as absurd a claim in that culture as it would be
today. The Satanic ritual abuse panic was the most significant cultural phenomenon in this vein.
The Satanic Ritual Abuse Panic
The D&D scare was not an isolated incident, but part of a widespread decades-long
cultural fixation with Satanism and cults. The largest and most alarming situation to grow out of
Satanism and cult concern has been called the Satanic panic, also known as the Satanic ritual
abuse (SRA) panic. Though the D&D scare lasted from the early 1980s through the 1990s and
then faded from the public eye with little to no consequence, the SRA panic was a much bigger
issue. It resulted in over twelve thousand accusations nation-wide of child-care workers and
other adults participating in organized satanic sex cults ritually abusing children. There were
occasional cases of individual abusers claiming occult trappings, but no evidence was found of
any case of organized satanic cults sexually abusing children.
Though many accusations fell
through in court, several dozen adults were convicted and imprisoned on these false charges.
Studying the largest Satanism-driven panic will give insight into the causes and motivations
behind those making claims about D&D and bring light to the greater cultural perspective of the
time. An overview of the various speculated causes and forces that made the culture ripe for the
SRA panic will be followed by a short description of the most public of these incidents, the
McMartin case. Following this will be an exploration of moral panics in general, using the SRA
panic as the primary example and then applying those insights to what is known about the D&D
Daniel Goleman, “Proof Lacking for Ritual Abuse by Satanists,” The New York Times,
October 31, 1994, sec. U.S., https://www.nytimes.com/1994/10/31/us/proof-lacking-for-ritual-
Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker, Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of
a Modern American Witch Hunt (New York: BasicBooks, 1995), 3.
scare. The concluding paragraphs will be a review of similarities between the SRA panic and the
D&D scare, giving weight to the idea that these two situations rode the same wave of concern.
During the 1980s and 1990s, many parents, therapists, police officers, psychologists, and
child-protection workers believed that organized groups of cultic associated people were
infiltrating child-care centers and preschools, sexually abusing children in debased rituals.
was not an isolated incident either. A survey from Redbook magazine indicated that seventy
percent of Americans believed in sexually abusive Satanic cults and a third believed that the FBI
and investigative authorities were purposely overlooking them.
Though prestige press such as
The New York Times and evening news broadcasts that rely on verifiable facts spent little time
discussing the issue of Satanism, the 1980s saw an increase in number and viewership of
secondary news sources which discussed less “hard news.” Primetime TV also presented this
threat with networks like NBC, CBS, and ABC airing documentaries and movies about Satanism
and ritual abuse. News stories, magazines, and talk shows discussed this growing threat.
Documentaries and books were created on the subject. Law enforcement, medical professionals,
and public officials often attended workshops on combating Satanism, funded by taxpayer
Though concern over Satanic ritual abuse was widespread, in 1994, when a research
team was funded by the federal government to look back on the past decade of records and cases
to determine the validity of the past decade of concern, they determined that the rumors of
Satanic conspiracies had been unfounded and there was no real evidence of organized infiltration
Nathan and Snedeker, Satan’s Silence, 2.
Joel Best, James T. Richardson, and David G. Bromley, “Satanism as a Social
Problem,” in The Satanism Scare (New York: Walter de Gruyter, Inc., 1991).
of child-care facilities.
Many children had given testimony of horrific abuse by secret satanic
groups sacrificing babies and doing all manner of gruesome things
These cases, when arriving
in court, relied almost exclusively on testimony by parents and therapists who interviewed the
children and expert witnesses. Almost no material evidence was available in these cases.
addition, the interview techniques used to draw these testimonies from children have since been
highly criticized and questioned by experts for the high potential to generate false memories.
Falsely accused of abusing the children they were paid to care for, several child-care providers
were imprisoned, some with life sentences.
To understand how this happened, three
movements or forces must be inspected: Increased awareness of sexual abuse and specific
judicial and psychological treatments of victims and perpetrators, fears over cults and Satanism,
and questionable advancements in psychology.
Feminists brought attention to sexual abuse victims and made sexual abuse a public issue
in the 1970s.
At this time, most sexual abuse was understood to be committed by fathers
against their daughters. However, as feminists tried to argue that the problem stemmed from
traditional gender roles and patriarchal authority, the public continued to see domestic sexual
Gail S. Goodman et al., “Characteristics and Sources of Allegation of Ritualistic Child
Abuse” (National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect), accessed June 7, 2020,
Mary deYoung, “Satanic Ritual Abuse in Day Care: An Analysis of 12 American
Cases,” Child Abuse Review 6, no. 2 (May 1997): 87, https://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1099-
Mary deYoung, “The Devil Goes to Day Care: McMartin and the Making of a Moral
Panic,” Journal of American Culture 20, no. 1 (Spring 1997),
Nathan and Snedeker, Satan’s Silence, 11.
abuse as originating in the minds of a few disturbed fathers.
This bred the idea that abusers
have a mental problem that can be handled with therapy and counseling. An abusive father
became increasingly considered by psychotherapists to be a mentally ill subject and not a
criminal. Consequently, instead of calling for an impartial, thorough investigation by the police,
accusations called for psychotherapists to take the side of the victim and attempt to “heal” the
defendant, even if he denied the accusations.
Eventually, many of these sexual abuse cases reached the court. However, for those
psychologists, child protection workers, and police officers working on sexual abuse cases, the
term denial did not mean the same thing it did in the courtroom.
In other types of
investigations, when a defendant insists that he is innocent, that denial is treated as proof of
innocence requiring the investigator to look other places to find proof of guilt. However, in child
sexual abuse cases denial often became positive evidence of guilt. This logic stemmed from the
belief that domestic sexual abuse was such a private and taboo topic that a false accusation by a
child would be virtually impossible—that a child should always be believed over the adult in
In exchange for pleading guilty, a father was given assurance that there would
be no publicity, no criminal trial, and a possibility of probation. A federal publication written in
1981 stated that, “The thrust of this approach is to test and measure the father’s level denial, an
indicator of his willingness and ability to be treated…” No question of assumption of innocence
is left because “to overcome feelings of powerlessness and to shake off the effects of sustained
Nathan and Snedeker, Satan’s Silence, 11.
manipulation, the victim must be believed, supported, and cared about.”
Though this was not a
problem in the 1970s when the vast majority of sexual abuse allegations were true, this would set
a standard that would cause significant problems in the future.
Around this time, an emerging group of victimologist researchers were using updated
numbers to communicate the epidemic of sexual abuse. One study concluded that sixty-two
percent of all women had at one point been sexually abused.
The numbers were communicated
to the public through mass media and caused a serious level of concern. However, what the
public did not realize was that these statistics were using a drastically broadened definition of
key words. They extended the definition of child to include any age from toddlers to older
teenagers. They also lumped acts of exhibition and verbal propositions in the same category as
more explicit forms of abuse.
This meant a three-year-old daughter who was sexually abused
by her father was in the same statistic as an eighteen-year-old girl who was cat-called by a peer.
However, when they were are all lumped into one gigantic statistic, details and context are lost
and it appears that sixty-two percent of all women at that time had an incredibly traumatic and
likely devastating experience in their childhood.
Two more elements in the late 1970s surrounding sexual abuse set the stage for the SRA
panic. A psychiatric nurse named Ann Burgess who had studied women’s emotional reactions to
Child Sexual Abuse: Incest, Assault, and Sexual Exploitation (Department of Health
and Human Services, 1981), 8-10.
Nathan and Snedeker, Satan’s Silence, 28.
G. E. Wyatt, “The Sexual Abuse of Afro-American and White-American Women in
Childhood,” Child Abuse & Neglect 9, no. 4 (1985): 507–19, https://doi.org/10.1016/0145-
Nathan and Snedeker, 42-43.
rape began studying men accused of group-raping children. Her work brought attention to the
concept of organized ritual abuse and popularized the term “sex rings.”
Around the same time,
two separate horrifying cases of child kidnapping made public news and sparked a hysteria
around child disappearance. Soon there were pictures of missing children on milk cartons all
over America. The situation was considered serious, with journalists and politicians claiming at
as many as 50,000 abductions by strangers were happening annually.
However, if this was the
case then nearly a third of all public schools should have had a missing child. Almost no one
doubted these numbers and they were published by the news and politicians. Research later done
by the Department of Justice and published in 1990 showed that the vast majority of missing
children cases were family abductions, runaways, and other forms of disappearance not
associated with abduction by strangers as the term “missing children” tends to imply. Only
several hundred cases a year were true kidnappings by strangers where the child was held for
more than a few hours. This of course is not to downplay the seriousness of other forms of
missing child cases, but the narrative that thousands of children were being kidnapped and held
hostage by strangers was false.
But by the time this information came out, the media had
already spread widespread concern over pedophile kidnappers.
Increased awareness of sexual
Ann Wolbert Burgess and Marieanne Lindeqvist Clark, Child Pornography and Sex
Rings (Lexington, Mass. ; Lexington Books, 1984).
“Stolen Children,” Newsweek, March 19, 1984, https://advance-lexis-
David Finkelhor, Gerald Hotaling, and Andrea Sedlak, “Missing, Abducted, Runaway,
and Thownaway Children in America” (US Department of Justice, May 1990),
Nathan and Snedeker, Satan’s Silence, 44.
abuse and problematic approaches to investigation and administration of justice were a major
part of setting the stage for the SRA panic.
The growing concern over cults and satanism composed the second force building the
stage for the SRA panic. The anthropological concept of demonology helps to explain fear of the
satanic. Demonology is “the narrative specific to every culture, that identifies the ultimate evil
threatening the group. During periods of social turmoil and moral crisis, societal preoccupation
with its demonology intensifies.”
In cultures based in western civilization and Christianity, this
demonology tends to take the form of Satan and his demons either working directly in society or
indirectly through a heresy or foreign religion. Ethnic groups or political ideologies have also
been scapegoats for social turmoil. Jews and Communists have both at times been accused of
forming conspiracies to destroy society. But how did Satanists become the target?
Some of the reason for the rise of Satanism in the public mind can be traced to
Hollywood. Around the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hollywood realized that movies about
Satanic topics could draw an audience. The films Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist were both
smash hit films that used ancient demonological imagery to represent common social anxieties of
On the complete other side of the aisle, the Christian fundamentalist movement was just
entering the public marketplace. Christian fundamentalism places great weight on literal
interpretation of the text of the Bible and therefore believes in a spiritual entity named Satan who
is fighting God in a war for people’s souls. For fundamentalists, it is not a question of whether
Satan is working in the world or not, but in what way is he working and what should people do
Nathan and Snedeker, Satan’s Silence, 33.
about it. Though fundamentalists had existed as a movement since the early part of the century, it
was only in the 1970s that they became more visible and influential in the public square. A
significant factor in this was the Moral Majority founded by Jerry Falwell in which tens of
thousands of new voters registered to vote for conservative traditional causes. Traditional
Protestant, Catholic, and Mormon believers often allied together to cause political change that
aligned with their beliefs.
A combination of both Hollywood’s use of Satanic imagery in films and the rise of
Christian fundamentalists with their matter-of-fact approach to the Biblical representations of
Satan likely contributed to the significant increase in public belief in Satan as a real entity. In
1964, thirty-seven percent of the national population believed that Satan really exists.
over fifty percent of the national public believed in a real Satan and that number continued to
In combination with this growing awareness of demonic and satanic themes was the
originally unassociated concern over cults. The 1960s counterculture generated many new
spiritual and religious groups that took their beliefs from religions and ideologies other than
Judeo-Christianity. The Unification Church (the Moonies) and the International Society for
Krishna Consciousness (Hare Krishnas) both came under serious attacks and publicity after
accusations that they were brainwashing their members.
By the early 1970s, those critical of
Best, Richardson, and Bromley, “Satanism as a Social Problem.”, 6.
Nathan and Snedeker, Satan’s Silence, 34.
George H. Gallup and Frank Newport, “Belief in Paranormal Phenomena Among Adult
Americans,” The Skeptical Inquirer; Buffalo (Buffalo, United States, Buffalo: The Committee
for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (SCICOP), Winter 1991).
Nathan and Snedeker, 36.
these countercultural belief systems began to call them cults and compare them to the highly
publicized story of the murder of Sharon Tate by devotees of Charles Manson. Secret religious
organizations certainly appeared suspicious. One of the most public confirmations of the dangers
of religious cults was when Reverend Jim Jones led over nine-hundred American cult followers
to commit mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978 to the shock and horror of Americans
everywhere. From that point on, the term cult was no longer just suspicious, but held strong
associations with disturbing criminal activity.
There were three occult belief systems that reached the public eye at this time. Both
Wicca and neo-Paganism claim to find their roots in shamanistic forms of European witchcraft.
However, sociological research indicates that, though they form groups called “covens,” they
rarely follow a charismatic leader and instead practice rituals alone and avoid proselytizing.
Three hundred of these groups could be found in 1970.
Actual Satanists were a different breed. Several organized Satanist groups, such as the
Temple of Set and the Church of Satan, did exist, but they were not involved in the sexual abuse
claims. Strange, vehemently anti-Christian, and bizarre, they held symbolic significance for the
general public though they did not necessarily engage in criminal activity. The largest and most
public group was Anton LeVey’s Church of Satan in San Francisco. It was a very flamboyant
organization that performed celebrity Satanic baptisms and wedding ceremonies. However, it
was more of an anti-traditional, anti-Christian, philosophical system than a supernatural cult.
LeVey’s Satanism was an embrace of passion, power, and radical freedom without the
restrictions of social convention. Though this seems provocative and problematic, the Church of
Satan was never implicated in any criminal activity. These few small organizations were used as
Nathan and Snedeker, Satan’s Silence, 36.
token proof that a larger hidden organization of covert criminal Satanists might be infiltrating the
With the arguably scant but real appearance of public Satanist groups came a concern
from anti-cult organizations that teenagers would be recruited into the ranks. This was not too
hard to assume because some teenagers were already calling themselves Satanists. Some of these
teenagers participated in serious acts of violence. In one instance, two teenage boys assisted a
mentally ill twenty-year-old, who was obsessed with the occult, in committing suicide by
This is one of the worst instances of occult-related crime. However, the vast
majority of occult-related crime included mischief such as graffiti, cemetery vandalism, church
desecration, and animal mutilation, with only one percent of recorded occult-related crime being
homicide. It is also fascinating that almost all perpetrators of occult-related crime were white
teenage boys. Teenage mischief such as graffiti and animal mutilation has had a long history in
America and in recent years there has been no significant increase in these types of crimes. This
seems to imply that satanism or more accurately pseudo-satanism was a new rebellious fad for
the young white male. Of course there were instances of deranged criminals whose crimes were
sparked by occult beliefs. Yet, when local news outlets and police departments paint these kinds
of minor delinquent crimes as done by a surge of wild teenage Satanists, it feeds fear of cults in
Best, Richardson, and Bromley, “Satanism as a Social Problem.”, 9.
Edward C. Burks, “‘Satan Cult’ Death, Drugs Jolt Quiet Vineland, N.J.,” The New
York Times, 1971.
Jeffrey S. Victor, Satanic Panic : The Creation of a Contemporary Legend (Chicago :
Open Court, 1993), http://archive.org/details/satanicpaniccrea00vict.
After the increased concern and fear regarding Satanic cults, the third and last major
factor in play was questionable advancements in psychology. In 1980, the bestselling book
Michelle Remembers was published.
Written by Michelle Smith and co-authored by her
psychiatrist (and eventual husband) Dr. Lawrence Pazder, it is a first-hand account of horrific
abuse she suffered at the hands of a Satanic cult for several months as a five-year old in 1955. It
describes rape, abuse, sodomy, murder, and other grotesque acts which they forced her to witness
or experience in rituals. The book claims that these abuses went on for almost a year until her
strong Christian faith made them give up and let her go. She completely forgot about what she
had experienced and twenty years later rediscovered these memories through the help of Dr.
The traumatic stories of Michelle Smith’s childhood in Michelle Remembers sparked
headlines. Dr. Pazder presented a paper the next year at the American Psychiatric Association’s
annual meeting. In his paper he coined the term “ritual abuse.” Soon women from all over the
country were claiming that their children had been assaulted by Satanists as well.
There is an issue with this book however. None of these “memories” have any
independent verification. There is nothing to indicate that any of what the book describes ever
happened. No murder reports, no car crash records (like those described in the book), nor any
Debbie Nathan, “Satanism and Child Molestation: Constructing the Ritual Abuse
Scare,” in The Satanism Scare (New York: Walter de Gruyter, Inc., 1991), 81.
Michelle Smith and Lawrence Pazder, Michelle Remembers ([Scarborough, Ont.] :
Nelson/Canada, 1980), http://archive.org/details/michelleremembe00smit.
Best, Richardson, and Bromley, 50.
childhood hospitalizations of a five-year-old Michelle. The only reasonable explanation for the
“memories” is that therapy itself created them.
This effect, coined in the 1990s, is called “false memory syndrome.” This term is used by
psychologists and mental health professionals to describe when a patient, usually a woman, goes
into therapy because they have common problems such as depression and comes out of therapy
with previously repressed “memories” they did not know existed about sexual abuse in their
Freud developed the concept of “repressed” memories. He believed they lay behind
symptoms of hysteria, where traumatic experiences could be unconsciously forgotten as a coping
mechanism. In that way, not only would the person be unaware of the lost memory, but they
would be unaware that they had been engaged in the process of forgetting it. Acceptance of this
concept implies that incredibly painful or scary events are likely to be completely forgotten.
Therefore, if someone has psychological problems that cannot be diagnosed, repressed childhood
memories could be a legitimate explanation. However, over seventy years of empirical research
has been unable to unearth any clear evidence that the concept of repression is legitimate.
This concept lay dormant for many years until it was revived in the 1970s with a
reinterest in hypnosis. The United States government spent over five million dollars in research
on hypnosis. Findings confirmed what had been known by clinicians before. Some people are
Nathan and Snedeker, Satan’s Silence, 45.
Nicholas P. Spanos, Multiple Identities & False Memories : A Sociocognitive
Perspective (Washington, DC : American Psychological Association, 1996),
highly susceptible to hypnosis and while memories drawn can be highly detailed and realistic,
many are complete fantasy.
The following paragraphs will give only the broadest overview instigating case of ritual
abuse panic in action. This is for two reasons. First, the gritty and often explicit details of the
false accusations and testimonies of child molestation that were rampant across the US are not
the subject of this thesis. The second reason is that in order to accurately and comprehensively
cover the specific events in a way that makes conclusions clear, this paper would have to discuss
disturbing and sexually explicit content which would be best taken from other sources instead of
At McMartin Preschool in Southern California, a paranoid and clinically schizophrenic
mother, confident that her son had been abused, when and spoke to the authorities who took her
at her word and called in a professional child abuse interviewer to work with the boy to get him
to spill the story that his mother was certain he had. The boy originally denied any abuse and
only agreed that abuse had occurred after intense questioning that refused to take no for an
answer. In this case, no actual evidence was found besides the now discredited testimony from
the intimidated boy.
In what became the longest running court case in US history, what was supposed to be a
quiet trial exploded into the public eye as a reporter broke the news regarding allegations of
sexual abuse at the South Bay preschool. The local and national news went into “a feeding
Sherrill Mulhern, “Satanism and Psychotherapy: A Rumor in Search of an Inquisition,”
in The Satanism Scare (New York: Walter de Gruyter, Inc., 1991), 147-149.
Nathan and Snedeker, Satan’s Silence, 64.
frenzy” as one media critic called it.
The media completely sided with the prosecution despite
any proof of abuse or missing children (like the child testimonies reported). The accused
received physical violence and death threats before the trial. Parents and authorities in South
Bay became convinced that a giant sex-ring was being run in the town and they began to report
anything that looked suspicious to them. At its peak, full-blown witch hunt paranoia gripped the
town, with all sorts of people being accused of sexual abuse by hundreds of South Bay
As if to solidify the panic, the Michelle Remembers psychologist Dr. Pazer met with
parents and therapists in the town to discuss a theory of international Satanic conspiracy.
Fortunately, the McMartin Preschool trial ended with hung juries and acquittals, but the panic
continued to spread.
Respected child-protection professionals made comments that anyone who expressed
skepticism about the rampant cult sexual abuse trials might be an “agent” from the “other
When professionals legitimized the concern, there was no hope of reducing the panic.
Many cases popped up around the nation. The cases that were expedited and did not allow for
contradictory evidence or doubt to rise were the ones that tended to end in guilty verdicts. On the
other hand, the trials that dragged on tended to end without convictions as the longer the trial
went the more ability for doubt to grow about the guiltiness of the accused.
As the panic
continued into the 1990s, it became less and less indictable to express skepticism about the
deYoung, “The Devil Goes to Day Care.”
Nathan and Snedeker, Satan’s Silence, 90.
A moral panic can only last so long without proof outside of increasingly
improbable child testimonies. Thus, the ritual abuse panic faded away.
The ritual abuse panic was a moral panic of explosive proportions. Though the domestic
sexual abuse problems that arose to public attention in the 1970s were certainly real, there was
simply no evidence to legitimize claims of an organized satanic infiltration of child-care facilities
in the 1980s. Moral panic is a complex sociological concept defined by the Online Dictionary of
the Social Sciences as:
Suggest[ing] a panic or overreaction to forms of deviance or wrong doing believed to be
threats to moral order. Moral panics are usually framed by the media and led by
community leaders or groups intent on changing laws or practices. …Moral panics gather
converts because they touch on people’s fears and because they also use specific events
or problems as symbols of what many feel to represent “all that is wrong with the
Developed by sociologist Stanley Cohen in the 1970s, it was used to explain rebellious teenage
subcultures in Britain that were blown out of proportion and considered a serious menace.
However, the basic concepts remain the same when applied to other misappropriated or
sensationalized communal fears.
The first commonality found in the between the SRA panic and the D&D scare is
concerned parents. Parents have legitimate reasons to be concerned for the safety of their
children. However, when parental fears become misled, the passion parents have for their
children can be societally influential in harmful ways. This can be seen in the SRA panic when a
mentally unstable mother began investigating to find evidence confirming her suspicions,
eventually sparking a flood of sexual abuse allegations. This can also be seen in the D&D scare,
Nathan and Snedeker, Satan’s Silence, 245.
Robert Drislan and Gary Parkinson, “Online Dictionary of the Social Sciences,”
accessed March 8, 2020, http://bitbucket.icaap.org/dict.pl.
when Patricia Pulling took her own ideas about her son’s suicide (which denied the possibility
that preexisting mental illness could have been the cause) and founded BADD, making a
significant impact on public perception of D&D. The parent is in a unique position of defense.
Their job is to protect their children from the things or people that could harm them. Because of
that, it is only natural for a parent to assume that something or someone is out to get their child.
It is what they are expecting and what they are on guard for.
When something appears to be a danger, parents may or may not be sure if the concern is
legitimate. But professionals and experts who theoretically should be more critical of fantastic
claims were led astray by flawed scientific theories, validating the fear in others. Psychologist
Dr. Pazer not only coined the term ritual abuse but enjoyed public attention for his important role
in the “uncovering” of the Satanic conspiracy. Local police departments in forty-one different
states were concerned enough by the narrative of systemic occult crime they began to train and
assign officers as cult cops that specialized in occult associated crime. These cult cops were also
involved in fighting “D&D related crime.”
Dr. Thomas Radecki, the psychiatrist who worked
with Pulling in her fight against D&D, is yet another example. He gave legitimacy to her
arguments though he himself was caught up in the faulty science.
It is the parents who spark the concern, the professionals with faulty science who
legitimize it, but it is the news reporters who spread it across the nation. In both cases discussed,
sensationalized and typically premature stories spread ill-informed panic. In the case of the
Egbert disappearance, the media reported sensational breaking news stories about a boy who had
disappeared after playing an intense version of D&D. Of course that theory was complete
Ben M. Crouch and Kelly Damphousse, “Law Enforcement and the Satanism-Crime
Connection: A Survey of ‘Cult Cops,’” in The Satanism Scare (New York: Walter de Gruyter,
Inc., 1991), 195.
conjecture and later proven incorrect. However, first impressions are powerful things and if a
sensational story keeps people reading, the media has little incentive to deescalate a situation by
highlighting new facts that suggest a more mundane explanation.
At a fundamental level moral panics like the SRA panic and the D&D scare run on what
can be termed urban myths. Certainly, the false memory syndrome verified the urban myth, but
even the origin of the false memories surrounding SRA were based in urban myths. Myths like
these are passed on by word of mouth and taken as truth. Soon, no one can remember where the
“fact” came from, but everyone knows it to be true. An example of this is the Halloween sadist
stories. Stories about people putting razor blades in kids’ candy are so prevalent, it is an accepted
fact. However, a sociologist named Joel Best went through decades of newspapers to try to find
any actual incidents of this happening and found only two deaths both resulting from tampering
of candy by the victim’s family. There were several other incidents, but none ended in serious
harm and in many cases turned out to be hoaxes told by children to get attention. Though these
concerns sounded legitimate, they were not substantiated. But they sound real and part of that is
because they were spread by word of mouth. If shared orally, urban myths are nearly always said
to be heard from a friend of a friend or the neighbor down the street.
Alongside urban myths is the term memorate which folklorists use to describe when an
individual uses popular legends to explain a confusing or perplexing experience. By using
commonly held legends and urban myths to explain their inexplicable or puzzling experience,
they can avoid being marked as a crazy person or a deviant. These stories are credible because
they draw on a deep body of commonly understood folklore and legend. But to a greater degree
Nathan and Snedeker, Satan’s Silence, 30.
they are believable because they tend to convey and express social anxieties and concerns about
perceived social emergencies or threats to the established social order.
At a deeper level, these anxieties and concerns can make themselves known through
subversion myths which use scapegoats to explain complicated problems. Jews, Catholics,
Communists, and immigrants have all been blamed at some point for kidnapping children,
molesting women, or conspiring to destroy the American dream. Because there was no hard
evidence of Satanic conspiracy and no clear idea of what Satanists were outside of urban rumors,
Satanists seem to be have been another version of the subversion myth.
This fear of Satanists is one the biggest specific factors that the D&D scare and the SRA
panic share. All the aforementioned causes for Satanism being the new subversion myth apply
just as much to the D&D scare as they do for the SRA panic. Both find occult behavior to be the
culprit for the issues presented. Both were spearheaded by misled parents who were concerned
about protecting their children. Both were sparked by one or two events that were misunderstood
or misinterpreted by both parents, authorities, and experts. Those events were then hyped by the
media and sensationalized versions of the misunderstandings were spread all across the nation.
Additionally, those who were concerned about these problems (whether D&D or ritual abuse)
were not just the traditionalists—the social conservatives. Though the movement leaders and
forerunners were typically religious or conservative, these panics spread to all corners of society.
Finally, there seemed to be in both panics a preoccupation with psychology and mental illness. In
the D&D scare, it expressed itself as a concern that D&D was causing multiple personality
disorder or other mental disorders that could cause someone to lose their sense of reality. In the
SRA panic, it expressed itself as heightened awareness of mental disorders like PTSD caused by
Nathan and Snedeker, Satan’s Silence, 30.
sexual abuse and application of newly rediscovered forms of psychoanalysis and therapy, some
of which were later shown to be unreliable.
Anti-D&D crusaders never reached the place that concern over Satanic ritual abuse did.
However, they share many comment elements that can bring light to leading concerns parents
and American society at large had in the 1980s. The more inflammatory and concerning “threat”
of SRA may have exploded on the scene a year after Patricia Pulling founded BADD, but both
clearly rode the same wave of concern and worries about D&D causing occult behavior were no
doubt bolstered by the SRA panic. The SRA panic gave the lesser known and less impactful
concern over D&D more weight.
The Evangelical/Fundamentalist Movement and the War for the Nation
Anti-D&D sentiment was also given a great deal of support both directly and indirectly by
the Christian fundamentalist community that rose to public scrutiny in the 1960s. This movement
made a significant impact on the cultural nature of the United States. Their paradigm pitted
progressive thought and secular media against morality and truth. In addition, it encouraged
conservative and religious political and social activism to take back America from the harmful
ideologies that had crept in, thereby preserving traditional morality. Thus the moral concern over
occult/satanic influences in D&D fit right into the fundamentalist Christian paradigm.
D&D was a strange and suspicious activity that many even outside of the church associated
with the occult and Satanic concerns of times. Though the general populace was concerned about
occultism for its criminal implications, the reality of Satan and Christians’ relationship to the
world and its media were and are still key topics for the theologically conservative Christian
paradigm. Billy Graham, in accordance with much of the historical Christian church, firmly
believed that Christians are in a direct war with Satan.
Charles Ryrie, one of the most
prominent theologians of the 20th century, outlined what Protestant Christianity believes about
Satan, demons, and the world in his book Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to
Understanding Biblical Truth. Though he wrote more academic works on theology, a work in the
public vernacular is informative because it communicates the simplicity of what the average
Billy Graham, “An Agenda for the 1980s,” Christianity Today (Pre-1986); Carol
Stream (Carol Stream, United States, Carol Stream: Christianity Today, Inc., January 4, 1980), 1.
devout Christian believed as well as giving a sample of what kind of theology was
communicated to many average Christians.
In it, Ryrie explains that Satan is a clear reality according to the Bible, with a personality and
moral responsibility. He will be held accountable for his actions. Not simply a personification of
evil, Satan is a fallen angel, a deceiver and tempter. He is incredibly crafty, deceiving nations
into thinking they can bring peace without God. He blinds unbelievers to the truth of the Gospel
and tempts believers into “conforming to the pressures of society” and committing evil. Satanism
was not simply a criminal threat to the Christian community; it was a spiritual attack.
According to Ryrie, demons also unequivocally exist according to Scripture. As fallen
angels, they are led by Satan to promote idolatry and oppose the will of God. Demons can cause
physical ailments, they attempt to pervert what is right, and they have the power to possess.
Possession means taking direct control of individuals by inhabiting them. Though this is
terrifying, true believers in Jesus Christ cannot be possessed by demons because they are already
possessed by the Spirit of God.
So while spirituality and concepts of demonic possession were
largely fictional to the vast majority of the secular populace, to Christians this was reality.
Ryrie also explains that Satan is the ruler of this world.
The term “world” refers to the
system of the universe that operates separate from God. It is the mass of thoughts, opinions, and
impulses current in the world—the moral or immoral atmosphere in which humans live.
Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding
Biblical Truth (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999), 169.
cosmos world is that system organized by Satan, headed by Satan, and run by Satan, which
leaves God out and is a rival to Him.”
Satan has supreme authority over this domain, but only
within God’s purpose and permission. In it he aims to create a “counterfeit order” without God.
The intrinsic evil of this order lies in its independence from and rivalry towards God.
Christians are called to keep themselves unstained by the world. This requires displaying
Christlikeness in a world hostile to it. This means there ought to be a level of separation between
the Christian and the world, but Christians still live in the world and are not commanded to
isolate themselves from it. Instead they can use and enjoy the good things in the world as long as
they do not place them as more important than God or let influences lead them into sin.
many Christians, D&D was not in accordance with a literal interpretation of the commandment
stated in the King James version of Thessalonians 5:22, “Abstain from all appearance of evil.”
Elements of the common human tendency to look with nostalgia on the past, a worldview
that considers the world and its pleasures to be actively against decency and morality, and a
dramatic cultural shift in 1960s all came together to support a view that the USA had lost its
cultural morality and confirmed that forces were attempting to corrupt all that was good.
Children at Risk was only one of various books in the late 20th century that warned of the
increasing corruptive nature of American culture on future generations. Written by one of the
preeminent Christian conservative scholars at the time, Dr. James Dobson, it describes how the
after-effects of the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, the secular humanist and Marxist agenda in
media and entertainment, and the loss of respect for the values of the American founding have
Ryrie, Basic Theology, 172.
set battle lines against the old guard of traditional morality and conservative values. It paints this
culture clash as a civil war for the heart of the nation and future generations.
This was not simply a cultural war, but a political one as well. A subculture had
emerged, centered around defending conservative moral values as found in a traditionally literal
interpretation of the Scriptures. This subculture took various names, the fundamentalist
movement, the evangelicals, and in the political sphere, the Moral Majority. The formation of
this public movement was a reaction to the cultural changes of the times. Those who held a
traditionally literal interpretation of Scripture had for decades been estranged from the public
The Bible had long been the cornerstone and trademark of American politics and culture,
but by the early 1900s, the doctrine of the divinely inspired Bible, key to literal interpretations of
Scripture, grew out of fashion and those Christians who refused to change their convictions
became isolated. Darwinism with its naturalistic explanation for the development of life clashed
with a literal interpretation of Genesis and caused many Christians to rethink their stance on the
reliability of Scripture. Those who decided to question science and academia instead of the Bible
began to retreat from the in-compatible public culture and became known as fundamentalists.
Ironically, these fundamentalists were not something new. Instead, they were virtually
identical in their beliefs to the mainline Protestant teachings of the 19th century.
This created a
sense that the rest of America had abandoned the traditions and roots that had kept it afloat. In
James C. Dobson and Gary L. Bauer, Children at Risk: The Battle for the Hearts and
Minds of Our Kids (Dallas: Word Pub., 1990), 19-41.
Joel A. Carpenter, Revive Us Again : The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism
(New York : Oxford University Press, 1999), http://archive.org/details/reviveusagain00joel, 5-7.
the eyes of the fundamentalists, academia and American culture had rejected the truth of God’s
word and what made America great. Fundamentalists began to create their own separate culture
in a form of cultural isolation.
This subculture was built on common beliefs and a feeling of betrayal that so many
fundamentalists felt after their beloved country began to turn its back on orthodox Christian
beliefs. Bible institutes were key to the formation of this subculture. The Moody Bible Institute
and the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA) began to publish the magazines Moody Monthly
and The King’s Business specifically for this audience.
Radio stations specifically for the
fundamentalist/evangelical audience because to form with a desire to encourage and provide
wholesome and edifying entertainment.
At this time, an important trend began to form which
continues to this day. All these Christian organizations were formed that do charity work or
teaching or any other number of explicitly Christian activities but do not provide church services
and are not associated with a specific Protestant denomination. In fact, they were and largely are
independent of churches. These parachurch organizations took on a life of their own and allowed
evangelical minded individuals from various Protestant denominations to work together under a
To the evangelical, conversion is completely transforming, causing the Christian to avoid
worldly activities and seek out things that are holy. This means that even those things which the
Bible never explicitly says are sin were considered taboo. Smoking, drinking, gambling, cursing,
movies, theater, and jazz all fell under the category of worldly activities that were not becoming
Carpenter, Revive Us Again, 16-17.
of one who had been transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit.
The mentality of sacrificial
service and devotion to one’s faith called evangelicals to a higher standard than the average
religious person who attended a church service and avoided sexual impropriety.
did not mean that evangelicals found entertainment or leisure pointless or worthless. Instead,
they found spiritually encouraging and wholesome avenues for leisure. These included things
such as stories and activities about giants of the Christian faith, ways of playing card games
without gambling, sports, and retreat camps where preachers would give weeklong seminars
interspersed with food and games and time to socialize.
As a point of context, the first speaker
at Chicago’s youth rallies in 1945 was a fairly unknown preacher known as Billy Graham.
Though this subculture with its organizations and targeted media was important, it was
not the biggest focus of the Evangelical movement. The greatest importance was placed on the
role of the evangelical family. Family in this context mainly meant the nuclear family of a
husband, wife, and children all fulfilling well-defined gender roles and authority structures.
The organizations and the church may fail, but the family was to be a place of safety and peace.
It was a place where Christian parents could shelter their children from the worldly influences
and lies of an increasingly secular culture and instill in them the convictions to follow Christ and
live a holy life. To the evangelical community it did not simply hold a central place in the
Hart, That Old-Time Religion in Modern America, 72-73.
James Davison Hunter, Evangelicalism : The Coming Generation (Chicago :
University of Chicago Press, 1987), http://archive.org/details/evangelicalismco00hunt, 79.
Christian life; it became a symbol of social stability and traditional morality. As such, the
concept of the “traditional family” became arguably the highest priority among the social issues
defended by evangelicals.
To evangelicals it was the foundation upon which America
This subculture lived on steadily for about forty years. However, by the 1960s, a new
generation had grown up which had seen, in the 1940s, a rapid decline of the influence of
Christianity on American culture and the effect a lack of intellectual rigor had on the evangelical
movement’s ability to impact the culture.
Before the counter culture movement of the 60s,
evangelicals may have felt alienated from American culture but they did not feel under attack.
There had been Christian movements against specific moral issues in the past, but they had been
non-political cultural dissentions. However the radical shift in accepted cultural norms that
occurred in the 1960s shocked the evangelical community. America had changed from a fairly
comfortable, but still worldly place to a radically godless society. This sparked a wave of
Christian political activism dedicated to halting the moral decline of American culture.
sexual revolution not only flied completely in the face of Biblical teaching on sexual ethics, it
also challenged assumptions about a women’s place in society and hence the structure of the
“traditional” family and its cult of domesticity.
The feminist movement escalated the issue and
challenged the desirability of homemaking and childrearing as fitting fulfilling purposes for a
Hunter, Evangelicalism, 76.
Hart, That Old-Time Religion in Modern America, 117.
wife and mother. On top of that, the legalization of abortion became the greatest sign that
something was morally wrong with America. Removal of prayer and reading of Scripture from
the public schools was simply a confirmation of this threat, a confirmation which brought the
issue home. No longer could the evangelical community sit back and isolate themselves. If
anything, they had to do something for the children who were going to school and could very
well be taught atheism and agnosticism without restraint.
At the same time, the counterculture
movement with its New Age ideas were attacking American Christianity from the other
direction. These all stirred the evangelical community to do something and to reenter the public
square and become leaders for decent morality and Christian values.
This was not to save
America. Evangelicals went on the offensive to protect the children and preserve the family.
Pat Robertson was one such influential evangelical. President of the Christian
Broadcasting Network, he and many others, including Jerry Falwell who founded the
conservative Christian political mobilizing organization Moral Majority, banded together to
make aggressive political change towards stemming moral decline. As an example of the impact
he and others made, on April 29th, 1980 he cochaired a Washington for Jesus rally on
Washington Mall with between 250,000 to 500,000 people in attendance.
On his TV network
he ran a news talk show called The 700 Club which started in 1966 and continues to this day.
Hart, That Old-Time Religion in Modern America, 150-151.
Frances FitzGerald, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, (New York:
Simon & Schuster, 2017), http://worldcat.org/oclc/951742558, 291.
This influential talk show, intended to entertain, mobilize Christians, and inform them
about news and various topics of interest, gave Dungeons & Dragons an appearance in 1989. In
the opening sequence of the segment Robertson tells younger viewers “today all around you are
sinister influences appealing to your imaginations and trying to capture your minds and hearts.”
The segment states that entertainment media for children is full of satanic themes. It gives
examples of rock music videos, tv shows, movies all with various different levels of occult
content from burning crosses behind Madonna to ghosts and witches in Ghostbusters 2 and
Scooby-Doo. A claimed expert in occult influences in cartoons explains that “cultic heroes are
being lifted up as gods before our children and our children are receiving them as such.” The
segment goes on to claim that supernatural characters and magic symbols in cartoons appear to
make cartoons an occult indoctrination for children. It is at this point that the topic shifts to
D&D. “Some claim it’s a simple harmless game, yet suicides, murders, and robberies have been
linked to this game.” It cuts to an interview of Patricia Pulling in which she explains that her son
committed suicide because he was too involved in the game and became one with the character.
It follows this up with a quote by Dr. Gary North, “(Dungeons & Dragons) games are the most
effectively, most magnificently packaged, most profitably marketed, most thoroughly researched
introduction to the occult in man’s recorded history.” A five-minute interview documentary
follows a young man who became obsessed with D&D, grew depressed, considered suicide, and
then stopped playing thanks to the influence of his mother’s prayers and a young Christian
group. The narrator explains that the now reformed young man is always ready to share with
young people the subtle dangers of D&D and how it leads down one of two paths, occult activity
or suicide. The documentary contrasts D&D as fulfillment with Christ as fulfillment. Several
summarizing sentences in the segment paint a picture of how important protecting the youth was
to the evangelical community. “The potential exists to deceive a generation. What will happen to
the world if it loses its youth. What will happen to parents if they lose their children? What will
happen to children if they lose their souls?”
Though evangelicals led the charge, other religious people with Judeo-Christian values
joined the charge, defending their children against this corruption. Patricia Pulling, a Jew, was
the greatest example of this with regards to anti-D&D sentiment. Her magnum opus, 1989’s The
Devil’s Web: Who is Stalking your Children for Satan?, outlines how she believes there to be
malevolent conspiratorial people at work to corrupt children and ruin family values. Her words
mirror the sentiments of the evangelical community. “Our children are precious gifts from God;
He has entrusted them to our care and protection.”
The aforementioned Dr. James Dobson, psychiatrist and evangelical Christian, founded
Focus on the Family in 1977. It was a parachurch organization which communicated his message
about the moral breakdown of America and how a focus on the institution of family could right it
Focus on the Family’s main goal was to help parents train up godly children. To that
end, they gave much advice regarding mainstream media and how to navigate it both as parents
and as children.
He wrote a book called Children at Risk subtitled “What you need to know to
protect your family.” The front cover gives a list of bullet points describing what parents need to
be doing and how the book helps. The book helps parents “stop the media from corrupting your
“The 700 Club” on Rock Music, D&D, Cartoons (1989), 2015,
Pulling, The Devil’s Web, 134.
Hart, That Old-Time Religion in Modern America, 176.
children”, “keep them pure in a sex-charged environment”, “reverse the effects of value-free
education”, and “plant firmly-rooted spiritual values in your kids.” In it, Dobson outlines a list of
objectives he describes as the goals of those with an anti-family agenda. The first item on the list
is convincing society that only experts and trained professionals should be trusted with raising
Whether this is true or not is not the question of this thesis. However, it is of note
that this was what evangelicals believed. The language of taking charge of your child’s parenting
was widespread throughout conservative religious circles.
In her book, Pulling places rock (and rap) music, violent television, and Dungeons &
Dragons as the three dangers parents should be concerned about. Dobson described rock music
as being dangerous because of how the music depicts violent and sexual roles and content both
through lyrics and video. One rap album originally declared obscene and illegal by a judicial
official, “As Nasty As They Wanna Be”, included an extreme amount of explicit sexual and
vulgar terminology and descriptions. Dobson explained that young boys of even the ages of eight
and ten typically purchased and listened to this music.
In a different chapter, he cites a
subcommittee of the American Medical Association which reported that the average teenager
listens to 10,500 hours of rock music in high school. That same committee encouraged doctors to
look at a child’s listening habits as an indicator of their emotional health.
rock music to be highly dangerous to the mental health and safety of kids and teenagers. Not
Dobson, Children at Risk, 64.
only is it full of lyrics that many times explicitly discuss the occult, sex, and violence, but she
links it to suicide rates in teens.
The second of the major concerns parents had was television. According to Dobson,
researchers claimed that the average child during the years of six through eighteen will watch
around fifteen to sixteen thousand hours of television. He points out that if this is true, they’ll
have spent more time watching TV than talking with their fathers. Throughout high school,
teenagers will have watched around eighteen thousand murders on television. Portrayals of intact
families were also considered a rare breed, with the “Cosby Show” and “Family Ties” being the
Pulling focused directly on the violence displayed constantly on television and
argued that this media can expose children to inappropriate sexual and occult content and cause
them to be desensitized to violence. She also linked television violence to teen suicide just as she
does with rock music.
Comparing the concerns over rock music and television with Dungeons & Dragons, there
are a decent number of similarities. Concerns over rock music stemmed from inappropriate
sexual content, violent and vulgar language, and recurring occult themes, with some bands
hailing Satan and being defiantly satanic in their lyrics. Television concerns came from the
disconnect it could cause between parents and children, its ridiculing of traditional values, its
exposure to and desensitizing of violence, and its prevalent sexual content. Concerns about
Dungeons & Dragons varied depending on the source, but the main concerns were its addictive
Pulling, The Devil’s Web, 103-106.
Dobson, Children at Risk, 233-234.
nature, its “ability” to cause players to lose a sense of reality (potentially causing suicide), and its
blatant exposure to occult themes and ideas.
There are some clear common themes with each of these forms of entertainment. Each
one was accused of exposing children and teenagers to inappropriate sexual and occult content,
desensitizing children to violence, and influencing the teen suicide rate. Discussing the validity
of concerns over rock music or television content is not the intention of this thesis. What is of
note here is the shared questionable associations popular music, television, and D&D all had. All
three took on a form that was unfamiliar to parents at this time. Each appeared closely connected
to negative and problematic ideologies or mentalities. Finally, they all had a significant
following with young people.
So how might the reentrance of evangelical Christians in the 1960s have helped support
the anti-D&D movement? First, the fervent belief that the supernatural is real and active
certainly had an impact. While people joke about demon possession, Christians believe it exists.
This gives them a greater sense of awareness about what they perceive is supernatural influence
in the world.
In addition, as stated previously, conservative Christian theology holds that Satan is the
ruler of this world. He “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”
everything world creates must be approached with a discerning eye, inspected carefully and
narrowly. Especially for parents who are trying to protect their children from the corrupting
influences. The 700 Club and Focus on the Family are two entities that spent effort helping
Christians discern appropriate secular entertainment. As such, they also gave a platform for the
propagation of anti-D&D content. To evangelical Christians it was and still is a war over the
1st Pet. 5:8
souls of their children. Therefore, there is no room for accepting unfamiliar popular
entertainment as simply neutral. It is far safer to keep questionable material out of children’s
hands than allow children to spend time with anything that might be dangerous to their moral,
spiritual, or mental health.
Though this might have existed within the homes of conservatively religious families, the
evangelical movement brought these types of concerns into the public sphere. Instead of using
isolation to avoid corrupting influences, the evangelical movement encouraged parents to go on
the warpath to defend all that was good and right from the onslaught of immorality in the war for
their children’s souls. D&D like rock music, held associations with questionable belief systems
and ideas. A secular parent might have been concerned because their child could be drawn into
criminal activity, drug use, or mental instability. The Christian parent took that concern a step
further. Even if there had been no ties between occult activity and detrimental behavior, Satan
and his demons are actively attempting to cause the faithful to sin, and occult behavior in any
form is unacceptable. To many Christians, D&D was another tool by the ruler of this world to
corrupt the undiscerning. As defenders of traditional morality, Christians ought to be outspoken
about its dangers. As Phyllis Elshof said in her Christianity Today article, “Who could possibly
oppose such a game but a bunch of Christians?”
Elshof, “D & D.”
Parental Anxiety and Demonized Children’s Media
The previous chapters focused on events and cultural trends surrounding late 20th century
American parents. The anxiety caused by parenting in the 20th century may have impacted how
parents related to various forms of youth entertainment including D&D. This parental anxiety
was caused by a parenting paradigm shift and a growing divide between parents and their
A fear of failure as a parent became an increasingly strong emotion in many
American parents over the past hundred years. Fear of failure does not react well with a media-
publicized three hundred and five percent increase in young adult suicide.
Patricia Pulling and
others pointed to Dungeons & Dragons as a direct causer of teen suicide. D&D has not been
shown to instigate teen suicide but it likely struck a nerve in the parental anxiety of the time and
was consequently placed in the category of children’s media critiqued as a direct cause of social
The trend towards increased anxiety in parenting can be traced back to a shift in the
image that parents had of children starting in the early 20th century. In the 19th century, literature
on parenting was mostly written by moral authorities like pastors, who would use scripture or
Peter N. Stearns, Anxious Parents : A History of Modern Childrearing in America
(New York : New York University Press, 2003),
M L Rosenberg et al., “The Emergence of Youth Suicide: An Epidemiologic Analysis
and Public Health Perspective,” Annual Review of Public Health 8, no. 1 (1987): 417–40,
moral truths to advise parents.
The child was considered “sturdy,” able to handle the trials the
world throws at him, if the parents would only help guide them. Parents were supposed to be a
role-model for children to emulate. A focus on instilling virtues and moral character could be
found in most child-rearing manuals.
Though not innocent, children were capable of
understanding and avoiding dangers on their own. But in the early 20th century, parenting
literature was written increasingly by psychologists and medical professionals. Whereas before
moral authorities used their short books to exhort parents to exhibit virtue and encourage their
children to do the same, the medical professionals wrote long volumes covering a variety of
topics, usually referred to as problems that must be prevented in children or that children must be
protected from. This concept became known as “scientific mothering” and was inspired by the
growing field of child psychology and study of stages of child development. Proponents of this
new child-rearing philosophy rejected the idea that children were passive, to be molded into
moral individuals by their parents. Instead, children were seen as active and growing. Parents
were to provide the boundaries and stimuli needed to help the child grow and mature
As an example, instead of seeing children as clay which a parent molds into a
pot, “scientific mothering” saw children as growing plants that need braces and boundaries to
help them grow correctly. However, because of this supposedly scientific approach, a lot of
detail was place in not giving children incorrect stimuli or in improper amounts. Calling for a
detached approach, writers suggested avoiding spoiling children as well as warning parents
Stearns, Anxious Parents, 19.
Susan Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions ([S.I.]: Free Press, 1989),
against encouraging their infants to laugh in case it causes excessive burden on the infant’s
developing nervous system. A great deal of pressure was put on parents to follow rigid, regular
schedules and much importance was placed in raising children “properly.”
In this way,
children had been redefined as fundamentally fragile, requiring protection from harmful
influences and pitfalls.
This fixation on protecting children from the many dangers that could harm them
increased as the decades went by. Parents became concerned about childhood grief, sibling
rivalry, jealousy, posture, hygiene, and threat of disease among other things.
In the 1940s, Dr.
Spock and his enormously popular book The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care
exploded onto the scene. He encouraged parents to set aside the rigid schedules of past parenting
techniques and to love on and enjoy their children. Called by many the “Confidence Man”, he
encouraged parents, telling them that they knew more than they thought they did. He still
emphasized the importance of discipline, but in the context of a loving parental relationship. He
emphasized that a parent’s actions have an incredibly impact on a children’s future, but that
parents ought to be flexible. Though Dr. Spock was comforting in his tone, his book and others
of the 1950s held an undertone of anxiety. Historian Susan Kellogg stated that, “No previous
generation of child care books had ever expressed so much anxiety and fear about children’s
health, safety, and happiness.”
Parents had to be watchful for the smallest symptom of various
diseases as childhood ailments like polio and meningitis were (for the last time) a significant
Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions, 122-123.
Stearns, Anxious Parents, 3
concern. In the ten years before the Salk vaccine in 1955 there were six massive outbreaks of
Though Dr. Spock may have helped parents feel capable of parenting, it did not affect
the paradigm of childhood vulnerability.
Until 1960, there were only a few parenting handbooks but over the course of the decade
a flood of parenting books came on the market and by 1981 over six hundred books on child
development were in print.
Despite the various differing opinions on parenting spread through
the variable trove of books, the concept of the vulnerability of the child remained constant. This
sense of vulnerability can be seen on display in 1979, when fears regarding child abduction
exploded into the public mind when a young New York boy was kidnapped and his picture was
put on milk cartons. Soon pictures of kidnapped children pasted on milk cartons became a
common occurrence. Some campaigns claimed over fifty thousand kidnappings by strangers a
year. However, the real numbers were closer to two to three hundred. Similar concerns about
pedophile rings and drugged Halloween candy circled with little supporting evidence. Hyperbole
and hysteria make a potent combination and the milk carton campaign, the pedophile ring scare,
and the drugged Halloween candy paranoia, were all fueled by the same explosive mixture.
Historian Peter Stearns pointed out, “What was happening here, obviously, was an interaction
between assumptions of vulnerability and immediacy of media accounts.”
Though the number
of kidnappings were not increasing, increased visibility through media exposure made it appear
Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions, 187-188.
Stearns, Anxious Parents, 35.
as if it was a growing issue. The rise of more immediate and engaging forms of media caused
increasingly sensational reports and corresponding over-reactions to ordinary statistics.
The fragile/vulnerable child perception extended all through the teenage years of a child.
In many cases, this perception caused increased tension in the home because parental anxiety and
protectiveness feeds teenage desire for independence. After World War II, when cars became
more ubiquitous, contact between parents and teenagers could be even less frequent, in turn
increasing teenage independence and parental worry.
This anxiety impacted all aspects of childhood, but it manifested in the realm of
entertainment three particularly strong ways. First was the issue of control. Parents’ ability to
influence their children waned as peers, teachers, and outside experts gained more influence in
their children’s lives. Parents felt the need to maintain some level of control and authority over
their children as society was taking parts of it away.
Second, play itself became a more serious venture as it was considered preparation for
school. Therefore, children could not simply play. Their play had to be productive. As child
labor waned, play became the way to teach children how to apply themselves. Toy engineering
sets and toy hobbies came in vogue as they were considered better for children than a simple toy
that did nothing but “entertain.” Suddenly parents felt the need to sort between not just the good
and bad, but also the productive and pointless.
Stearns, Anxious Parents, 35.
Third and most importantly for this thesis, parents worried and had trouble with
commercial motivations in entertainment for children as it very often catered to the weaker side
of a child. As the “fragile/vulnerable child” became increasingly accepted, confidence that
children were able to resist the commercial peddlers of crass humor, violence, and sexuality
In consequence, entertainment became considered an increasing threat.
This clash between entertainment and parents can be traced back as early as the penny
dreadful novels of the 19th century. Originally written for lower class adult audiences that had
just learned to read, young boys began to pick them up as they held sensational stories of the
wild west or crime. These novels were often poorly written and cheap to produce, with high
levels of violence for the time. Though never considered illegal, some members of society were
concerned about the poor literary value and immorality displayed in the novels.
York Society for the Suppression of Vice, created in 1872, gave widespread publicity to these
concerns and parents were encouraged to use the power of consumer choice to show publishers
they disapproved of the content in these novels.
These concerns over corrupting media for children did not stop there. Newspaper comic
strips, radio programs, cartoons, and movies each caused concern in their own time. These
mediums were charged with a variety of corrupting themes including crude art, vulgarity,
perverted humor, lawlessness, violence, and hostility to authority. Some claimed that movies
caused a significant minority of delinquency cases, even claiming films were arousing some
Stearns, Anxious Parents, 173.
Steven Starker, Evil Influences : Crusades against the Mass Media (New Brunswick,
U.S.A.: Transaction Publishers, 1989), http://archive.org/details/evilinfluencescr00star, 61-62.
young girls, resulting in sexual relations.
The child who goes to watch a movie, “loses
ordinary control of his feelings, actions, and his thoughts.”
This directly coincides with the
perception that children were helpless against the corrupting influences of entertainment and
were doomed to mimic and repeat the actions of the characters represented.
In the 1950s, comic books became the new threat, being tied directly to juvenile
delinquency. But the concern over media did not stop. As each new media type came, parental
anxiety transferred to the new form. Television became the new danger threatening to corrupt
every parent’s children. A flood of warnings and claims of delinquency spread. Stearns notes that
those critical of these warnings accurately pointed out “the potential for hysteria in the various
warnings and the sublime lack of historical perspective. Coming at the tail end of the comic book
crusades, it was striking that the crisis was presented as brand new, the contrast with idyllic
childhood innocence before television unsullied by historical data.”
The concern only grew as
the selection of offending entertainment, including youth music (such as rock) and video games,
continued to grow. And the media grew consistently more explicit despite parental protest.
Four conclusions, drawn by Stearns, help to digest these circumstances. First, this ever-
present parental critique of entertainment for children had a remarkable lack of impact on the
growth of the children’s media industry and technological development of such. With each new
generation of parents was an increasing level of explicit content in children’s media. Each
decade brought new and more blatant levels of reproachable entertainment that made the past
Starker, Evil Influences, 102-103.
Stearns, Anxious Parents, 182.
decade’s media seem tame in comparison. And parental criticism did not stem the tide much at
all. One of the only clear victories for parents in this was ratings systems for various forms of
media, but even that was flimsy at best and did not do a very good job of holding back the tide of
And yet, despite this clear increase in the intensity of objectionable content, there has not
been a corresponding increase in juvenile violence. Juvenile arrests have dropped to the lowest
level in almost four decades.
The annual number of youth homicide victims in 2017 is roughly
half the number in 1990.
This matches the data that overall national crime rate in 2015 was
roughly half of what it was at its height in 1991.
Interestingly, the only victim statistic that has
increased is the youth suicide rate with a roughly seventy-five percent increase between 2010
There has also been a clear discernible change in youth sexuality over the decades
and the most obvious culprit is media content and presentation. This evidence supports a
hypothesis that most children were not deeply affected by the violent content found in media
outlets, but sexual content was of a far more culturally impactful nature. Each generation of
parents believed that the past was an age of innocence that had been lost by the current crisis of
Stearns, Anxious Parents, 185-186.
“Arrests of Juveniles in 2018 Reached the Lowest Level in Nearly 4 Decades” (Office
of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention), accessed July 2, 2020,
“Characteristics and Trends of Youth Victims of Suicide and Homicide” (Office of
Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention), accessed July 2, 2020,
Lauren-Brooke Eisen, “America’s Faulty Perception of Crime Rates,” Brennan Center
for Justice, March 16, 2015, https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/americas-
“Characteristics and Trends of Youth Victims of Suicide and Homicide.”
objectionable content. And to a degree they were not wrong. Stearns ignores the impact each
generation has had on the downward slope of traditional sexual ethics. However, he makes a
good point that several generations over the course of the 20th century believed their own time to
be the crisis, the tipping point between the innocence of the past and the depravity of the future.
How parents guide their children through a culture filled with explicit content is their business.
However, the cultural fever pitch surrounding each and every subsequent “crisis” only fed
parental anxiety and in the case of violent media, did not correlate to trends of juvenile violence.
However even for those parents that were on the fence about whether these crises were
valid, the sheer speed that media innovated and the constant warnings of experts, created an
environment almost guaranteed to increase parent’s anxiety about their responsibility to their
children. In reality, most parents treated these warnings with a grain of salt, relying on their own
intuition. But when on one side, some parents paid no attention to any concerns and parented
haphazardly, and on the other side some parents over-reacted to every slight concern some expert
raised, it was almost impossible not to become anxious about whether or not a parent was doing
the right thing for their child.
It is alongside these constant fears of corruptive media that teen suicide statistics began to
rise. The overall suicide rate did not change, but as the statistic for seniors went down, the
suicide rates for teens and young adults, especially young white males, skyrocketed. Between the
1950s and the 1980s, reported suicide among white males ages 15 to 19 increased three hundred
and five percent. Between the ages of 20 and 24, the suicide rate increased by one hundred and
Young white males were the target audience for D&D. And to top it all off,
Stearns, Anxious Parents, 187.
Rosenberg et al., “The Emergence of Youth Suicide.”, 20-24.
experts could find no solid quantifiable explanation for the increase in these suicide rates.
could only have fed the already existing anxiety in parents. Newspapers like The New York
Times ran articles with headlines like “Youth Suicide Is Rising.” In this specific article was a
dizzying array of numbers and statistics, including a subheading, “No Explanation Offered.”
In an interesting twist, teen suicide statistics dramatically dropped throughout the 1980s and
1990s, meaning it was the 1970s, not the 1980s that held the incredible increase in teen
Nevertheless, the 1980s newspaper headlines still read “Youth Suicide Is Rising.”
Alongside articles describing a rise in teen suicide were the articles, books, and talk
shows linking D&D to suicide. In 1989, Pat Robertson’s 700 Club talk show broadcast a
segment in which Patricia Pulling and a former gamer explicitly linked D&D with suicide.
anti-D&D pamphlet printed by BADD has a page with sixteen listed cities and school boards
across the nation that had banned D&D.
An October 1985 article in The New York Times
reported that a local high school in Putnam, Connecticut dropped D&D from their activities after
five hundred people signed a petition.
In January 1985, the Chicago Tribune printed a headline
entitled, “Fantasy Game Turns Into Deadly Reality,” which contained sensational details of teen
Rosenberg et al., “The Emergence of Youth Suicide.”, 436.
“Youth Suicide Rate Is Rising,” The New York Times, February 22, 1987.
Kirsten Weir, “Worrying Trends in U.S. Suicide Rates,” Monitor on Psychology,
March 2019, https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/03/trends-suicide.
“The 700 Club” on Rock Music, D&D, Cartoons (1989).
Dempsey, Dempsey, and Pulling, Dungeons and Dragons - Witchcraft Suicide
“Putnam’s High School Drops Dungeons and Dragons Game,” The New York Times,
1985, sec. Metropolitan Report.
suicides that had one apparent commonality: an interest in D&D. The article ironically admits,
“There have been no scientific studies linking Dungeons & Dragons, which has been sold since
1973, to increased violence or suicides. The evidence against the game remains largely
anecdotal. To parents…however, those anecdotes are more than sufficient.”
sentence is key. To parents, anecdotes were enough proof to link D&D and suicide. The bias in
the article is clear as far more words are spent describing interviews with parents and three
“experts”, Pulling, Radecki, and Dear than on the defense by TSR Hobbies company spokesman
Dieter Sturm. “The game,” Sturm said, "is being made a scapegoat for the rampant teenage
suicide problem in the U.S." Nearly 4 million players, most aged 10 to 24, currently enjoy the
game, Sturm said.”
Sturm’s point about D&D as a scapegoat is worth exploring.
Scapegoating is defined as “the process of directing one’s anger, frustration, and
aggression onto others and targeting them as the source of one’s problems and misfortunes.”
For those like Patricia Pulling who struggled to explain her son’s suicide, a theory of
scapegoating provides a potential explanation. There is however little evidence to support
widespread scapegoating of D&D. Still, there is precedent for parents considering specific forms
of media a major cause of social ills related to children.
An example of this process in action was the crusade against comic books in the 1950s.
In 1954, psychiatrist Frederic Wertham published a highly provocative and influential book
called Seduction of the Innocent. In it he claimed that the main cause of childhood delinquency
Howard Witt, “Fantasy Game Turns Into Deadly Reality,” Chicago Tribune, January
“Scapegoating,” in APA Dictionary of Psychology, accessed April 29, 2020,
was consumption of comic books. But not simply the ones targeting older teenage audiences,
ones about crime and mystery, were to blame, but all comic books. He gave countless detailed
anecdotes about violent crimes and horrifying acts done by children who were allegedly led
astray by their obsession with comic books.
He once asserted “comic book reading was a
distinct influencing factor in the case of every single delinquent or disturbed child we
For him, the problem of youth delinquency was simple. He disagreed with other
psychiatrists who contradicted his research, calling their methods of research inadequate and
blind as well as claiming that they were monetarily supported by the comic book industry.
Now that his studies have been made available to historians, it is clear he frequently manipulated
evidence and fabricated elements of anecdotes to prove to society the dangerous effects of comic
As one psychologist wrote, “Wertham’s book appears clearly to be an attempt at
cultural correction rather than an honest report of scientific inquiry…”
However, his book
made significant waves, causing parents and politicians to rise up and consider bans on comic
book sales. In the wake of criticism, comic book publishers formed the Comic Book Authority as
Leslie A. Brown, “The Arbiters of Childhood: How Adults Defined Children in the
1950s” (Patrick Henry College, 2012), 15-16.
Stearns, Anxious Parents, 181.
Fredric M. Wertham, Seduction Of The Innocent (Toronto, Canada: Clarke, Irwin &
Company, LTD., 1954),
http://archive.org/details/fredricwerthamseductionoftheinnocent19542ndprinting, 49-50, 54;
Frederic M. Wertham, “The Comics...Very Funny!,” The Saturday Review of Literature, May 29,
Carol L. Tilley, “Seducing the Innocent: Fredric Wertham and the Falsifications That
Helped Condemn Comics,” Information & Culture 47, no. 4 (2012): 383–413, 515.
a self-regulatory institution to placate the demands of the populace.
This grassroots movement
successfully influenced an entire generation of parents, all without actual substantial scientific
A sociologist contemporary of Wertham summarized the anti-comic crusade well.
“These are the same type of parents who were once offended by the dime novel, and later by the
movies and the radio. Each of these scapegoats for parental and community failures to educate
and socialize children has in turn given way to another as reformers have had their interest
diverted to new fields in the face of facts that could not be gainsaid.”
Here again we see the application of parental anxiety channeled into a scapegoat, giving
parents and the community at large a bogeyman to fight and expel. Wertham’s arguments hold
two linked assumptions. The first is that children will directly imitate crime or delinquent
behavior that is portrayed in media. His very direct statements in his writing state as much. The
very messy issue of the impact of violent/offensive media on children is not the subject of this
thesis. It is however worth noting that according to the American Psychological Association
(APA) as of October 2019, “scientific research has demonstrated an association between violent
video game use [the most recent media under scrutiny] and both increases in aggressive
behavior, aggressive affect, aggressive cognitions and decreases in prosocial behavior, empathy,
and moral engagement.”
However, the APA has been unable at present to find sufficient
evidence suggesting causation between violent video games and violent actions, the precise
Brown, “The Arbiters of Childhood.”, 18; Stearns, Anxious Parents, 181.
Frederic M. Thrasher, “The Comics and Delinquency: Cause or Scapegoat,” The
Journal of Educational Sociology 23, no. 4 (1949): 195–205, https://doi.org/10.2307/2264555,
Thrasher, “The Comics and Delinquency.”, 200.
“APA Task Force Report on Violent Video Games.”, 11.
difference in terms between violence and aggression being crucial. The report makes it clear that
“In psychological research, aggression is usually conceptualized as behavior that is intended to
harm another. Violence can be defined as an extreme form of aggression or the intentional use of
physical force or power, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in harm.” The
key here is that the research literature is not focused on studying the impact of violent video
games as a cause for lethal violence.
Crime and delinquent behavior would fall under the
category of lethal violence and not aggression.
The second assumption made by Wertham is that rebellious and delinquent behavior does
not come naturally to children. He placed the blame for unruly and criminal behavior outside the
child and onto an external force.
It was the lurid comic books which introduced children to the
idea of resisting authority and acting cruelly. He denied that comic books might have been
fulfilling an unknown desire in children that was an intrinsic part of their psyche, a possibility
explored by other psychiatrists.
But this was not an assumption solely held by Wertham and the parents of the 1950s.
“The search for causes [of delinquency] in early childhood, or family relationships, or social
structures, or mass media, implied the assumption that the urge to engage in delinquent behavior
(whatever that meant) was fundamentally external to the child.”
The assumption of external
corruption of the innocent began many years before and likely fed the sense of parental anxiety.
“APA Task Force Report on Violent Video Games” (American Psychological
Association, October 2019), https://www.apa.org/about/policy/violent-video-games.pdf, 10, 15.
Brown, “The Arbiters of Childhood.”, 29
When parents began to see their children as fragile, malleable, and intrinsically good or neutral,
they began to seek out external forces to explain wayward or even suicidal children. Like other
media forms considered corrupting before it, D&D was an innovation marketed successfully to
children that found widespread popularity. Containing potentially and subjectively unsuitable
content, certain influential individuals blamed its influence in society for various social ills.
D&D was another form of youth entertainment blamed as a cause for social problems.
Anti-D&D campaigners did make some radical claims. However, the 1980s parent was
already in a culture where concern about satanic and occult influences filled conversation. An
increasingly public portion of the population was describing the world and its entertainment as
fundamentally at war with all that is good and right. Christians and non-Christians alike held a
paradigm of children as fragile and vulnerable to a myriad of dangerous outside influences. This
supported a precedent for considering new and suspicious forms of children’s media a significant
factor in the current wave of rebellious and/or dangerous childhood behavior.
As the players of D&D who dealt with intense social pressure from parents or religious
figures have grown older and become the leaders of today’s popular culture, society has largely
explained away parental concerns regarding D&D as based in deluded religious and conservative
mindsets. This is a lazy and unfair dismissal of parents who were trying to keep their children
safe. A lack of respect and understanding for those who came before will only foster that same
mentality in the next generation.
It is vital to examine America’s past with understanding for the context in which these
historical individuals made their decisions. To judge past generations or historical figures as if
they had the information or the paradigm of a modern 21st century individual is disrespectful and
foolish. It also removes any possibility of learning from any past individual. For each era of a
culture is, in a sense, its own cultural language. If one was to read Shakespeare’s Hamlet without
understanding the cultural context in which the words of his play were written, it would be
difficult to understand the intent of his words. Instead one must enter the ethos bubble of the time
in which the individual wrote his or her writings or made his or her decisions.
The same goes for the anti-D&D crusaders. A mental exercise in empathy and
understanding would help the reader understand that these people were not crazy lunatics, but
well-meaning and often intentionally informed (if misinformed) parents and leaders who were
doing what they thought best to protect the nation’s children from a sinister threat. One must
look at the past with understanding.
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