For longtime tabletop roleplaying game (RPG) fans, a February 16, 2010 Boston Herald article by Laurel J. Sweet, “Suspect in slays fan of ‘Dungeons,'” brought unhappy flashbacks. Sweet claimed Dungeons & Dragons “has a long history of controversy, with objections raised to its demonic and violent elements”; she linked D&D to violent crime, a claim popular in the 1980s. For most of that decade, American society fell prey to a moral panic that linked RPGs with suicide, murder and Satanic ritual abuse – in the shorthand of the time, SRA.
Begun by fanatics, fomented by opportunists and hysterical media coverage, the Satanic Panic made life hard for tens of thousands of roleplayers. The furor should sound familiar to today’s players of, say, Grand Theft Auto. This brief chronology hits some of the panic’s lowlights and draws lessons from 25-30 years ago that apply strongly today.
[Note: These opinions are mine (Allen Varney) and don’t necessarily represent those of The Escapist, its associated sites or its owners.]
? Even one or two solitary cranks can be dangerous. A “national organization” may well be one busybody with a letterhead.
? Moral panics originate from the public’s sincere (if often misguided) concerns over some new thing, usually child-related. But the public quickly falls prey to opportunists, bullies and frauds, who (with enthusiastic media cooperation) escalate the panic to gain power, money and ratings.
? Parents who don’t pay attention to their kids’ activities may be easily alarmed and manipulated.
? Appeasing a bully never, ever works. Bring the fight to the attacker. Capitulation to a bully seldom brings good results.
1979: Michigan State University sophomore James Dallas Egbert III, 16, disappears from campus shortly before exams. Egbert’s family hires private investigator William Dear to locate him. Because Egbert, a socially awkward gay epileptic drug addict, subscribed to Dragon Magazine and once attended Gen Con, Dear publicly speculates Egbert vanished in the steam tunnels beneath campus while playing D&D. Dear’s claims (later downplayed in his 1985 book The Dungeon Master) provoke a media circus. In “The Devil in Ms. Pac-Man,” Escapist editor Russ Pitts summarizes Egbert’s sad history:
Egbert, a deeply troubled soul, had attempted suicide in the campus steam tunnels (not while playing D&D) and after failing to end his life (having not been trained well enough in weapon use by playing D&D), sought refuge at a friend’s house, where he hid from his family and authorities for several weeks. He eventually succeeded in killing himself , but no connection to his death or his madness was ever convincingly made with D&D, save that he played it.
1980: Michelle Remembers by Canadian psychiatrist Lawrence (Larry) Pazder and “Michelle Smith” (Michelle Proby) is the first published SRA survivor account; in it, Pazder coins the term “ritual abuse.” Pocket Books pays a $100,000 hardcover advance and $242,000 for paperback rights. Pazder divorced his first wife the year before; court documents indicate Pazder and Proby disappeared for lengthy intervals together starting in March 1977, while she was his patient. Pazder later marries Proby.
Michelle Remembers sells strongly, and Pazder goes on to a lucrative career consulting in more than 1,000 ritual abuse court cases. The book’s success spawns many imitators, including The Satan Seller by Mark Warnke and Satan’s Underground by “Lauren Stratford” (Laurel Rose Wilson).
Publisher TSR’s Fiend Folio is the last D&D/ AD&D product that dares depict a nipple.
1982: High school student Irving (Bink) Pulling II, 16, of Richmond, Virginia, commits suicide with his mother’s pistol. Like Egbert, Bink Pulling was troubled; he once disemboweled 17 pet rabbits and a neighborhood cat. When his mother, Patricia Pulling, learns Bink played D&D at school the day of his suicide – the first time she’s heard of the game – she becomes convinced he killed himself due to a “curse” placed on him in a game. She sues both the school (Pulling v. Bracey, 1984) and TSR. When both lawsuits are dismissed, Pulling founds a small advocacy group, Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (BADD). She describes D&D as “a fantasy roleplaying game which uses demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, satanic-type rituals, gambling, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning, necromantics, divination and other teachings.”
Classmate Don Moss writes about Bink Pulling, “D&D had nothing to do with his suicide; in fact, Katherine [Moss’s wife, who had for a time dated Bink] told me he probably wrote that in his note just to mess with his mom, who he truly despised and was not a nice person.”
Pulling soon allies with Illinois psychiatrist Thomas Radecki, who runs another one-person organization, the National Coalition on Television Violence. In numerous petitions, lectures, talk show appearances and “expert” legal testimony, the two moral entrepreneurs energetically link RPGs, along with pagan religion and heavy metal music, to the SRA scare. At one point Radecki quotes as fact a fictional “letter to the editor” in Mazes and Monsters.
CBS airs a TV adaptation of Mazes and Monsters, starring 26-year-old Tom Hanks.
The publicity brings unpleasant surprises for D&D/AD&D players. Young gamer Andy Vetromile (later a GURPS writer) phones a Georgia toy store seeking D&D products. “I was aware the couple who owned it had a strong Christian background. I hadn’t considered this until the wife told me, ‘No, we don’t carry that. We had a couple of suicides because of it.'”
1985: BADD and NCTV jointly petition the Federal Trade Commission to require warning labels on roleplaying games. The petition alleges nine cases of RPG-inspired suicide, all spurious or dubious. The FTC punts to the Consumer Products Safety Commission, which eventually rejects the petition.
September 15th: A 60 Minutes anti-D&D story interviews D&D co-creator Gary Gygax and TSR public relations officer Dieter Sturm. The report treats both Radecki and Pulling respectfully and makes Gygax sound callous and evasive.
(Dieter Sturm leaves TSR soon afterward to become a film special effects technician specializing in snow-making and explosives. He appears four times on the David Letterman show, blowing up bratwurst and cottage cheese.)
1987: In her book Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society, Tipper Gore, wife of then-Senator Al Gore, lists D&D as an occult teen fad and includes contact info for BADD.
July 17: While D&D publisher TSR remains supine, other roleplayers finally marshall their defenses. Novelist and game designer Michael A. Stackpole, later one of the roleplaying field’s most cogent and active defenders, debates Rosemary Loyocano, “Western Regional Director” of BADD on the KFYI radio network’s Tom Leykis show. Stackpole says, “That was the first time we shot back in any significant way.”
October 12-13: “Games That Kill,” Geraldo Rivera’s two-part report on Entertainment Tonight, provokes gamers William Flatt and Pierre Savoie to form an advocacy group, CAR-PGa (Committee for the Advancement of Role-Playing Games).
1988: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate among Americans aged 10-24 levels off at about nine per 100,000.
June: Editor James Lowder joins TSR’s book division, a time when he considers the panic to be dying down. “I had assumed [TSR] would have been aware the worst was over,” he writes. “I couldn’t have been more wrong.
“When I moved into my first office at TSR I [posted] copies of Dark Dungeons on the door. The pages were up for only a few minutes before [TSR vice president] Jim Ward passed by. He stepped into the doorway, pointed to the pages, and said, ‘If you want to be working here this afternoon, you’ll take them down immediately.’ For a moment I assumed that he was kidding, but he explained that [TSR’s CEO] Lorraine Williams and the rest of upper management had no sense of humor about the panic, and that I’d be wise never to joke about the subject within hearing range of any of them.
“I’d soon learn that Ward was not exaggerating. In fact, the company had become so hypersensitive to the criticism connected to the panic that demons and devils were going to vanish from AD&D with the publication of the second edition. I discovered, too, the company was attaching a rider to all novel contracts – a very slightly modified version of the old Comics Code Authority guides for editorial content. No one enforced it, though, and when I asked why, given the lack of enforcement, the guidelines were included in the contract at all, I was told they provided cover. If anyone asked, the company could hold up the list of proscribed content and say we had the same guides as the people publishing such wholesome fare as Archie and Superman.”
1989: AD&D 2nd edition replaces all mentions of the words “devil” and “demon” with the neologisms “baatezu” and “tanar’ri,” and similarly expunges real terms like “succubus.”
Unswayed by this concession, Vital Issues Press publishes Pat Pulling and Kathy Cawthon’s The Devil’s Web: Who Is Stalking Your Children For Satan?
1990: Stackpole compiles “The Pulling Report,” a meticulous, devastating dissection:
Clearly Pat Pulling is a “cult crime expert” only in her own eyes and those of her cronies, allies and disciples. Barry Goldwater once said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” The extremism connected with the battle against the Satanic Conspiracy is defending no liberty. Fanaticism such as that which perpetuates a hysterical fantasy is nothing short of pure evil. The only greater evil is to do nothing to share the truth with those who might be misled by Mrs. Pulling.
September 30: An investigative report in the British newspaper The Mail on Sunday discredits the core allegations in Michelle Remembers. The Mail quotes Michelle’s father, Jack Proby, calling the book “the worst pack of lies a little girl could ever make up.” Mail reporters Denna Allen and Janet Midwinter ask co-author Larry Pazder, “Does it matter if it was true?” He replies, “We are all eager to prove or disprove what happened, but in the end it doesn’t matter.”
1991: GAMA, The Game Manufacturing Association, publishes a brief, sensible pamphlet targeted at parents and reporters, “Questions & Answers About Role-Playing Games” by Stackpole and Loren K. Wiseman.
1992: CBS and NBC run two anti-RPG shows during the May ratings sweeps, both loosely based on the 1988 Lieth von Stein murder case: Honor Thy Mother (based on Blood Games by Jerry Bledsoe) and Cruel Doubt (based on the book by Joe McGinniss). These shows mark the decline of major media anti-RPG agitprop.
The state of Illinois charges Thomas Radecki with “allegations of inappropriate sexual activity […] with one of his female patients” and revokes his medical license for five years.
1993: In March Stackpole debates Thomas Radecki on Jim Bohannon’s syndicated CBS Radio show. “That was the last time, to the best of my knowledge, that Radecki ever mentioned games or gaming,” Stackpole says. “In preparation for the debate, I had faxed to CBS a copy of the consent decree in which Radecki surrendered his license to practice medicine and his license to prescribe drugs. A year later, CBS News used that decree in an expose where they showed Radecki acting to get blonde-haired, blue-eyed coeds to act as surrogate moms for yuppie couples.”
Every book about Satanic ritual abuse has been discredited. Of the crimes and suicides that supposedly implicated D&D, almost all cases fell apart on examination; a small number are still debated. In the mid-’90s, people whose lives were ruined by SRA accusations sued psychiatrists and psychologists on charges of propagating false memory syndrome. Some of these suits were successful or settled out of court. Today SRA as a legal charge has basically vanished.
In 1995 the US suicide rate started a slow decrease, in 2006 it was about seven per 100,000.
On their 1996 album Take Down The Grand Master, the Wisconsin comedy group Dead Alewives presented a “Satanic D&D” parody, sometimes known as “Summoner Geeks” or “Attacking the Darkness,” that became just about the only good result of the entire panic.
Thomas Radecki resumed psychiatric practice in Clarion, Pennsylvania. Radecki’s neglected website still includes a D&D Deaths page.
By 1999, with the Columbine High School massacre, the industry learned how to turn the tide. Early Washington Post stories directly linked the shootings to RPGs. Stackpole, consulting with D&D‘s new publisher, Wizards of the Coast, advocated directly challenging the Post to source its allegations. Music and games marketer Jenny Bendel, working public relations for Wizards, answered journalist calls. “I would say, ‘Okay, you’ve played D&D, right? Are you really going to rush out a “Blame D&D” story when you yourself know that’s ridiculous and so ’80s?’ It worked – most journalists I spoke with backed off.” The process took three days. “Until the Post removed gaming mentions from the story, we had serious trouble,” Stackpole recalls. “The Post‘s stories were getting picked up all over the place, which could have become a dangerous and lasting negative legacy.”
(Bendel now organizes publicity and fundraises for the West Memphis 3, teens convicted of murder in 1994 on debatable evidence reminiscent of the Satanic Panic.)
Pat Pulling sold real estate until her death from cancer in 1997. BADD died with her. Larry Pazder died in 2004; his obituary omitted Michelle Remembers. Michelle Proby Pazder no longer gives interviews.
Today’s coverage of RPGs is generally informed and favorable. See, for instance, the March 2010 Washington Post story by Jeremy Arias, “After school, students morph into druids and dwarfs.” Laurel Sweet’s throwback Herald squib garnered hundreds of comments, all attacking her story or defending D&D.
Of course, moral panics still arise today almost as often as kids catch cold. The ’90s brought brief blips around Magic: The Gathering and live-action roleplaying. Currently we’re seeing alarm over online game addiction.
One recent panic even involved this site. (To repeat, these are my opinions, not necessarily those of The Escapist or its owners.) When one Old School Revival blogger learned Zak Sabbath’s Escapist video series I Hit It With My Axe featured porn actors playing D&D, his kneejerk oh-noes-the-children!!! reaction confirmed the Satanic Panic’s lasting psychological impact. As before, one individual created a ruckus; the consequent flamewar drove respected Old School blogger Michael (Chgowiz) Shorten to leave the field. (One RPG.net forum poster commented, “Yep, it’s an Old School Revival, all right. Only back in the late ’80s would anyone actually give a damn that somewhere out there is a gaming group made up of fully clothed porn stars.”)
Some gamers, noticing tabletop roleplayers are now mostly grownups, envision a revival of 1970s pre-Panic sensibilities, a return to days when the Monster Manual could show a succubus without a national uproar. In his article “Naked Went the Gamer” for the Old School Revival fanzine Fight On, Ron Edwards, designer of the fine indie RPG Sorcerer and admin at The Forge, addressed the hobby’s continuing capitulation to the “sudden national hysteria” of the 1980s:
[D]istributors of books, movies, comics, and games fell all over themselves trying to prove that the products were innocent of all intent or content to offend […] newly organized roleplaying hobbyists performed a huge, collective flinch. Instead of defying the pressure, they apologized. […]
I simply and fully condemn such actions, and it’s nothing to do with [“Your Mileage May Vary”], but because doing this is wrong. Why, if you concede that others’ mileage may vary, do you dial it back? Why do their preferences prevail? […] Who are you trying to protect? Yourself? Your store owner? “The hobby”? Pah!
For further reading
? William J. Walton has exhaustively documented the hysteria at his fine gaming advocacy site, also named The Escapist but not affiliated with this site.
? Shy David’s Satanic Hysteria Pages
? The “Ritual Abuse” Panic
? Satanic Ritual Abuse and False Memory Syndrome
? Paul Cardwell, Jr., “The Attacks on Role-Playing Games” (Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 18/2, Winter 1994)
? David Waldron, “Role-Playing Games and the Christian Right: Community Formation in Response to a Moral Panic” (Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Vol. 9).
? A Google timeline search for “D&D suicide timeline” produces contemporary accounts.