We’ve been running a series of stories on the Satanic panic that swirled around Dungeons & Dragons in the 70s and 80s, as told by those who lived it. Today we step back, and look at the history of the panic itself.
The Satanic panic began with the disappearance of the 16 year-old Michigan State University sophomore, James Dallas Egbert III, in 1979. There were rumors the boy ran off into the university’s steam tunnels, thinking that Dungeons & Dragons was real. The Muggle media is even catching on to the nostalgia for the moral panic, and focusing on this disappearance as well. On April 17th, 2016, The New York Times ran a story and video on the Satanic panic.
Private investigator William Dear believed that Dallas went into the tunnels, having suffered some sort of a psychotic break, and was living out the game. Dear later wrote a book about it, called The Dungeon Master, wherein he pointed to D&D as a cause of Dallas’s disappearance. To this day, Dear regards D&D as a malevolent cultural influence, saying that in D&D “you’re leaving the world of reality into the world of fantasy. [D&D] advocated murder, and decapitation, and I thought this isn’t a healthy game.”
Dear’s book inspired an insipid novel by Rona Jaffe, which was adapted into the notorious made-for-TV movie, Mazes & Monsters, a film so loathsome and low-rent that it screams like a cat on fire for a Mystery Science Theather 3000 adaptation. Behold a vile and abominably over-acted scene inspired by the steam tunnel:
Lost in all this media bedlam is the simple fact that Dear’s theory was in every way 100% wrong. Furthermore, it was known to be wrong within four weeks, as Dallas Egbert called Dear at that time to say he was in Texas. Dear and the boy’s uncle flew down to retrieve him. But the truth can’t kill a good story, no matter how false the story might be.
The truth here is that Dallas Egbert had problems far beyond the gaming table. According to journalist Bill James, Egbert was 16, gay, using drugs, and a state away from home. Yet Dear fixated on D&D as the cause of all Dallas’s troubles.
In the New York Times video, it is difficult to watch Dear malign D&D as unhealthy, when we know that the opposite is today true. I would love to send Mr. Dear to a dramatic reading of recent research demonstrating the cognitive benefits of D&D and other role-playing games. Just imagine it as a poem with the refrain, “The CDC and Health Canada say/D&D causes no violence, no way.”
A thorough debunking of all the moral panic cases was compiled by author Michael A Stackpole in the late 80s, and you can read it online here. If you are interested in the deep history of the moral panic, the Imaginary Worlds podcast’s D&D episode gives it a wonderfully succinct treatment. A comprehensive history of the role-playing game industry can be found in Shannon Applecline’s Designers & Dragons published by Evil Hat Productions. The 70s and 80s volumes cover the moral panic.
Do you think the Times piece was insulting to games? Why or why not? Let us know below!
Feature image courtesy CBS via Blumhome. Other images courtesy Evil Hat Productions.