clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
A collage of Stranger Things images, alongside old D&D and Satanic Panic materials Graphic: Pete Volk/Polygon

Filed under:

The real history behind Stranger Things 4’s Satanic Panic plot

When it comes to the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, the devil’s in the D&Details

In the first episode of Stranger Things season 4, Eddie, the leader of Hawkins High’s “Hellfire Club” of Dungeons & Dragons players, gleefully reads from a Newsweek article about how the game is for Satan-worshippers. “The devil has come to America,” he reads out. “Studies have linked violent behavior to the game, saying it promotes satanic worship, ritual sacrifice, sodomy, suicide, and even murder.” It seems impossible to think there were really mainstream news pieces like that in the 1980s. But there were — and there were also kids who thought that was cool. They had to deal with adults who wanted groups like the Hellfire Club to be exorcized.

D&D became famous after the 1979 disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III, a 16-year-old Michigan State University student who was briefly (and mistakenly) believed to have gotten lost in the steam tunnels below campus while playing a game of D&D. Supposedly, the game had become all too real in his head. That turned out not to be true — he had run away to Louisiana — but the reality didn’t get nearly as much press as the baseless suspicion that D&D drove him crazy.

All of the surrounding publicity turned D&D from an obscure pastime into the subject of a nationwide conversation. The steam tunnel story quickly became an urban legend. It was the basis for Rona Jaffe’s novel Mazes and Monsters, which was adapted into a notorious after-school special starring a young Tom Hanks. The idea that D&D could warp young minds soon became a pet cause of fundamentalist Christians in particular — especially when they looked at the covers of D&D books and saw horned demonic faces staring back at them.

D&D monsters go beyond the game

A close-up of the D&D figurines from Stranger Things episode 1 Photo: Curtis Brown/Netflix

But anyone familiar with the game would know this was all make-believe fantasy fiction stuff, right? Well, who can we find featured in the issue of D&D’s Dragon magazine for the month that Egbert disappeared? Could it be … Satan? As in “The Prince of Darkness,” “Lucifer,” “The Adversary”? Satan in D&D terms has 333 hit points, and his attack will hit you for 10-100 points of damage. And that article was not the first excursion D&D made into the infernal realms: The devils and demons in the 1977 Monster Manual, including the Demogorgon who menaced the first season of Stranger Things, drew on demons actually depicted in medieval Christian sources. Demogorgon was even name-dropped by Milton in Paradise Lost.

D&D originally evolved from games that simulated the warfare of medieval times, and then layered on fantasy tropes drawn largely from authors like J.R.R. Tolkien. Designers who wrote historical wargames would research the period for the sake of “realism”— they needed to know a mace from a morning star. In early D&D, many rules were influenced by historical realities of the Middle Ages, like the prohibition on clerics drawing blood with edged weapons. But the very presence in the game of clerics who start off as acolytes and can become vicars, bishops, or even patriarchs, and who “receive help from ‘above,’” entangled D&D with religion from the start.

To those who think of Demogorgon as no more real than Thanos, the reuse of existing mythology in the Monster Manual may seem as harmless as appropriating Tolkien’s orcs. But the co-creators of D&D, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, were both quite serious about Christianity. When people started questioning the use of “real-world” religion in D&D, Gygax drew the line at including angels, writing in Dragon magazine #43, “While little objection can be made to the utilization and slaying of demons and devils, who would dare say the same of angels? Surely you can recognize that game use of such is absolutely out of the question for those of the Judeo-Christian faith.”

A tentacled demon with two ape-like heads and a crocodilian mid-section. Image: Dave Sutherland/Wizards of the Coast
A demogorgon emerges in a cell in Russia.
Two very different types of Demogorgon, from D&D books (above) and Stranger Things season 1
Image: Netflix

So for Gygax, at least, it was all right to include “real” demons in D&D as long as they were villains. But not everyone who played the game treated them that way. Plenty of early D&D adopters in the 1970s had a parallel interest in the occult. Some of that was the lingering hippie New Age vogue for astrology, crystals, and tarot cards. But other players weren’t reading horoscopes so much as Aleister Crowley — they thought the occult was cool. Those sorts of people had done a very different sort of historical research, and they took D&D to places that Gygax would never have anticipated.

Take the magic system in D&D, which drew heavily from Jack Vance’s Dying Earth fantasy novels. Lots of early adopters didn’t like it and devised replacement systems. Some hoped to make magic more “realistic” by researching supposedly genuine grimoires — that is, medieval spellbooks (many of which were modern forgeries). P.E.I. Bonewits, who famously had managed to major in “magic” at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote a game supplement called Authentic Thaumaturgy (1978) that promised to align game magic with “psychic powers and magical techniques as they appear to operate in this universe.” Or look at a rules pamphlet from the same year called The Infernax of Spells, Necromancy, and Black Magic, which includes instructions for the “Lucifer Incanus Indictat,” defined as “a period of study terminated by pledging allegiance to Lucifer.” It even promises that “all material herein was fully researched from rare manuscripts and painstakingly put into game rule form.” While neither of these books were canonical D&D, they illustrate how the community did not entirely embrace Gygax’s piety — The Infernax even shipped with a somewhat baffling endorsement from the devoutly Christian Dave Arneson.

The broader interest in occultism that manifested everywhere in the culture of the 1970s — especially alongside sex, drugs, and rock and roll — attracted fundamentalist ire, which we remember today as the dawn of the “Satanic Panic.” Even Avalon Hill, which usually sold respectable historical board wargames, was then pushing titles like Witchcraft and Black Magic, which brimmed with citations from the books you could find in the New Age section of the Waldenbooks at your local mall. But D&D was the game that got popular, and it bore the brunt of the backlash.

Bullies on pulpits

The fundamentalist assault on D&D began in earnest in Heber City, Utah, in 1980. The fervor was centered around a high school D&D club much like the one in Stranger Things 4. Heber City’s club was challenged by a small group of activist parents for the game’s irreligious references to biblical events such as walking on water and the resurrection. The debut of a D&D book called Deities & Demigods around that time didn’t exactly calm anyone down, especially when it contained text like “serving a deity is a significant part of D&D, and all player characters should have a patron god.” The D&D Dungeon Masters Guide from the year before had ruled that “whether or not the character actively professes some deity, he or she will have an alignment and serve one or more deities of this general alignment indirectly and unbeknownst to the character.” Fundamentalists read into that passage a sort of bait and switch: Kids were being told this was all just a game, but unbeknownst to them, they were serving sinister forces.

Three Hellfire Club members laughing it up in the lunchroom
The Hellfire Club in Stranger Things season 4.
Image: Netflix

Christian Life Ministries began publishing jeremiads on the evils of D&D in response to a planned game at the Cordova Recreation and Park District near Sacramento, California. They scoured D&D books for any inkling of heresy. “If it’s only a game,” one of their screeds read, “why do they use hundreds of traditional Christian terms? And why do they use them in such blatantly blasphemous ways?? Why??” A Kansas evangelical minister even started raising money in 1981 to buy up copies of D&D and burn them.

The Heber City and Sacramento controversies made good copy for newspapers both regional and national. They would inspire numerous challenges to high school D&D clubs, to name just a few, in Carroll County, Maryland, in 1982; Janesville, Wisconsin, in 1983; Baltimore in 1984. This pattern caught the attention of televangelists like Pat Robertson, whose Christian Broadcasting Network then reached millions of homes. Robertson would cite “news reports of murders, suicides, fantasy mental changes. Young people who are going totally crazy as a result of this game.” The most publicized of those stories was the case of Irving “Bink” Pulling II, whose suicide in 1982 turned his mother Patricia into an anti-D&D crusader and the founder of the group BADD — “Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons.” She sued the principal of her son’s high school in Virginia for negligence in allowing the game to be played there, attributing his death to a curse put on him by another D&D player. Before long, she was suing the makers of D&D as well.

Mainstream reporting in the mid-1980s offered somewhat balanced coverage of the D&D controversy, but inevitably, the lurid accusations made for gripping stories. A Newsweek piece in September 1985 sensationally titled “Kids: The Deadliest Game?” opened with the story of a teenage D&D player who “took down his Cheryl Ladd posters and replaced them with pictures of demons” before dying by suicide. Two of the people interviewed for that piece, Patricia Pulling and psychiatrist Thomas Radecki, would also appear on an episode of 60 Minutes around the same time that spotlighted these critiques of D&D. Radecki would actually relate on camera the account of parents who saw their son “summon a Dungeons & Dragons demon into his room before he killed himself.” Gygax, squirming on camera himself, would dismiss these allegations as “nothing but a witch hunt.”

D&D had millions of teenage fans, and no one had produced credible evidence that the rates of murders and suicides among D&D players were above the national norm, as Gygax would point out. Moreover, the supernatural connections drawn tacitly or explicitly by critics exhibited the very confusion they had accused D&D players of since the Egbert incident: an inability to distinguish fantasy from reality. The Newsweek piece quotes Pulling arguing that “if kids can believe in a god they can’t see then it’s very easy for them to believe in occult deities they can’t see,” like the ones D&D was “brainwashing” kids into following. It was tantamount to arguing that religion and make-believe are hard to tell apart. Those kids who thought the occult was nothing more than a cool way to shock their elders would probably agree.

By invoking “real-world” historically researched demons, devils, and occult trappings, D&D had always blurred the line between fantasy and reality just a bit. Tapping into popular interest in the occult was a good marketing ploy. While the game’s publisher publicly insisted that it was all just make-believe, an internal memo from 1982 shows that the company knew things were a bit more complicated: “Part of the public’s fascination with the occult is that there may be something to it.”

A scan of an internal memo from 1982 where the D&D game publisher says: “Magic/Occult: Our problems in this area are paradoxical: on the one hand, our culture is more willing to accept amusements dealign with this subject than with the religion. Yet, we may encounter problems in this area on a more widespread basis than with either religion or violence. Part of the public’s fascination with the occult is that there may be something to it.” and more
An excerpt from the 1982 internal memo showing how D&D publishers weighed the Satanic Panic against their actual aims.
Image: Wizards of the Coast via Jon Peterson for Polygon

There can be no doubt that the fundamentalist “witch hunt” forced D&D to pick a lane. The idols and efreet on the cover of the flagship Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide would be replaced by more wholesome images in 1983. Deities & Demigods would quietly be renamed Legends & Lore in 1984. By the end of the 1980s, the game had totally backpedaled on demonology — the publisher had removed the words “devil” and “demon” from all of the D&D books and replaced them with the make-believe terms “tanar’ri” and “baatezu.”

A decade later, the Satanic Panic lost steam, and the public attitude toward it was best exemplified by Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” parody on SNL. Religious activists would be replaced by secular critics like Jack Thompson, who went after Grand Theft Auto for allegedly encouraging violence. When Wizards of the Coast released its own edition of Dungeons & Dragons in 2000, the demons and devils had returned, as did a fresh edition of Deities and Demigods. No one made a fuss about it. Now, Demogorgon can proudly pose on the cover of the D&D adventure Out of the Abyss. It can be hard today to imagine how anyone could see dangerous satanism in 1980s D&D. But Stranger Things 4 depicts a time when some people thought the occult elements of D&D were just make-believe — and others feared, or even hoped, that there might be something to it.

For further reading, see Joseph P. Laycock’s Dangerous Games and The Satanism Scare anthology. Stranger Things 4 part 1 is streaming on Netflix. The two episodes of part 2 drop on July 1.

Reviews

Warcry is Warhammer at its best, and the new second edition proves it

Tabletop Games

The Adventure Zone’s new season moves from Dungeons & Dragons to something even better

Dungeons & Dragons

D&D’s newest push is into classrooms around the world

View all stories in Tabletop Games

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon