Stranger Things Season 4: How Dungeon & Dragons Sparked a Satanic Panic

The dungeon master is a devil’s disciple as Stranger Things season 4 gets entangled in the real world events of the Satanic Panic.

Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo) and Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) at The Hellfire Club in Stranger Things season 4
Photo: Netflix

Dungeons & Dragons has played a big role (pardon the pun) on Stranger Things since its very first episode. The show’s central four youths Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) all enjoy the role-playing game that utilizes its players’ imaginations to create one sprawling fantasy quest. Many of Stranger Things’ mystical villains have even had their names borrowed from the game with monsters getting monikers like the Demogorgon, the Mind Flayer, and in season 4: Vecna.

In Stranger Things season 4, however, Dungeons & Dragons takes on a more threatening context. In the season’s first episode, the D&D playing Hellfire Club makes note of an article conflating the game with devil worship. After that it becomes clear that the Hawkins community at large starts to view these harmless nerds with some suspicion. The notion that a childrens’ game could somehow lead to the embrace of a supernatural evil is one that’s sadly borrowed from real world events known as the Satanic Panic. Many parental groups in the late ‘80s did indeed believe Dungeons & Dragons was a gateway drug to devilish doings.

Conceived by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, Dungeons & Dragons was the first codified roleplaying game. It was initially distributed by Tactical Studies Rules, Inc., based in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, in 1974. According to the rules, each player takes on a character, and takes part in a campaign. One player, called a Dungeon Master, guides the game as a referee, pronouncing challenges, naming monsters, and creating other obstacles along the way. It was harmless fun for the indoorsy types. Participants could always throw up a protection shield. The outcome of each interaction is judged by the roll of different types of dice.

Holy rollers didn’t roll that way. The New Christian Right saw the devil in everything. Preacher Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority in 1979 to put the fear of god in them, creating a narrative where popular culture had become dangerous to youth, and this was no gaming matter. Christian crusaders became a political force with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Parental Interest Groups (PIGs) pushed issues onto media discussions, demanding society save the children.

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This would later lead to Tipper Gore, scandalized to hear Prince sing “Darling Nikki” was in a “hotel lobby masturbating in a magazine,” to form the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) to put warning labels on music. They brought into evidence the “Filthy Fifteen,” songs which were too dangerous for young ears. Frank Zappa, John Denver, and Dee Snider of Twisted Sister testified against such blatant knee-jerk censorship, saying it’s the parents’ job to watch out for their kids. But the PMRC won. Music has warning labels, and a Mötley Crüe song can warrant Congressional hearings. Judas Priest!

Rock and roll was considered the “devil’s music” long before heavy metal shredded minds and reaped souls. The satanic panic targeted horror movies, unleashed a rash of allegations of ritual abuse in children’s day care centers, and would go on to convict the West Memphis Three on homicide. But Dungeons & Dragons received special acclaim.

Like the Ouija board before it, Dungeons & Dragons went from a parlor game to a demonic tool. Gary North’s 1976 portent None Dare Call It Witchcraft declared “these games are the most magnificently packaged, most profitably marketed, most thoroughly researched introduction to the occult in man’s recorded history.”

While some elements of the game conjure satanic imagery, like demons from the abyss, Gygax and Arneson probably didn’t look much further than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings for source material. Admittedly, it is probably more work than Anton LaVey did for The Satanic Bible, which wasn’t even close to the research William Peter Blatty did for The Exorcist

The Dungeons & Dragons Satanic Panic began with a truly sad story. On August 15, 1979, 16-year-old child prodigy James Dallas Egbert III went missing from his college dormitory at Michigan State University. Private investigator William Dear found many of the student’s friends knew him through Live Action Role Playing in the tunnels beneath the campus. The story was picked up by the national media and became a sensation. Dear found Egbert on September 13, less than a month after the reported disappearance. The teenager told the investigator he had been depressed over academic pressures, and had attempted suicide. He said he was struggling to get his parents to accept that he was gay. Egbert killed himself within a year.

Dear would later publish his account of the case in the book The Dungeon Master. While he didn’t blame Dungeons & Dragons for Egbert’s death, he proposed a game immersion theory in which people could be sucked into a roleplaying game to the point where they are unable to distinguish fact from fantasy. Rona Jaffe reimagined the case in her 1981 bestseller Mazes and Monsters. It was adapted into a film in 1982, starring Tom Hanks as Robbie Wheeling, a college student who dives so deep into a fantasy roleplaying game he has a psychotic breakdown and spends the rest of his life in a delusional haze. 1983’s Skullduggery stars Thom Haverstock as Adam, a role-playing gamer who graduates to hunting and murdering women. Wendy Crewson co-stars in both films as the significant other player.

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On June 9, 1982, 17-year-old Irving Pulling committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest. His mother, Patricia Pulling, noticed Dungeons & Dragons posters, paraphernalia, and magazines in his bedroom. She sued Tactical Studies Rules. When the case was dismissed before it reached court, Pulling founded the public advocacy group Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (B.A.D.D.) in 1983. The devil was in the details.

According to the book Videogames and Education by Harry J. Brown, Pulling called Dungeons & Dragons “a fantasy role-playing 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.” She wrote that the spiritual corruption started with the dungeon master, who she believed had power to use the satanic rituals published in the rulebook.

In 1984 evangelical cartoonist Jack Chick published the comic Dark Dungeons, in which the dungeon mistress is a cult leader who gains magical powers through ritualistic murder. He would further demonize Dungeons & Dragons in an alignment with Dr. Rebecca Brown, who was stripped of her medical license for misdiagnosing mentally ill patients with demonic possession the same year his anti-D&D comic was published.

In 1985, CBS News dedicated a full hour’s broadcast, introduced by the venerable Ed Bradley, to the roleplaying game. The episode featured interviews with Pulling, and Dr. Thomas Radecki, the president of the National Coalition on TV Violence, who linked Dungeons & Dragons to 28 cases of murder or suicide. Radecki was known for conflating statistics. While attacking the motion picture industry he declared one in four Hollywood films contained a rape scene. He would endure further indignities. The University of Illinois revoked his medical faculty accreditation in 1985, though he continued to claim accreditation. His medical license was revoked twice on unprofessional conduct allegations.

The damage, however, was already done. The Upside Down got turned inside out for a short while. The 1989 second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons removed all demonic references. They were reintroduced in the third edition of the game, published in 2000. Dungeons & Dragons is now owned by a Hasbro subsidiary. The rulebook is in its fifth edition.

Friends don’t lie. Studies by the CDC and the American Association of Suicidology found no causal link between roleplaying games and suicide. Dungeons & Dragons players are no longer reviled as satanists, though some may be derided as harmless nerds. High schools have D&D clubs. The Satanic Panic was ultimately a live action roleplaying game.

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Stranger Things season 4 volume 1 premiered Friday, May 27 on Netflix. Volume 2 will premiere on July 1.