RPG Evolution - True Tales from Stranger Things: The Satanic Panic Comes to School

Stranger Things' latest season incorporates the Satanic Panic into its storyline, but in my experience it wasn't the jocks who became the biggest threat. It was a teacher.

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The Satanic Panic Was Real​

Depending on where you lived and your family's social circle, the experience of Dungeons & Dragons players with the Satanic Panic could vary greatly. For the most part, my family rarely encountered any prejudices against the game. I've mentioned previously that my aunt was a big supporter of my hobby.

I was introduced to D&D as part of a learning program. It was considered a means of promoting reading and imaginative play and was promoted as such in elementary school. The Satanic Panic backlash came soon after while I was in high school.

The only incident I knew of where someone had a problem with us playing D&D was that my dad mentioned a coworker frantically telling him that I had to stop playing the game immediately as my soul was in danger. My dad told him off.

And that was about the extent of my experience with the Satanic Panic. Until I took an art class in high school.

Meet Mr. P.​

Mr. P. was an art teacher who was not particularly interested in art. Ironically, I met one of my lifelong fellow gamers in his class. It was a drawing class in which we would be asked to draw something and then, since there was no deadline as to when we were finished, sit around talking.

That meant a lot of time for discussions of topics Mr. P. was much more interested in. And once he found out that two of us played D&D, he then spent every class publicly debating me about it.

Mr. P. felt he was doing us a favor. He brought in material that criticized the game, then asked us to refute it. And me, being me, eagerly engaged him in a public debate. For the entire class.

This went on and off for weeks. We would barely do any drawing, then Mr. P. would bring out anti-D&D material, I would refute it, neither of us would budge on our position, and we'd do it all over again the next class. I remember at one point an audible sigh from my classmates, who were sick of the debate and certainly weren't learning anything about drawing.

The "Evidence"​

Mr. P's arguments were wide-ranging and poorly sourced. Here's some of the criticisms in the literature he shared and my response to the criticism:
  • The most powerful character is formed by rolling three sixes on a D6. I didn't even understand that "666" was supposed to be an evil number at the time. I explained there were lots of ways to generate a powerful character, and not just getting sixes.
  • There were demons featuring sexual content in the Arduin Grimoire. I'd never heard of the Arduin Grimoire until Mr. P's pamphlet mentioned it; some of the content in it was obviously for mature audiences. That wasn't in any way "official" D&D though, and I made it clear we didn't play in that setting.
  • The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide featured "real" magic circles. This was true (see picture, AD&D DMG, page 42), to the extent that they were based on what you could find in text books (I have no idea if the symbols on the magic circle are accurate). For parents concerned about exposing their kids to "occult" topics, I had to admit that it was in the book. It didn't have any bearing on the game though, as never drew these circles or used these symbols.
There was a lot more of course, but this was the kind of thing I spent my art class discussing with a teacher. To get a sense of the arguments leveled against D&D players, see Mike Stackpole's Pulling Report.

Your Tax Dollars at Work​

As a kid, I was excited about the opportunity to debate an adult publicly. My parents didn't fully understand what was happening and I didn't consider it a big enough deal to tell them. Although it was a badge of pride to take on the Satanic Panic so publicly, I also didn't really comprehend what was happening.

As an adult and a parent, I see this exchange very differently. A student and teacher are most certainly not equals, and the literature Mr. P brought in was religious in nature. There are a lot of things wrong with these exchanges, not the least of which being this teacher was bullying a student during school hours on school property and not actually doing his job.

As much as Stranger Things would like to make its villains fellow students, our critics were frequently more powerful, better connected, and protected by entrenched institutions. And they were almost always adults.

Mr. P. was a terrible art teacher, but he taught me an important lesson about how art can be perceived; be it a drawing of a demon, three numbers grouped together, or magic circles. I passed the class (he gave me a B, I think), but I learned a lot from him about what the outside world thought of my hobby.

Your Turn: How did you deal with the Satanic Panic when confronted with it?
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


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MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
I suspect the 2023 will be a year of "satanic panic" worse that the one from 80's, but this time WotC hasn't to worry about this, not even other RPG publishers, or videogames studios with titles as "Doom" or "Mortal Kombat". The target of the wrath by the people will be other.
You lost me here. What is the "other" target you are referring to?
 

Sorry, I have read "rumors" about things worse than Epstein's island. Technically they are only urban legends, but these also cause the 80's panic. Let's say the targets will be rich and famous people from the elite circles linked with the worst scandal in the History.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
Sorry, I have read "rumors" about things worse than Epstein's island. Technically they are only urban legends, but these also cause the 80's panic. Let's say the targets will be rich and famous people from the elite circles linked with the worst scandal in the History.
Ah, okay. I thought that might be what you were alluding to, but gets into areas of discussion outside of the scope of this forum and into politics.
 

Mannahnin

Scion of Murgen (He/Him)
It was entirely a US thing. It had no meaningful impact even in Canada.

As for why: self-described Evangelical/conservative Christians are about 35% of the American public. In Canada, that equivalent number is only 7%. This has profound effect on both social and economic policies as well as even things as pedestrian as in-school D&D play,
I remember reading in GameMaster (later GameMaster International) magazine, a British gaming magazine from the 80s, about some religious reactionaries preaching against RPGs there too.

I'm sure it was primarily a US thing, but I doubt it was entirely exclusive to our shores.

Sorry, I have read "rumors" about things worse than Epstein's island. Technically they are only urban legends, but these also cause the 80's panic. Let's say the targets will be rich and famous people from the elite circles linked with the worst scandal in the History.
Yes, the exact same kind of rumors that've been passed around for centuries. Generally with very little basis, though certainly when abusers are rich or influential, it's easier for them to get away with stuff. As Epstein did for years, though things finally caught up with him.
 

Noddy Beholder

Explorer
I remember reading in GameMaster (later GameMaster International) magazine, a British gaming magazine from the 80s, about some religious reactionaries preaching against RPGs there too.
I worked in an RPG shop in the late 80s/early 90s. Here in the UK we did have some problems with this, but not as much as it seems the US did. Our local newspaper gave far to much time and column space to a self appointed moral guardian, who stirred up a bit of trouble with a nasty (and untrue) article about RPGs. This paper then interviewed me and did their best to make me sound like I was recruiting for The Old Ones :p
The moral guardian overreached herself and it all blew up in her face. Serves her right ^_^
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
I worked in an RPG shop in the late 80s/early 90s. Here in the UK we did have some problems with this, but not as much as it seems the US did. Our local newspaper gave far to much time and column space to a self appointed moral guardian, who stirred up a bit of trouble with a nasty (and untrue) article about RPGs. This paper then interviewed me and did their best to make me sound like I was recruiting for The Old Ones :p
It would have been a real struggle for me to engage in such an interview earnestly.

"Why yes, we believe that the Great Old Ones from beyond the stars, who have slumbered in the depths of this world for millennia, are now stirring and that Gary Gygax channeled their dark powers to create a system of powerful ritual that through the tens of thousands of players engaging in hundreds of thousands of hours in the ritual shall summon the Great Cthulhu to rule over the world. Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!"
The moral guardian overreached herself and it all blew up in her face. Serves her right ^_^
What happened? Was this a "sir, have you no decency?!" moment?

I wish that happened in the US, but it would be have been hard to have enjoyed any schadenfreude if Patricia Pulling had things blow up in her face. Her son committed suicide and I can see how someone looking for answers and a place to put the blame would grasp onto anything that seemed unusual as the reason and then find meaning in protecting others. I blame the media and moral-panic grifters who profited on the mother's grief.
 

Clint_L

Hero
I didn't deal with it at all. I grew up in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada, and the Satanic Panic thing was a very amusing American oddity to us. We couldn't believe that people were being so silly about the game.

Now, I'm a teacher, and reading the OP's story made me really pissed off at his art "teacher." From the description, he should have been fired for cause:
1. Being a terrible teacher with little apparent engagement with or strategy for teaching his chosen subject. If you're an art teacher, teach some freaking art, don't waste everyone's time with your personal interest in the leisure activities of your students.
2. Injecting his personal religious agenda into a public school classroom. This should be obvious.
3. Being totally immature and setting a horrible example of how to behave as a human being.
4. Did I mention turning the class into a giant waste of everyone's time? Yeah, well I'm mentioning it again.

Jerks like this make teachers look terrible. I'm sorry the OP and others had to endure asshats like this guy.

The good news is, attitudes have really changed around the game. Although there was no Satanic Panic around D&D where I grew up, it was still seen by most as a weird little hobby and a general waste of time. Now, my D&D Club is not just supported by my school (GNS, go Gryphons!), but they advertise it, helped me put on a summer camp for neuro-diverse students, and even asked me to run a professional development session teaching it to teachers last year. My administration sees D&D as a fantastic club for encouraging creativity, problem solving, and socialization that tends to serve a segment of the student population that has been underserved by traditional clubs and sports.

I use it and other RPGs and Strategy games all the time in my teaching, too. I just ran a game of Dread in my Creative Writing class to focus on how to build narrative tension. We used a re-themed version of Werewolf in our Language and Literature class's study of Persepolis to explore the effect of paranoia and group think on a population. A colleague and I even once included the entire 11th and 12th grade in a live action zombie apocalypse scenario to explore both exponential disease spread (she's an Econ and Human Geography teacher) and real world ethical decision making (for my Theory of Knowledge students). In modern education, games are seen as an extremely valuable teaching and learning tool, and there are now schools where you can earn graduation credit taking a class on D&D!
 


I started playing at 11 years old in the early eighties. I didn't experience much of the Satanic Panic with Dungeons and Dragons. I founded a Dungeons and Dragons club in elementary school. Once, a friend's mother didn't want the game in her house so she made us play outside on the porch (I guess the Devil plays by vampire rules). However, the Satanic Panic wasn't just about Dungeons and Dragons, it wasn't even the central focus. The Satanic Panic was about music, movies and little kids' coached testimony in incendiary court trials. Dungeons and Dragons was just one among many targets.

And to tell you the truth, friend, I was a Satanist. Or, as much of a Satanist as one could be when you're 13 years-old. Man it was fun watching fundamentalist adults go all apoplectic when they see you in a pentagram t-shirt.
@Chris Mortika liked my post. I've been touched by greatness. Thank you sir, I am honored.
 


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