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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.

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.


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


This whole satanic panic thing feel laughably surpersitious and retrograde... It also feels like a very Protestant thing. I didn't play D&D in that era but I don't recall even hearing about such things until much later.

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In my experience it was parents. I grew up in a small town that was very religious. I was in third grade in 1984 and our class was doing a little play to get us kids interested in art and performance. It was a musical of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." Local religious figures, led by the parent of one my classmates protested the school for putting on this show. The school didn't back down and we had statewide news media flocking to our town of like 20,000 people to see what was going on. These parents said that the school was indoctrinating the kids into witchcraft, satanism, and homosexuality. The backlash against the school district was so severe that they cut all of the dramatic arts programs until my third grade class graduated high school. When I was in marching band we found flyers for 70s and 80s productions of Oklahoma and things in the band room. When we asked our music teacher why we didn't do musicals anymore he explained it all to us and he was livid about it. That it was accidentally tied to our class getting every theatrical and musical production cancelled for a decade. That used to be the main way the high school band program made their money, and why our uniforms hadn't changed since the late 70's.
I know it's not D&D related, but that's part of the reason why I didn't wind up playing until I was in college.


Circa 1988 in Columbus, OH, I had just gotten into basic D&D. One day I was plotting out my own dungeon, so I has a notebook, some graph paper, and just about every book I owned--the basic and expert rules I think at the point--sprawled across the coffee table. My uncle and his then girlfriend (now wife) show up to talk to my mother, probably to invite her to their evangelical church (which we'd been to a couple of times).

When they saw what I was working on, they freaked the F out. Full blown panic. After a whispered conversation between them, soon-to-be aunt sat down with the sugary "hey bud, whatcha doin" tone that suggested she though I was eight rather than in the last weeks of my freshman year in high school, while my uncle stormed to the kitchen to find my mom and whisper-shout about "SATAN." My mother was pretty clueless about the whole thing, she got upset, started crying because she bought it, and before long I was getting the full sermon.

I'm pretty sure he only reason my books weren't burned on the spot was a quick thinking lie that the books were borrowed, and if they burned them, they'd have to deal with my friend's parents. Over the next few weeks Mom got bombarded with pamphlets--including the famous Dark Dungeons tract. She was inclined to believe a lot of it, but I managed to convince her to read some of and actual D&D book, to see what it really was. She wasn't crazy about the cleric, because they worshiped gods, plural--but she liked the movie Clash of the Titans, so I held that up as the analog. She never loved my playing D&D, and I did my reading and playing in my room, but she never burned my book. Though, until the day she died, she called it "Demons & Devils" as in, "you're still playing that Demons & Devils game?"

Sadly, I had a situation at work in maybe 2005ish where I was called into HR for reading a Dungeon magazine in the cafeteria. Someone had complained, thinking it a porny kind of dungeon, and I explained it was a D&D magazine--and was told that was even "worse." That "occult" materials were inappropriate for the workplace, especially for a member of the management team. I asked for clarification, and the HR person said that D&D is "Satanic" in a very matter-of-fact way. I worked with onboarding new hires, so I was very familiar with our policies, and I smiled and asked if the company was now restricting reading religious materials in the cafeteria during breaktimes, and how that would affect the bible study group or they just targeting specific religions, and if so could I get a list of which ones. She got nervous, called in her boss, who it turned out had played D&D when he was in college and was pleasantly surprised to learn the game was still going strong. He sent me on my way, but stuck around to talk with her... oh, to have a scrying spell!

Noddy Beholder

Satanic Panic wasn’t a thing over here though one of the players from our school group did become a strong Christian and gave up the game; this was after we’d all gone to various universities and only met up occasionally in the hometown to game.

I was probably a bit more impacted by the conservative reaction to punk music though I’d be exaggerating to even say that was greatly significant.
It was here in Yorkshire. I worked in a game shop and our local newspaper had a crusading journo that liked to be seen as a moral champion that saves children. Oh crikey...
We didn't get much grief, most parents laughed it (and her) off. But she did put her foot in it on a cosmic scale. Somehow she'd convinced the local police that she was an expert on satanic abuse and was allowed to advise on one of their upcoming cases. This was a cast iron case and she managed to wreck it. The police got a colossal telling off and her reputation was basically trashed. She still pops up on the net, telling people that the royal family are lizard people. I was tempted to ask it they were Yuan-Ti Purebloods, but it might set her off...

I was interviewed in the paper after her initial article. Not wanting to give my full name in case some barmpot decided to track me down, I just gave my first name. When the article appeared I was listed as an assistant who wished only to be known as...
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First of all, ugh - the magic circles from the 1E DMG. I about dropped the book the first time I saw those.


As you might have guessed from that first statement, I was raised in a fairly religious household and was religious myself. My mom had a Jehovah Witness "friend" who would come by weekly. When the "friend" learned I played D&D, she tried to convince me it was evil, primarily based on the magic in the game. I spent a week studying for our next meeting and was able to counter her arguments (to my satisfaction), at the least it didn't come up again. That was about the only incident I had in California, and it was quite mild.


I quickly learned I needed to keep my head down and not casually reveal I was playing the game. The books were not allowed at school, and one student - actually one of the folks I occasionally gamed with got a suspension for bringing some D&D books to school, and when he later argued against the suspension, got expelled. I lost track of him after that, but the story I heard was he had been moved to a private school and his gaming books taken away by his parents.

I had a lot of relatives - most of whom were fundamentalists - who did know I played, and that seemed to temper their attitude towards the game. I even got a couple cousins to play the game, and everyone seemed fairly okay with it. Until one cousin I played with went off the deep end. Carved a pentagram into his arm with a knife, and shortly thereafter ran away from home. His dad was a local part-time preacher, and the blame from him fell squarely on the game. To the extent, after my dad had conversed with my uncle, my dad believed he needed to take the game away from me and burn it all. I was able to convince him to just let me put it aside for a month, and show him I wasn't enslaved to the game by not accessing it for that time. About three days later, he came back to me and handed me back my books, apologizing. My run-away cousin had been found and it turned out that his rebellious behavior had been induced by ongoing abuse from his father (who did 6 month's jail time). I still held up my end of the bargain though, and kept all my D&D material locked away for the month so there wouldn't be a shadow of a doubt for my dad.

A year or so after that incident, most of the overt negative attitudes towards D&D were disapating, and I was moving on to college where it wasn't so much of an issue. Though because of the incident above, I and many other gamers kept our gaming low-key or hidden until around the start of 2000.


Follower of the Way
I'm much too young to have witnessed the original Satanic Panic myself.

But I have had my parents, one of whom played D&D as an adult, legitimately think that the suggestion that there was a Satanic ritual cult associated with D&D is not absolutely bonkers. As in, they genuinely entertained it as a possibility, without ANY evidence or analysis. And, again, I want to emphasize that my father actually did play D&D, and yet was open to considering the fundamental premise of the Satanic Panic anyway.

This was the first time I realized that my parents were...shall we say, a bit credulous on certain specific topics. It's not everything, it's just certain very specific things. I've had some very rude surprises with this over the years.

Mostly, I just try not to push on these things. It leads to unpleasantly awkward conversations where my parents genuinely don't realize that they're being either grossly offensive or terrifyingly willing to consider batpoop-crazy things.

You know, I never thought about that. Huh.

heavy metal rainbow GIF

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.

As for the Satanic Panic, I got pretty blasé about it in school. Between playing D&D and later discovering goth, I spent a whole lot of my school days getting called a devil-worshipper.

I can remember having a conversation with someone who solidly fell into the "nerd" outsider bloc with me about it. He was a talented artist and very Christian to the point that refused to draw anything fantasy because of the Satanic associations of D&D. I tried to draw the parallels with the superheroes he was drawing, but he was adamant in his disdain and refusal to acknowledge D&D as no more harmful than DC and Marvel's comics. In his defense, I suppose a tween probably isn't the best person to explain the mythopoetic parallels between Captain America and a 7th level dwarven fighter.

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.


Community Supporter
I recounted my main brief "Satanic Panic" experience in a thread earlier this year. It happened when I was in 6th grade (~11 years old) and very new to D&D. A kid in my class was handing out pamphlets labeled "Dungeons and Dragons":


I was terribly excited a find a fellow "gamer," of course, but he proved to be pretty uncomfortable with that... and we never spoke to each other again! Later that day I read the pamphlet and only then realized it was a religious anti-D&D screed. I don't have it anymore, but found someone online who posted images of it here:

It's an interesting artifact from the time.
You found it! That's the pamphlet he used, or one of them at least. It includes the reference to magic circles as well as the Arduin Grimoire quote (I'll never know if Dave Hargrave really said what he said in that quote, but it sure didn't help matters).

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