True Tales from Stranger Things: Satanism, Strategy & Clubs

The hit Netflix series about the 80s-themed tale of extradimensional entities and the kids who battle them features Dungeons & Dragons prominently. And a lot of it is inspired by what actually happened. There's a lot of things Stranger Things got right, but one of them that doesn't match my experience is the Hellfire Club.

hellfireclub.jpg

What's the Hellfire Club?​

The Stranger Things wiki explains:
The Hawkins High "Hellfire Club" was an official D&D club at Hawkins High School headed by Eddie Munson. Members Dustin, Mike and Lucas are also members of another D&D party.
More specifically:
The Hellfire Club seems to operate the bottom of the Hawkins High food chain, due to the unique misfortunes experienced in the town due to the Upside Down and the tabloid media fear of Satanic/demonic worship among teenagers. As implied by Eddie, members are typically scouted out if they are "lost sheep" or outsiders. Eddie also implied membership came with a degree of protection, but demanded loyalty to campaign nights. Members of club both create and wear white raglan shirts with black long sleeves, finished with the Hellfire Club name and logo on the center. Hellfire Club is hosted in a drama/theatre room, as evidenced by the stage lights, curtains and props seen around them during game night.
There were lots of clubs like this at the time, but not at my high school. Why? Because of the Satanic Panic.

The Satanic Panic​

During the 80s, Dungeons & Dragons was grouped in with a lot of other teenage activities (like music) as promoting Satanism, withcraft, suicide, and murder. D&D's deadly reputation was exacerbated by the disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III, which was fictionalized by Rona Jaffe in a made-for-TV movie, Mazes and Monsters (featuring Tom Hanks). Patricia Pulling, an anti-occult campaigner, established Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (BADD) to eliminate D&D and disseminated material touting the dangers to schools and police. For critics, they didn't have to look far for evidence. There were plenty of demons, scantily-clad monsters that looked like human women, and even the name had sinister tones of torture (dungeons) and Satanic invocations (dragons).

The Committee for the Advancement of Role-Playing Games (CAR-PGA, I'm now Committee Chair) was formed specifically to combat misinformation campaigns led by Pulling and her adherents. But while that was happening in the battlefield of public opinion, kids like myself were still playing D&D despite all the media outcry.

This all added up to tension between gamers and their parents, in which various authority figures declared D&D evil, and then it was up to whoever was in charge to determine if it was worth the risk to let kids play. Some parents watched a few games and realized it was harmless fun; others threw away their kids gaming material. And still others simply relabeled the game as something else.

Strategy & Tactics​

When the Satanic Panic was in full swing, my gaming group had swelled to over ten members. At one point we reached 12, which I found nearly impossible to manage at once as dungeon master. But it didn't matter because we all had a good time, rotating games at different players' houses. With that many kids, it was impossible not to hear us play. My parents were always thrilled that we were at home, socializing, and laughing. No kid ever got pulled out due to any concerns over the game.

But school was a different story. There was no D&D club. When we tried to join the only role-playing game club, we learned why it was called Strategy & Tactics: the school couldn't reference D&D in the title, even though that's what most people played anyway. And if you did play, you couldn't admit that you were playing, because D&D was a good way to get the club shut down.

Although the Satanic Panic eventually comes home to roost in Hawkins, it has a surprisingly stable footing at the high school: Customized shirts? Access to the theater room? An official club at all? We could never have imagined such a thing!

It didn't matter. We showed up to one session of Strategy & Tactics and realized were were much better off playing with our existing group. And that's what we did.

Stranger Things definitely got one archetype right that was in my circle of friends, in the character of Eddie. More on him in the next installment.

Your Turn: Were there official D&D clubs at your school in the 80s?
 

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

That seems like a familiar refrain. A D&D club wasn't a problem until someone came along and decided it was.

Also, a teacher called Mr. Strange is pretty awesome.

We had an official D&D Club at my high school, at least, for a while. I am not sure when it started, but it was running strong when I arrived at school my Freshman year in Fall 1983.

It was an official school club, sponsored by the Anatomy and Physiology teacher (AP Biology I modern terms, I guess), Mr. Strange (too bad he did not have a doctorate). We even had club t-shirts (nothing as fancy as the Hellfire Club) and got our group photo in the yearbooks.

Then in Summer 1986, some minister or priest dug their claws into our school principal and convinced him that D&D was Satanic... And that was all she wrote. No more D&D Club my Senior year... 🤬

It wasn't a club at all, but I remember being all of 10-years-old and at recess asking a couple kids if they wanted to play D&D. One of them said yes, then promptly shouted at the top of his lungs "Who wants to learn how to play Dungeons and Dragons!" At that age I can say that I was not prepared for that number of people, but I tried to explain how to make characters as best as I could.
 

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Voadam

Legend
In Junior High one of my friends in my gaming group got permission to have a room for a Roleplaying Games elective. It was a small local town school in New England, my grade had 60 people. The only people who signed up for it at one point was my gaming group who had already been playing for years so we just used it as a chance to have some concentrated RPG time during school instead of just talking over Warhammer stuff or whatever at lunch or reading D&D books or Dragon magazine during study hall. I remember we did TMNT and GURPS in the elective. I do remember some older kids running 1e games at first though, I played a druid going through I3 Pharaoh.

In high school someone started up an RPG club and I went to two meetings and played Rolemaster and 1e D&D but then mostly stuck with weekend and summer games with my gaming group who were mostly not at the same school.

No t-shirts in either case.

I had thought there was not much Satanic panic stuff in my area, my parents had gotten me and my younger brother the Moldvay Basic Set when I was 10 after years of my showing a lot of interst in classical and Norse myths plus fantasy novels and no real negatives popped up in the time period. I found out recently my mom had been fairly dead set against getting us D&D, with concerns about bad influences and such, until she saw my dyslexic younger brother's interest in it and she saw it as a way to get him voluntarily reading. With him being into it she was all about getting him more of the same type of stuff that he would enthusiastically read on his own.
 

Zarithar

Adventurer
I went to high school in conservative Laramie, Wyoming from 86-89. We had an RPG club called "The What" because that was what everyone's reaction to it was when people not in the know would ask. Had around 30 kids involved. Before that, there were a bunch of kids in middle school (what we called junior high at the time) that played it on a more informal basis. Mostly D&D, but it also introduced me to Traveler, Paranoia, Gamma World, Star Frontiers, Palladium Fantasy, RuneQuest, and many others.
The kids involved were a mix of metalheads, nerds, and other outcasts. I thought Stranger Things got that vibe pretty much perfectly. We even had a couple of jocks who divided their time between D&D and whatever sport they were into.
 

Mad_Jack

Hero
I started playing back when I was ten, my first set was the Moldvay box. A fair number of the kids in my neighborhood played a little bit between '82-86-ish, but I was the only one that really stuck with it after the rest started getting into music and sports.
It wasn't so much a regular group as just something the kids did when there wasn't anything else to do or we had no money.
Although the whole panic thing was definitely known about in our part of New England (although not really connected to D&D yet), our parents were mostly just happy to have us hanging out peacefully playing a game instead of being out running around fighting, shoplifting or starting fires, lol - there wasn't a whole lot to do in our area that didn't involve getting into trouble.
On Saturdays, we all went to Catholic Catechism school for about an hour or so in the mornings, so we'd play for a bit after class while waiting for our parents (who were always out doing kid-free stuff, and tended to come pick us up whenever they got around to it) - we'd draw a map in the dirt, and fight a couple improvised battles. In 4th grade, around '82 or '83, our teacher Sister Maria found us huddled in a doorway during a nasty thunderstorm, rolling dice and trying to keep our character sheets dry, so she let us play in the classroom after class. Since she was required to stick around while we were in the building, we let her play the party cleric, using a simplified ruleset. She got a huge kick out of wasting all her spells healing injured animals and giving all her gold away to the poor. (Pro tip: Never roll dice with a member of the clergy - that woman could roll a nat 20 on a D6...)
She'd understood, watching us play, that it was all just a game.

But eventually, things changed a bit.

In junior high, I'd spend most of my lunch period in the library reading, and the librarian lady loved me. (Like, to the point that later on in life I seriously began to wonder...) I eventually convinced her to let some of us play in the library during lunch, and for a while she was more than cool with it - we were playing a game that encouraged reading comprehension, math skills and critical problem solving.
By the last half of eighth grade, however, it was '86, and at some point a fellow librarian had apparently drunk the Kool-Aid of Stupidity and started filling her head with nonsense about how D&D was going to destroy our brains and corrupt our little souls. Now, this librarian lady, who loved me enough that she'd let me and my group eat our lunch in the library while we played, and who'd had absolutely no problem with us playing our game for almost a year by then, suddenly went all pitchforks-and-torches on us when she found out we were playing THAT game. She'd seen the covers of our books, had seen them every day for months, she knew what we'd been doing, but suddenly everything she knew about what we were doing was wiped out by blind hysteria.
(Looking back on it now, the huge blowout she and I got into really does read like a break-up fight...)

I went to a Catholic high school, and graduated in 1990. I never really had a problem with any of the teachers giving me grief about D&D, despite the fact that several of them had seen me bringing my books to school. My guidance councilor actually borrowed a couple of my books because she like the artwork in them (she was the theatre teacher).
By junior year the priest at the school had retired and his replacement, a younger guy in his late 20's, actually started up a conversation with me about D&D, heavy metal and the whole Satanic Panic thing when he found out I played. He liked to hear me tell war stories from the games I'd run or played in.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
Speaking of clergy...
Two of the guys in my Thursday group are half-brothers, one significantly younger than the other. The elder one was well out of his mother's control when she succumbed to the Satanic Panic over RPGs (it didn't help that she did have serious mental health issues). She was convinced that the younger brother's soul was in serious jeopardy over that fiendish game.
Fortunately for her, a local clergyman stepped in and said that he'd counsel the young lad. And they had sessions every week with a number of other troubled kids. It was a D&D game. I'm not sure of the clergyman's denomination, but I can ask my friends about it and report back.
 


jasper

Rotten DM
It very much depended where you were. As I stated, in California, it was pretty normal to play D&D (I got my AD&D books from Toys-R-Us). But in the bible belt in the South, it was a whole 'nother ball game and the Satanic Panic was VERY real, to the point the average person I was around actually believed there were active acts of secret demonic cults sacrificing kids in the local city area. If you pressed for evidence, it was "mostly dead cats"* that had been found, but local disappearances could not be proved, nor were there any real evidence of killings, mutilations or otherwise - but everyone was sure it was going on.

* For some reason, there has been an extreme hatred of cats down here where I live; some rural folk will go out of their way to kill cats, stray or domestic - though it's nowadays extremely frowned upon, and now (after over 20 years of officials "looking the other way") can finally land you in jail.
Darn, I lived in the bible belt during the Satanic panic. Wasn't no panic in my city, school, or friends. In fact until I got real people here at ENworld mention it. I thought was just a myth.
 

I went to a Catholic school back in the 80s, and I don't remember a lot of pushback against D&D, other than they stopped letting us photocopy blank character sheets. Mind you, things were different then. By the time I turned 5, I was out all day on my BMX with my buddies. There was no such thing as parental supervision. Nowadays, it seems kids are never allowed to leave their parents' sight. Kind of sad, really.

But more recently, there was a lot of "concern" about Harry Potter. I recall people burning piles of books and that sort of thing, the same sort of fear-of-the-occult panic. I guess now if you want to panic about kids being exposed to monsters and magic, you'd need to panic about a lot of stuff. In the early 80s, it was basically D&D and a few Moorcock books. Maybe a couple of Hawkwind albums. Now it's everything from YA fiction to video games to Dr Strange movies.

And we all seem to be fine, so I'd suggest that puts the lie to the whole silly D&D panic thing.
 

Bridgton, Maine. Probably about 1985. I had a group of five or six friends who regularly played D&D, the Marvel Super Heroes (FASERIP) RPG, and the original TSR Indiana Jones (Diana Jones!) game.

DM duties were frequently switched off between myself and our friend Jared (who owned, by far, the most books out of all of us).

So it was a sad day when we learned that Jared's grandmother, concerned by a Satanic Panic-tinged report that she'd seen on TV, decided to fuel a bonfire with his entire RPG library.
 

Arogen

Villager
My school had an official club, The Balrog Society. Robin D. Laws (yes, THAT Robin D Laws) helped get it started and his younger brother was my first DM. The art teacher was the staff sponsor. The Satanic Panic didn't touch us at all, we have our club photo in the yearbook and everything. My parents did express some concern about D&D but when I showed them what it was they were cool with it.
 

Necrothesp

Explorer
No such panic in England, although I remember reading about it in White Dwarf. I was at a public school (i.e. historic fee-paying secondary school) from 1979 to 1986. The Wargaming Society had existed for a few years before I arrived and was still in existence when I left (I ran it for a few years). It had originally been founded for miniature wargaming, but by the time I arrived almost everyone was playing RPGs instead, which is how I got into them. Like any other school club or society we were allocated a classroom at lunchtimes and could book rooms after school and at weekends, and as long as we had a member of staff as a sponsor (can't even remember who that was - he never involved himself in any of our activities) we could pretty much do what we liked as long as we didn't cause any trouble.
 

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