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

I first started playing D&D in 1985, as a boy scout in California. We would play in the evenings at campouts. There were often rumors, newspaper reports, and news stories about D&D being satanic but the media didn't matter much to me or my friends at the time. I should note that during this time heavy metal bands were being sued across the country for "encouraging kids to join satanic cults and commit suicide" and to the best of my knowledge, none of those bands were found guilty of anything. The satanic panic was very real.

I moved to Virginia in 1988. Within a few months of moving to Virginia me and my new friends were under investigation by a branch of the local police department that concerned itself with gang activity and Satanism, because we played D&D. We were arrested without being accused of a crime and held for questioning on multiple occasions because we played D&D. The police accusations insisted that we must be connected to a local satanic cult. None of us new any satanists but we were harassed regularly by the police for the remainder of our high school years because we played D&D.

My parents had a concern about my gaming hobby and I simply explained to them that it was a strategy game, and it helped me think creatively about how to handle unique complicated situations.

I will mention that anybody who ever thought that my gaming hobby might be unhealthy, never bothered to watch me play or look at my books. It seems to me that people who are prejudiced against such a hobby are too lazy to investigate things for themselves, which shows the connection between prejudice and ignorance.

Because of my experiences from the past, when I DM, I almost never place demons or devils in my campaigns.Additionally, I never allow minors to game with my group unless their parents have given their permission to me for thier children to play.
 

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Von Ether

Legend
The dark, weird reactions I got were not related to the Satanic Panic, but the idea that "grown men" would play games other than sports and how that impacted my work environment in the 90s. I had one person ask me how old I was to play with "toys" (wargaming) and another who assumed anyone running a game store had to be a pedophile. Again, because grown ups don't play board games. These were just knee jerk reactions, not anything based off of a news piece.

I still don't really share my hobby at work, though I tell people I have a "very small publishing" side business when I take off for conventions and they get nosy. Perhaps my crowing achievement was when I was leaving a company and finally opened up to my boss who was very public about his WOW hobby, he said, "I never f$#$ing knew."

During high school, though, I did have a debate with a kid about the energy crisis. And when it looked like I was winning, the kid spouted that none of it mattered because the Second Coming would happen first and make it irreverent. I seemed to miss that sign when reading Revelations.

Sooooo, yeah, the internet didn't invent these people. They were already among us.
 

Until recent years, there is no way I would've mentioned playing D&D to someone at work. If asked what I did on the weekend, I'd have just said "had a bunch of friends over for snacks and drinks." Which was technically true.

The dark, weird reactions I got were not related to the Satanic Panic, but the idea that "grown men" would play games other than sports and how that impacted my work environment in the 90s. I had one person ask me how old I was to play with "toys" (wargaming) and another who assumed anyone running a game store had to be a pedophile. Again, because grown ups don't play board games. These were just knee jerk reactions, not anything based off of a news piece.

I still don't really share my hobby at work, though I tell people I have a "very small publishing" side business when I take off for conventions and they get nosy. Perhaps my crowing achievement was when I was leaving a company and finally opened up to my boss who was very public about his WOW hobby, he said, "I never f$#$ing knew."

During high school, though, I did have a debate with a kid about the energy crisis. And when it looked like I was winning, the kid spouted that none of it mattered because the Second Coming would happen first and make it irreverent. I seemed to miss that sign when reading Revelations.

Sooooo, yeah, the internet didn't invent these people. They were already among us.
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
It didn't impact us too much. It certainly helped that we got 2nd ed, not 1e, and also that we were good students. One of my university friends told me his dad had consulted the local priest, who concluded "it was just a game".

There were more concerns about satanic messages in music, but I sort of demolished the person talking to the village council about it. He had claimed that the word "love" when played in reverse said "evil". I challenged him, saying that in essence we could not sing or talk about love - that didn't seem very Christian to me. Must have rankled him to be shut down by a 12 year old, but my father ( who was a very religious man himself) was very pleased...

(in fact, this started a pattern - my father cared a lot about civil matters but was rather shy, while I had no fear of public speaking, so he would bring me along as his battering ram... and this post is what made me realize what he was doing! :D :D :D )
 

deganawida

Adventurer
Okay, so here's my story. I didn't think it was that unusual when this article was first posted, but I had a realization this afternoon after a former colleague shared with me that he had picked up Dragonlance Adventures at a Waldenbooks when it was still in print. This reminded me of how different my D&D experience was growing up.

My father is a Southern Baptist minister, went to seminary in the 80s, he and my mother bought fully into the Satanic Panic. I wasn't allowed any of the figures, or allowed to watch the cartoon, and when I first discovered RPGs in the very early 1990s, I was not allowed to play D&D. I was allowed to play TMNT and Heroes Unlimited, but when my dad looked at the cover to Rifts, they were all confiscated.

Fast forward a few years, to 1993. I had my license and my own car, and a job to pay for gas and things I want. I had to drive an hour to get to the nearest comics/game shop, but that was no problem, as our current home was in BFE, so nothing to do at home. I would drive out, with backpack in the trunk of my car, look at things, and buy what tickled my fancy. Before heading back home, I would put the books or boxed set in my backpack.

I'd get home, take the backpack out, and head to my room. The first thing that I would do would be to transfer whatever I had bought into an older backpack that I had in an unused cabinet in my bathroom. It was in the bathroom that I would pour over the books, as it was the only place where I had privacy and could read without being caught.

Anyway, hiding it became routine, even after college and marriage. I remember telling my mom at one point about the potential for a Transformers RPG, and she asked me, "What would you do about the masks?" I was flabbergasted.

I'm now in my mid-40s, and have two teens, which makes one look at things differently. I have often wondered why my parents never found out about my secret D&D stash. When speaking to my friend, it hit me: My parents probably did find the bookbag, but likely thought it was porn, and wouldn't touch it. I have been laughing since realizing that. If only they knew...
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
The dark, weird reactions I got were not related to the Satanic Panic, but the idea that "grown men" would play games other than sports and how that impacted my work environment in the 90s. I had one person ask me how old I was to play with "toys" (wargaming) and another who assumed anyone running a game store had to be a pedophile. Again, because grown ups don't play board games. These were just knee jerk reactions, not anything based off of a news piece.

I still don't really share my hobby at work, though I tell people I have a "very small publishing" side business when I take off for conventions and they get nosy. Perhaps my crowing achievement was when I was leaving a company and finally opened up to my boss who was very public about his WOW hobby, he said, "I never f$#$ing knew."

During high school, though, I did have a debate with a kid about the energy crisis. And when it looked like I was winning, the kid spouted that none of it mattered because the Second Coming would happen first and make it irreverent. I seemed to miss that sign when reading Revelations.

Sooooo, yeah, the internet didn't invent these people. They were already among us.
Yeah, growing up in the 70s and 80s, I also don't speak about my hobbies at work.

Talking about playing D&D or going to the gun range are things that I find best not to talk openly about unless I really know my audience.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
Until recent years, there is no way I would've mentioned playing D&D to someone at work. If asked what I did on the weekend, I'd have just said "had a bunch of friends over for snacks and drinks." Which was technically true.
I find board games are different. "Game nights" have become very socially acceptable and common, at least among my North American and European colleagues.

Saying I play D&D would still raise some eyebrows and, apparently, I don't seem to type. So when I have shared the hobby, their is always a bit of disbelief. Stereotypes die hard.
 

MGibster

Legend
My father is a Southern Baptist minister, went to seminary in the 80s, he and my mother bought fully into the Satanic Panic. I wasn't allowed any of the figures, or allowed to watch the cartoon, and when I first discovered RPGs in the very early 1990s, I was not allowed to play D&D. I was allowed to play TMNT and Heroes Unlimited, but when my dad looked at the cover to Rifts, they were all confiscated.
That Rifts cover was pretty sexy. Meow!

The only time I really encountered Satanic Panic was in grade 6 when one of my teachers saw that I was reading The Keep on the Borderlands at lunch. She said something like, "I don't think you're supposed to have that at school," but nothing came of it. She didn't confiscate the module or say anything else so I assume she didn't really care. My parents would often times ask, "Are you going over to your friend's to play your Satanic game?" and I'd answer in the affirmative. Nobody I knew really took the Satanic threat seriously.
 

Gnarlo

Gnome Lover
Supporter
Grew up in a very rural Georgia county, so pretty typical reaction from school denizens; it was a "nerdy" thing that I was into, like SciFi, LOTR, and band, so I got crap about being a nerd but that was about it. My mom asked me about it once after a holy roller aunt talked to her, and since she worked as a secretary at the housing office of the local university (Gooooo Dawgs! Sic 'Em! Blah! Blah! Blah! Blah!), I told her to ask her many friends among the students there about it. Once she found out how many of them played she was absolutely fine with it and told family members to butt out basically anytime anyone brought it up. I owe a lot to my mom working there and it broadening her horizons; most of my extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., were/are some of the most bigoted, racist, etc. southern stereotypes you'd ever want not to meet.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
A slight tangent, but I remember some of the same satanic-panic types also tried to raise a stink with Harry Potter when the books first game out. I was in law school at the time and in a very liberal state, so it was more something I read about than actually experienced. Was that really a thing? Or just journalists amplifying a very small, marginal, minority?
 

Mad_Jack

Hero
A slight tangent, but I remember some of the same satanic-panic types also tried to raise a stink with Harry Potter when the books first game out. I was in law school at the time and in a very liberal state, so it was more something I read about than actually experienced. Was that really a thing? Or just journalists amplifying a very small, marginal, minority?

That particular movement got a lot of traction inside that particular segment of society (especially after the movies started coming out) but was largely laughed at by people outside of it since sooo many from all walks of life had joined the fandom surrounding it.
 

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
That particular movement got a lot of traction inside that particular segment of society (especially after the movies started coming out) but was largely laughed at by people outside of it since sooo many from all walks of life had joined the fandom surrounding it.
That was my impression. I heard about some vocal complaints, but never to the level or anyone trying to ban the books from school, picketing the movie theaters, or anyone getting hassled by law enforcement over the books.
 

MGibster

Legend
A slight tangent, but I remember some of the same satanic-panic types also tried to raise a stink with Harry Potter when the books first game out. I was in law school at the time and in a very liberal state, so it was more something I read about than actually experienced. Was that really a thing? Or just journalists amplifying a very small, marginal, minority?
Oh, sure. These types of people never really go away entirely and I remember when they were railing against the Goosebumps books and television show in the 1990s. Yeah, those people also railed against Harry Potter. But, as with Goosebumps, this discontent was largely confined to a very narrow demographic of Evangelical Christians. It never hit the mainstream like Satanic Panic had during the 80s and early 90s.
 

These days, I know that my boss has been DMing a game for decades and at least half-a-dozen coworkers play or did play. One of my coworkers even had Dave Arneson for a teacher in college. Times have indeed changed.

I find board games are different. "Game nights" have become very socially acceptable and common, at least among my North American and European colleagues.

Saying I play D&D would still raise some eyebrows and, apparently, I don't seem to type. So when I have shared the hobby, their is always a bit of disbelief. Stereotypes die hard.
 

Voadam

Legend
A slight tangent, but I remember some of the same satanic-panic types also tried to raise a stink with Harry Potter when the books first game out. I was in law school at the time and in a very liberal state, so it was more something I read about than actually experienced. Was that really a thing? Or just journalists amplifying a very small, marginal, minority?
Apparently the most challenged book of the decade 2000-2009.

Here is the American Library Association's top 10 banned books by year.
 


Stormonu

Legend
A slight tangent, but I remember some of the same satanic-panic types also tried to raise a stink with Harry Potter when the books first game out. I was in law school at the time and in a very liberal state, so it was more something I read about than actually experienced. Was that really a thing? Or just journalists amplifying a very small, marginal, minority?
Had an extended family friend denounce it, but that’s about all I remember. Local bookstore had a special midnight release, with folks coming in cosplay for it.

At around the same time, we had a local pastor burning Pokémon as some sort of demon monsters, so no consistency.

Just as an FYI, the county I lived in in MS, until college was a “dry” county (no alcohol) until recently, and you still have to wait until after noon on Sunday to buy any alcohol. Heck, churches twice blocked getting a local Hooters about ten years ago, nowadays no one cares.

One of the funniest tales my wife likes to tell from pre-2000 was about the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism- not Anarchy, that’s another story) was when the local Gulf Wars was looking for a site, they went to a local “dude ranch” that also happened to do a lot of bible camps. The owner was wary that the SCA was part of some Satanist group movement (from listening to the Bible camp organizer warnings), but after showing them some videos of other events, the SCA was able to secure the site. After the actual three-day party, the SCA cleaned up the fields (I spent an afternoon shoveling horse manure off that field, BTW), cleaned the buildings - including the kitchens, and put all the camping equipment back where it belonged. The owner was impressed, to the point that the Bible camps - who would generally leave things a mess - were told to find other sites for their camps.
 


Stormonu

Legend
Their Office of Intellectual Freedom started tracking data on banned books in 1990, so they don't have information on banned books from the 80s. Interesting that D&D does not appear in their lists of banned books for any decade since 1990.
I seem to remember a display back in my library in CA (which would have been back in the ‘80s) with the various Wizard of Oz books, discussing how they had been banned in some areas, and my library had the display to encourage folks to read and judge them for themselves.
 

pantsorama

Explorer
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.
Except for the fact that we are going through the same thing today. This is what Q anon is based in - a lot of today's CTs traffic in the same Satanic Panic tropes. It is far too convenient a tool for the reactionary crowd to ever give up on. The thing about the SP in the 80s is that it was a cultural movement where you could pin anxieties about public schooling and exposure to new cultures / ideas on it being a tool of "subversive" (read inherantly and unassailably corrupting) elements. As such it encompassed so much more than D&D. It covered Heavy Metal music, sex education, psychiatry / therapy as well as D&D. To this day, outside of gamer circles, most people think it was about Daycares being run by Satanists. So, no - it is not retrograde - it is current.
 
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