The “Satanic Panic” over D&D began forty-three years ago when James Dallas Egbert III disappeared from his dorm room at Michigan State University in East Lansing. The media attention garnered as part of the search for Egbert, and the investigation into his disappearance was the catalyst for what is now known as the Satanic Panic.
James Dallas Egbert III was a 16-year-old “child prodigy” enrolled at Michigan State University, studying computer science. He was a troubled kid. He was depressed, suffered from drug addiction and was suicidal. He also played D&D.
On August 15, 1979, Egbert left his room in Case Hall and allegedly entered the steam tunnels below the school intending to commit suicide. He had left a suicide note. Egbert was reported missing and was not located until several weeks later. They found him alive, staying with friends.
The search for Egbert gained serious media attention. Michigan State University’s State News was all over it. Tunnels under a large university, fantasy role-playing, and a suicide note were just too intriguing not to notice. Whether or not Egbert did go into the tunnels under MSU is not that important. What is important is that those tunnels were known to be where MSU students would go to play D&D. That was enough for some people (including the news media) to make the connection that it was D&D that caused Egbert’s mental collapse. Egbert did end up killing himself a year later.
B.A.D.D. – Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons
Egbert’s well-publicized disappearance – referred to as the Steam Tunnel Incident – prompted a number of works of fiction, including a 1982 novel and movie, both called “Mazes and Monsters.” The movie starred Tom Hanks and is generally considered to be quite awful. But it helped those who believed the game to be satanic get the “panic” underway.
Irving and Patricia Pulling
In June of 1982, a Virginia high school student named Irving Pulling killed himself. His mother, Patricia, believed Irving killed himself because of a curse placed on his character in a high school D&D game. She filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the school’s principal and another suit against D&D’s publisher TSR, Inc.
Patricia founded a “public advocacy” group called Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (B.A.D.D.) in 1983.
1983 B.A.D.D. Pamphlet
“We cannot afford to overlook a “game” that teaches witchcraft, Satan worship and a cult-like religion …
Because of this intense and emotional involvement in Fantasy Role Playing, we find examples of young people being sucked into a vortex of undesirable real-life behavior.”
– Excerpts from the introduction to the 44-page Bothered By Dungeons & Dragons pamphlet produced in 1983.
It is clear Patricia Pulling believed D&D encouraged devil worship and suicide. In the 1983 B.A.D.D pamphlet (above), D&D is portrayed as a game that uses demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, insanity, sexual perversion, and many, many other nasty things. Many people climbed on board B.A.D.D.’s bandwagon, including clergy, teachers, and parents. Most importantly, the organization was able to get its views in the press – conservative Christian media and mainstream news outlets.
Satanic Panic – When Did It End?
Although it started in the United States, by the 1990s, the Satanic Panic had spread worldwide. Some say that by the 2000s and 2010s, it had pretty much died out. But others say it is still going on – but perhaps in less obvious forms. For sure, the Satanic Panic lasted a long time and negatively impacted many, many D&D players. It also profoundly affected the game itself, with that impact still being felt today.
Many of those who closely follow pop culture, social media, and gaming will tell you the philosophy behind the Satanic Panic continues to play out every day.
The panic never goes away; just changes the target. After D&D, people went after Pokémon, followed by Harry Potter, Yu-Gi-Oh cards, and Grand Theft Auto. Then it circled back to reality television and music (like dubstep). Then it was viral videos. Now it is TikTok. If something gets popular with youth, some group will claim said thing is “evil” and corrupting every child possible.– Scott Fynboe, Assoc. Prof. of English and Communications, Indian River State College
In Need of a Reminder as D&D Explodes
It is currently estimated that over 50 million people have played Dungeons & Dragons since it was developed in 1974. It is fast closing in on its 50th anniversary. The Netflix series Stranger Things, especially the newest season, has generated a great deal of new interest in the game. In March of 2023, a major motion picture by Paramount Pictures will be released called Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. It will star Chris Pine, Hugh Grant, Regé-Jean Page, and Michelle Rodriguez.
Right now, the most significant age demographic playing D&D are those between the ages of 20 – 24. Many (most?) have no idea what the Satanic Panic was or how greatly it affected the game. Now is the time for those new to the “world’s greatest role-playing game” to learn about its history. The disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III from his dorm room at Michigan State University 43 years ago is just one of the pivotal moments in its rich history.
The above article/commentary was written by Carla Bumstead. Carla grew up in Lansing, Michigan, and has lived all of her 59 years within about 15 miles of the Michigan State University campus. She does remember hearing about Egbert’s disappearance in August of 1979. She recalls thinking, “I bet it would be fun to play a role-playing game in tunnels under MSU!” But Carla was not a nerd (back then) and had no idea what D&D even was. She only learned the game a few years ago, when the COVID pandemic hit. Carla now has her own website for D&D news and resources called Dungeon Cooperative.