Archive for the 'Moral Panic' Category

Newsweek (September 9, 1985): ‘Kids: The Deadliest Game?’

Newsweek 1985

Zach at Zenopus Archives pointed me to a recent Newsweek piece about a 1985 letter to the editor written by a very level-headed 12-year-old named David Bobzien. The letter defended role-playing games against the sensationalist article above (via Furiously Eclectic!), which blindly pounds all the panic buttons of the time—“fanatics sometimes collect figurines and elaborate paraphernalia to help them in their fantasies,” etc. Only in the last paragraph does it offer some faintly positive words about the hobby and D&D in particular. The 60 Minutes episode attacking D&D would air just a few days after the article appeared.

Steven Spielberg really did use D&D to help him cast the kids in E.T., as mentioned in this People article from August 1982:

`I was particularly nervous about this audition because I like Steven’s films so much,’ says [Robert] Macnaughton, who had performed in regional theater and three TV movies before making his film debut in E.T. `When we met, Steven just asked me what I like to do and when I told him I ride my bike and play Dungeons & Dragons, he said, `Oh, really, we have those things in the movie.’ After Macnaughton read for the part, Spielberg took several young actors to play a D&D game at screenwriter Mathison’s house. `You can fake things in an audition,’ says Robert, `but when you play that game you have to show ingenuity and quick thinking.’

I remember how excited I was when I saw the kids playing a D&D-like game in the movie. Spielberg was way ahead of his time, and championed young kids much like John Hughes championed teenagers.

Panic in the Streets of Loudun: Escaping Satan’s Web (Circa 1989)

The so-called “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s and early ’90s is generally dismissed today as a bizarre bout of Reagan-era excess, but it’s important to remember that (1) it was a morally reprehensible witch hunt that injured thousands and saved none, and (2) it was orchestrated by grievously irresponsible religious and civic leaders, incompetent mental health providers and law enforcement officials, sensation-chumming media, deadbeat parents, charlatans and con artists, and remorseless criminals to divert attention from the real degenerates—themselves. Sadly, despite all of our vaunted “progress,” witch hunts have a way of repeating themselves.

The panic began to surface with the 1980 publication of  Michelle Remembers, a now-refuted chronicle of the alleged abuse of 5-year-old Michelle Smith by a satanic cult starting in 1954. The McMartin preschool trial, largely the result of allegations made by a paranoid schizophrenic, and tragically prolonged by “therapists” forcing false claims out of preschoolers, was pasted across TV screens and newspapers from 1984 to 1990, when the last two defendants were acquitted. Michelle Smith and Lawrence Pazder, the psychiatrist who “recovered” her “repressed” memories of abuse and then married her, acted as consultants for the prosecution and met with the alleged victims and their families. (The concept of repressed memory is extremely controversial and is not accepted by mainstream psychology)

Meanwhile, “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez was terrorizing greater Los Angeles (including 12-year-old me), murdering 13 and assaulting and mutilating many more. At his 1988 sentencing he famously held up his hand, inscribed with a pentagram, and proclaimed, “Hail Satan.” By 1986, the media was calling Satanism an “unmeasurable force,” with the police investigating “as many as 800 crimes… linked to the devil.”

In 1988, as the McMartin trial was in full swing and Ramirez was being tried, Geraldo Rivera hosted a prime-time special called “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground.” The special was very controversial and, predictably, hauled in huge ratings for NBC. In the special Rivera briefly interviews Sean Sellers, a then 19-year-old death row inmate who had murdered both of his parents and a convenience store clerk before he turned 17. Sellers claimed during his trial and afterwards that his actions were the result of demonic possession and converted to Christianity soon after he went to prison.*

I started to watch Escaping Satan’s Web on a whim and found myself unable to look away. It’s an extended (60-minute) interview with Sellers conducted by “Dr.” Fletcher Brothers, a pastor and founder of Freedom Village, a home for troubled teens “completely structured around the word of God.” The interview is intercut with warnings about the lures and dangers of Satanism and the occult. In his introduction, Brothers tells us that “Satanism is rampant in America and Canada” and that “young people by the millions now [are] captivated by something that can make killers out of them.” (Escaping Satan’s Web is dated 1987 by the YouTube poster, but Brothers mentions the Geraldo special [October 1988] and some footage from the show is used in the video, so the year has to be at least 1989.)

Among the animate and inanimate objects Sellers blames for his brutal crimes include his parents, comic books, the library (where he says his journey to Satan began), his babysitter, a “wild imagination,” Freddy Krueger, Zen Buddhism, a Catholic priest, heavy metal (“the lunatic fringe of music,” says Sellers), Dungeons & Dragons, and, of course, Satan himself. Not once does he accept any responsibility, and it was clear to me within the first few minutes of the interview that he was a manipulative sociopath without the slightest remorse for his actions. He understood that his only chance of getting out of prison was to claim the devil made him do it and publicly embrace the version of Christianity that had produced the societal anxiety about ritual abuse in the first place. I’m not sure what’s worse, listening to Sellers coldly describe and disown his calculated, violent actions, or watching Brothers suck up to him as the “saved” poster boy of a demonic affliction that never existed.**

Sellers starts out by describing the rise of Satanism in America—previously, it had been known to exist only “in Africa, or in some other country where there was no civilization”—and tells us that “at every school you’ve got kids who are interested in the occult,” whether they’re only “dabbling” (listening to metal and watching horror movies) or “really interested” (buying copies of The Satanic Bible, reading the Necronomicon—the latter of which is not a real book).

In the first cut scene, the narrator gives us a list of “signs that your child may be a target of Satanic recruitment”:

They come from middle to upper class homes

They have with low self-esteem

They are highly intelligent

They are loners

They come from broken homes

They are latch-key kids

They have a deep need for belonging

They are impressionable

They may be victims of sexual abuse

They are alienated from the church

They are very creative and curious

They are rebellious and looking for power

They are overachievers or underachievers

Aside from sexual abuse, these criteria describe just about every kid I ever spent time with growing up.

Dungeons & Dragons plays an important role in both Sellers’ fabricated conversion to Satanism and the Satanic Panic narrative. D&D had its first spell of national coverage when it was blamed—wrongly, always wrongly—for the disappearance of the unfortunate James Dallas Egbert III in 1979. Fundamentalist Christian groups, sensing a powerful alternative to their authoritarian prescriptions, immediately attacked the game as an occult practice, but the real crusade against D&D and its makers didn’t get going until Patricia Pulling started Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons (B.A.D.D.) in 1983. Pulling blamed D&D for her son Irving’s 1982 suicide, and for the next decade she was often consulted by police departments, school boards, and the media on teen involvement in Satanism. She also served as an expert witness for the prosecution on the alleged involvement of D&D in several murder cases. (You can see Pulling in the 1985 60 Minutes segment on D&D, in which Gary Gygax destroys her and host Ed Bradley’s desperate attempts to connect the role-playing game to violent and anti-social behavior.) ***

Brothers repeatedly presses Sellers to condemn Dungeons & Dragons in the interview, and Sellers cooperates, describing the dangers of imaginative freedom:

That character that’s in front of him is absolute. It doesn’t change. It’s a friend to him. And when he becomes that character, he knows exactly who he is, he knows exactly what he can do and what he can’t do… and the fantasy world that he lives in has no morals, no limits, you know, no values except for his own…

You let a teenager loose in that world, and sometimes they don’t want to come back.

In other words, the player is role-playing in a not-specifically-Christian universe in which he or she decides what is right and wrong and what choices to make, and to a fundamentalist Christian, that universe is always going to be evil. The cut scene that follows calls D&D “the most effective introduction to the occult in the history of man.” It teaches

demonology, witchcraft, voodoo, murder, rape, blasphemy, suicide, assassination, insanity, sex, perversion, homosexuality, prostitution, satan worship, gambling, barbarism, cannibalism, sadism, desecration, demon summoning, necromantics, divination, and other occultic themes.

That’s a direct quote.

The next cut scene warns of “Signs of Satanism in Your Community,” some of which include “occult graffiti, mysterious murders, demand for occult-related jewelry, shoplifting in candle shops (my favorite), grave robbings, animal mutilations, and unusual tattoos.” The on-screen text is accompanied by video footage of supposedly “at-risk” teenagers committing sins such as smoking, hugging, kissing, dancing, wearing sunglasses and leather jackets, laughing heartily, and so on.

At the end of the video Brothers blesses Sellers, shakes his hand, and says, “One of these days we’re going to shake hands outside of this place without these [handcuffs] on.” The viewer is encouraged to purchase a copy of Satanism in America: What They Don’t Want You to Know, a “new publication” that will “give you the facts on occult and satanic activities that threaten you and your family… to give you the knowledge to protect your loved ones from those that would harm them.” Please send your $10.00 check to Freedom Village.


*In his satanism special, Rivera interviews a spokesman for several McMartin preschool parents who are gathered in someone’s living room. The woman to the right of the spokesman appears to be Michelle Smith (47:51), although I can’t confirm this.

**Sellers was executed by lethal injection in 1999. He did not acknowledge or apologize for his crimes.

***See the AP article “Dungeons, Dragons: Fundamentalists Attack Game as Road to Occult” from February 27, 1982. The writer of a letter to the editor in the December 12, 1980 edition of the Eugene Register-Guard calls D&D a “new fantasy game… based on the ability to promote demons to wipe out the opponent through information and formulas that could only be written by someone well versed with the occult.” She also calls the game an “introduction to the occult.” A December 1981 Milwaukee Sentinel article talks about the school board of Mukwonago High School approving Dungeons & Dragons as an official after school activity. 465 area residents submitted a petition to reverse the decision, calling the game “an active instrument in the practice of witchcraft.”

Dungeons & Dragons Ad, 1980

D&D Ad 1980-1

D&D Ad 1980-2

D&D Ad 1980-3

D&D Ad 1980-4

The ad is from the Spokane Daily Chronicle, December 5, 1980. The D&D books appear with the high-ticket electronic handhelds and consoles, including the Atari 2600 and the Intellivision.

Take a closer look at the pictures in the ad, which are actually an artist’s illustrations of the original Basic Set (David Sutherland) and Players Handbook (David Trampier) covers. The Basic Set is pretty straightforward, the only noticeable difference being the lack of gold. But for the Players Handbook, we see dark, hooded figures seemingly worshiping a demon idol, as opposed to a party of post-battle dungeon raiders, two of whom are attempting to chip the jewels out of the demon idol’s eyes (see below).

The “Satanic Panic” wouldn’t blow up until 1982-1983, but already the game had touched a nerve, and, consciously or not, people saw things in it that weren’t there. Fantasy role-playing was almost impossible for adults of a certain religious temperament to accept. In Trampier’s cover, probably the most distinctive and resonant image in all of D&D, all they could see was their greatest fear: not the reality of the devil, but the reality that their children might not believe what they believed.

D&D PH 1978

TV Guide Promo for Town Hall (1982): ‘Johnny Has a 25¢ Habit’

Johnny 1982

KATU is a Portland, Oregon station, and Town Hall was a public affairs show that aired between 1980 to 1993.

The irony is that the promo appeared in the Fall 1982 edition of TV Guide, which featured a cover story on the best video games of 1982.

TV Guide 1982


Girls Reading Comic Books, 1957

Girls Reading Comics 1957

September 25, 1957. (Photo: Miami Herald)

Girls Reading Comics 1957-2

The Decent Literature Council, established in 1956, was active well into the 1960s. Its mission was “to protect youth from obscenity and pornography.” Here’s one of the directors, from a 1961 Miami News story:

We have found from resource reading… that pornographic literature becomes like a drug. As a child reads, he requires stronger doses, and it finally becomes destructive.

And here’s Charles Keating, Chairman of Citizens for Decent Literature (est. 1958), speaking to the Decent Literature Council in 1964:

The material constitutes a detailed course of instruction in perversion…

These sex-mad magazines are creating criminals faster than we can build jails to house them.

The publications provide youngsters with an entry to the world of lesbians, homosexuals, sadists, and other deviates whose names and actions are unknown to most decent people of this country.

If Keating’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he was at the center of the Savings and Loan Crisis of the late 1980s. He was convicted of fraud, racketeering, and conspiracy, and went to jail. (Luckily, we still had one to house him.)

`Dungeons & Dragons Day’ at the Public Library, 1981 – 1985

D&D 9-15-81

D&D 11-10-81

D&D 3-12-82

D&D 5-15-82

D&D 9-29-83

D&D 7-1-84

D&D 7-16-85

The clippings are from (top to bottom) The Pittsburgh Press (9/15/81), The Pittsburgh Press (11/10/81), New Hampshire’s Nashua Telegraph (3/12/82), Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (5/15/82), Utah’s Deseret News (9/29/83), Florida’s Sarasota Herald-Tribune (7/1/84), and The Milwaukee Journal (7/16/85).

Certainly not an exhaustive list of ongoing D&D events sponsored by public institutions, but the narrative told in just these few cases is interesting enough. (I’ve mentioned D&D in science museums here and here). In the midst of all the nonsense spouted about the game, most adults managed to keep an even head about it. My parents didn’t understand how it worked or why I found it so enthralling, but they trusted me enough to let me play, and, if I felt it was necessary, to stop playing.

That’s what’s changed. It wasn’t the Religious Right that killed all the quality, kid-friendly events and institutions of the ’70s and ’80s (arcades, youth centers, public playgrounds, roller rinks, summer camp, etc.), it was helicopter parents and their distrust (overprotection is a form of distrust) of their own children. If kids aren’t allowed to hang out by themselves with other kids, then all the fun places for kids get shut down, and they’re left thinking Angry Birds and Facebook are as good as it gets.

We need more places—more physical spaces—for kids to inhabit so that they can develop their own communities, languages, ideas, and rules. Otherwise, they’re never going to grow up. And they’re never going to understand what fun really is.


TV Guide Ads for TV Movies: Mazes and Monsters (1982)

In Mazes and Monsters, four privileged college students get involved in fantasy role-playing as a way to escape painful (for the privileged) personal problems. One of them loses it, has a complete psychotic break, and ends up living with his parents and believing he’s a cleric.

In both the bestselling novel, written by Rona Jaffe, and the TV adaptation, role-playing is presented as addictive, a playground for idle hands, something to be conquered on the journey to mentally healthy adulthood. The ad brilliantly reflects the story’s sensationalistic propaganda. The players’ shadows are nothing less than their inner demons coaxed into the physical world by the game (called Mazes and Monsters). It’s very Freudian.

The ad concept, with a shadow or shadows revealing the underlying nature of the appearing figure or figures, has been used many times before and since. The Changeling (1980) and Warlock (1989) movie posters are a couple of examples.

Here’s an article, written by Jaffe, that appeared in the same TV guide.

Mazes and Monsters TV Guide 1982

It’s mostly about her experience as an associate producer, but she does discuss how she came to write the novel, and what she says about “fantasy games,” specifically D&D, is pretty interesting.

The characters are plunged into adventure in a series of mazes run by another player, the omnipotent referee, who creates monsters, and other frightful dangers, to destroy the players. The point of the game is to amass a fortune and keep from being killed.

The italics are mine. Funny, but I thought the point of the game was to have fun. The characterization of the DM/GM as omnipotent and sinister was and is taken seriously by a number of powerfully ignorant, unsavory collectives.

Jaffe neglects to mention that her novel is also a “strong fantasy,” and that it too might be “taken a step too far,” with pernicious results.

The 700 Club on a Certain Fantasy Role-Playing Game That Shall Not Be Named: ‘Only Blood Will Satisfy the Dragon’ (1993)

You may have seen this one before. I can’t resist making some comments:

  1. Can I hire that 13th century DM and his gnarly DM’s Tome™ for parties? “There’s only one way to save yourself, and that way is blood.” Cool. Everybody put your keys in the jar and pass the knife!
  2. How exactly do those dice work? Are the numbers coordinates? And why the hell does he roll again when the treasure and “power beyond imagination” are right in front of him?
  3. I’d like to be one of the shadowy figures who removes a player (or places a menacing hand on the player’s shoulder) once that player is “no more.” Do I have to apply? I bet there’s a psych test.
  4. What the hell do the kid and his dog have to do with anything? And who are they looking up at in the woods? Is Satan wearing Levi’s? Whoever it is, he’s like 20 feet tall.

The complete 700 Club episode the clip belongs to is here. Both videos are via LadySorrowIshana/YouTube.

Arcade Zen (1982)

Mercer Island Video Arcade, February 10, 1982. (Natalie Fobes/Seattle Times)


Youths flock to the Mercer Island Video Arcade after school. Some parents are unhappy about the arcade’s location and the time and money their children spend there.

Here’s what happened the very next month, from the March 25, 1982 edition of The Spokesman-Review.

Mercer Island 3-25-82

Step one: Blame new entertainment technologies for the failure of parents to raise their children responsibly.

Step two: Tax those new technologies, thereby exempting the failure of city officials to manage tax revenue responsibly.

It turned out that affluent Mercer Island had bigger problems.

(Photo via Seattle Washington Archive)

TV News Story, 1981: `Video Games Are Colonizing the Planet’

A really interesting early example of the arguments for and against video games, and some good arcade footage to go with it.

Ronnie Lamm, President of the Middle Country PTA Council in Long Island, received national attention at the time for convincing the residents of Brookhaven to issue a 6-month moratorium on the issuance of game permits. If she’d had her way, video games would have been banned completely.

I found some good stories on her “crusade” at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (July 22, 1982) and two issues of the Spokesman-Review (January 16, 1982 and June 8, 1982). She calls the games “definitely addictive” and “not wholesome,” and says the proliferation of arcades leads to an increase in robbery and drug trafficking.

In the video, she laments that when kids go to the store to pick up something for school, they drop the leftover change into a game instead of bringing it home. Her solution: get rid of the games.

Another parent complains that his son took money in advance from his paper route to play games. His solution: take away the kid’s paper route.

One of the managers and part owners of Foosball World, soft-spoken Diane Lacicero, dispatches them easily with a small dose of common sense: “You can’t expect the game room to be at fault because they [parents] don’t have the control that they should have.”

I’m not all that convinced that arcades kept kids away from drugs and other nasty habits, or that they “discharge” violent feelings, but they sure did give us a place to be with others our own age in a non-school environment. They were little communities, with a special set of rules, and we had to learn how to function within them.

Kids have nowhere to go anymore partly because of people like Ronnie Lam. As a society, we no longer raise our children as adults-in-training, giving them the independence they need to learn how to act independently and handle tough situations. Instead, we’re raising them to be codependent, inflated, and entitled.

(Video via kamenliter/YouTube)




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