Controversy and Confusion – The D&D Scares of the 80s and Beyond

“Have you written an article for this week?” my husband asked.

“Not yet,” I admitted.

“Have you written an article about Dark Dungeons yet?”

I laughed. “No…but I’m not sure I can spin a whole article from that.”

But then I realized I could. Because I’m not going to just talk about the infamous Jack Chick tract he mentioned. I’m going to talk about the controversy that once threatened to…well…I’m not sure there was ever a real chance of killing D&D and RPGs, but I know a lot of kids (my husband included) weren’t allowed to play D&D when they were kids as a result.

To Dungeons Dark!

If you don’t know about Dark Dungeons, start by going here to read the tract. I hate to give Chick’s website any traffic, but it is a hoot to read, so maybe it’s okay.

If you’re a gamer, you might be wondering why you never got to learn real spells when your cleric became 8th level, or got to wear boss robes.

If you’re familiar with Dark Dungeons, you may be like us and occasionally say things like “I can’t come to the phone; I’m fighting the Zombie,” or “I don’t wanna be Elfstar any more! I wanna be Debbie!” But we are sort of cynical about this stuff.

This charming, ridiculously inaccurate look at RPGs comes to us from the fevered imagination of Jack T. Chick, who’s been making and distributing religious comic tracts since 1960. A scary thought. His tracts range from merely inaccurate and laughable to downright horrifying hate literature against Jews, Catholics, Freemasons, Muslims, and more. Dark Dungeons came to us in 1984, adding RPG players to the list of Mr. Chick’s targets.

The reason D&D became a target at all most likely begins with the sad story of James Dallas Egbert III, whom I mentioned in my earlier article about D&D in the media, as his story was the loose basis for the romance novel and later dreadful TV-Movie Mazes & Monsters. He was a smart, gay kid advanced to college when he was 16. He was doing drugs, freaking out from the pressure of school, and playing D&D. When he disappeared following a failed suicide attempt in the steam tunnels under Michigan State University, his parents hired a private eye named William Dear. Dear, trying to spare the parents from a family scandal, failed to mention the homosexuality or the drug abuse, and told them that he was looking instead at D&D as the possible motivation behind Egbert’s problems.

Thanks, Bill. Thanks a heaping load.

Pulling Against All Logic

Perhaps this might’ve been the end of it. But in 1982, Irving Lee “Bink” Pulling, a high school student, killed himself, allegedly hours after a D&D game in which his character was cursed. His mother, Patricia Pulling, unsuccessfully sued both the high school principal that allowed the game to be played and TSR, the original publishes of D&D. After her cases were dismissed, she founded Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons, or BADD.

No, seriously.

Things then take an ever-more bizarre turn as Patricia somehow positions herself as an expert on Satanism and the occult, gets called into law cases as a D&D expert, and generally proceeds to make D&D out to be a gateway to cult behavior.

The trouble is that Mrs. Pulling clearly had no idea what she was talking about. She actually suggested that police should take it as a possible alert if a suspected D&D player’s character has a name that appears in an occult work, such as the Necronomicon. Ignoring, of course, the fact that the Necronomicon itself doesn’t exist, except in fantasy literature.

Now don’t get me wrong. I feel for Mrs. Pulling; I really do. To lose a child must be something that can really break a parent, and the guilt a parent must feel if their child commits suicide must be astronomical. I can understand wanted to shift the blame to something else…anything else. The trouble is, there’s just no evidence at all of D&D being conclusively linked to any crime or suicide. Except in the minds of people who’re desperate to find an answer…any answer…that absolves them of any responsibility.

No Time Like the Present?

Now, that was the 80s. I was there. For some reason, Satanic cults were on everyone’s mind. Probably we were all so freaked out by the feeling of imminent nuclear disaster that we turned to anything to take our minds off of it. I was going to a Christian summer camp in the 80s, and *everything* was about Satanism. Music lyrics were filled with it! There were Satanic references in the names of bands like KISS and Black Sabbath. And, of course, D&D was rife with it. At least, that’s what we were being told.

Except that all the counselors and campers loved playing D&D at night after everything else was done. So kind of a “do as I say, not as I do” thing going on there.

It’s easy to look back and chuckle knowingly at the controversy of the 80s…except that this ridiculous stuff keeps popping back up. After the Columbine High School massacre, everyone took a good hard look at Vampire: the Masquerade. In 2004, Wisconsin’s Waupun prison banned D&D, saying that it promoted gang-related activity. And in February of 2010, an article in one of my hometown newspapers, the Boston Herald, suggested that Dr. Amy Bishop, who shot five colleagues at the University of Alabama, killing three of them, may have been motivated by D&D.

I’m stunned that this nonsense continues in this day and age, but continue it does.

I’m about as avid a D&D player as there has ever been. I did indeed harbor thoughts of suicide when I was a teen. I knew I was gay and desperately didn’t want to be. I was fat, and kids were making fun of me. I was depressed over losing a group of friends, and I felt like things would be so much easier if I weren’t around.

But that didn’t happen. Partly because I met other friends, and, yes, they played D&D. I won’t go so far as to say that D&D saved my life, but I will say it was one factor that kept me entertained through difficult times. If I hadn’t had it, who knows who I’d be today?

Your Turn

Did your folks stop you from playing D&D because of the controversy? Did you ever brush up with any of the craziness in the 80s, or have someone think you were a Satanist because you played Vampire? Let us hear about it!

About GGG

Andy/GGG is a gay geek guy for sure. He's been playing D&D since he was 10, and he equates reading Tolkien with religion to some degree. He's a writer/developer for a Live Action RPG called The Isles, and he writes a comic called Circles, a gay, furry slice-of-life piece that comes out way too infrequently.

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