Anyone who’s spent any time reading comics in print or online, is probably familiar with Seduction of the Innocent. This infamous tract by pseudo-psychiatrist Fredric Wertham in 1954 claimed that comic books, with their overt themes of homosexuality, eroticism, violence and murder, were having a deleterious effect on the children of America. Wertham’s book stirred up a frenzy of controversy centred around comics which played out in the media, in the courtroom, and through the establishment of parent’s groups across the American continent. Ultimately, the furore led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, a regulatory body which oversaw the content of comic books up until as recently as 2011.
If you’re familiar with this story, you’ll see the parallels in the “satanic panic” which erupted around the game of Dungeons and Dragons in the 1980’s.
As we covered last week, the game was enjoying a steady rise in popularity and influence since its release in 1974. By 1980, sales of the Basic Set were reaching 12,000 units per month and international demand was so high that production studio Tactical Studies Rules opened a UK franchise. In 1982, blockbuster movie E.T. referenced the game in a movie scene, and in 1983 a Dungeons and Dragons cartoon began airing in the US. Between these milestones was a sadder moment in the personal life of a woman named Patricia Pulling – the moment when her son Irving, an avid Dungeons and Dragons player, turned a gun on himself and committed suicide.
Pulling, grieving over the loss of her son, founded an advocacy group in 1983 which worked to arrest the meteoric spread of Dungeons and Dragons throughout American popular culture: “Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons” (B.A.D.D). Pulling’s advocacy came at a time when anti-Dungeons and Dragons sentiment was rising, particularly amongst conservative Christian groups and people concerned about the game’s psychological impact on children.
In 1984, objections to the game on religious grounds was epitomised by the production of Dark Dungeons, a short pamphlet comic by notorious evangelical cartoonist Jack Chick. Remarkably this comic, which accuses the game of being a clandestine operation for initiating youth into ‘the real power’ of witchcraft and the occult, appears to be one of, if not the earliest treatment of the game in published comic form, predating the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons DC series by approximately four years. Chick, like many of the game’s theological critics, focuses on imaginative elements of the game such as the mechanics for casting spells, creature classes such as demons and fantasy Gods, and game realms that featured hellscapes or the afterlife. Such objections were used to get the game banned from public schools across states such as California and Utah as early as 1981, and those bans would continue throughout the decade.
In addition to the ‘occult themes,’ a large contributor to the banning of the game by schools was the perceived psychological impact of the game. Dungeons and Dragons was accused of blurring the line between fantasy and reality, confusing the youth who played it and making them more likely to practice ‘homosexuality, sodomy, rape, and other perverse acts’ in real life. Depression and suicides – like the unfortunate Irving Pulling – were linked to character deaths or spells/curses in Dungeons and Dragons and the idea of ‘living out fantasies’ was also accused of inciting violent acts in the real world. Like the earlier moral panic incited over mainstream comic books, these supposed psychological links were later disproven through rigorous study and application of some common sense.
In a way, the ‘satanic panic’ only served to cement Dungeons and Dragons in popular culture – the media attention in America and worldwide gave the budding game publicity it couldn’t have hoped to buy, and the rebellious flavour now attached to playing the game only made it more attractive to its predominantly young fanbase. As those players grew older, they began to create fantasy worlds of their own – both in-game and out. Numerous fantasy and science fiction authors such as Michael J. Stackpole, Patrick Rothfuss, Brandon Sanderson and Howard Taylor have all cited playing Dungeons and Dragons as an influence on their work. And as similarly creative people grew up in the digital age, they found a new outlet for this influence: webcomics.
When we return for our third installment of this series, we’ll look at some of the early D&D webcomics, and how the genre has grown and developed within the online community.
Did you grow up during the satanic panic? Were you, or someone you know, told that Dungeons and Dragons had occult overtones, and would corrupt your mind or your soul? We’d love to hear your stories – leave them in the comments below or reach out to us on Twitter, and until next time remember: don’t eat the clickbait!