The Satanic Panic was a moral panic of presumed ritual child abuse against American suburbia, from a period of roughly the end of the 1970s to the start of the 1990s. Janet Reno, DA for Dade County in Florida at the time, made her name prosecuting day-cares for such abuses which, of course, never happened. Relevant to /tg/ this panic impinged upon the tabletop roleplaying community, focused on the Dungeons & Dragons fandom.
tl;dr - A few misunderstanding and unrelated deaths cause American moralfags to accuse D&D of being a bad influence on their communities, and actively persecute D&D players or anyone who could be mistaken as a D&D player.
On the note of "American moralfags", one might be inclined to wonder why there was no analogous (or at least proportionate) moral panic about Warhammer or Warhammer 40,000 in the UK, considering that it was miles above anything from contemporary D&D in terms of edgy and grimdark. It likely says something about the culture of the populations in question, or at the very least about the placid nature of the Church of England.
The Panic has its roots in late 19th century Anglo-American Protestantism. As more mainstream Protestant sects began to incorporate liberal elements of Biblical interpretation and as Anglophone culture as a whole grew more secular (to say nothing of things like the growing acceptance of Darwin's theory of evolution), other more tradition-minded sects declared a need to return to the "fundamentals" of Christian faith, based on literal interpretation of the Bible and a general rejection of secular culture. The goal of these 'fundamentalists' was to attain something of a throwback to the atmosphere of the early frontiers, where anyone who fancied himself a preacher or prophet could set up shop - even if what he was preaching had very little traction on common sense, they'd gain a following as long as he had a glib tongue, enough charisma and some impressive sounding Bible verses (context not necessary due to the literal interpretation part). As they saw it, this was a return to the core traditional principles of the faith, free from un-Biblical modern thinking. Small wonder, then, that the movement clustered in hinterlands like Ulster (John Nelson Darby was seminal) and found ready ears across Dah Pond in America's own backwoods.
Following the debacle of the Scopes "Monkey" Trial in 1925 (where a teacher was accused of violating a Tennessee law preventing the teaching of evolution in school, but in actuality was staged so the town could get tourists- the teacher was found guilty on a technicality but popular sentiment was in his favor), they had withdrawn into their own subculture, growing increasingly convinced that America had become godless and corrupt under the influence of the secularists. These sentiments only increased in the 60s, when the country was coming off the heels of the second Red Scare, and growing acceptance of extramarital sex and feminism came to be perceived as a threat to "traditional family values". This intensified again in the 70's when those prior events opened the door for another potential threat via No-fault divorce laws being introduced across states.
By the 80s, a new generation of charismatic Protestant preachers such as Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham paved the way for these 'fundamentalists' to return to the public sphere. Thus began the rise of what then called itself "Moral Majority" and is now known as "the religious right", as the fundamentalists quickly forged ties with like-minded politicians. As Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan - different political parties, note - were among the politicians in question, this meant they had a lot of influence in American society. Funnily enough, these same people’s politicization of Christianity would drive younger people away from it in later generations, a fact they are only now coming to realize (although they blame the later generations for it, because in their minds nothing is ever their fault).
Britain, for what it's worth, only ever came as close to the panic in the mid-'80s through the efforts of one Mary Whitehouse's campaign against "video nasties" (i.e. films that were unclassified and thus could be rented by viewers as young as 10) - and very few people took her seriously even then, on top of the campaign sparking a profound interest in the otherwise unremarkable low-budget grindhouse/horror movie schlock that made up the majority of that list.
'Ere We Go
The roots of the whole mess began in 1979, when a troubled teenager named James Dallas Egbert III disappeared for a month after, reputedly, having earlier attempted to commit suicide in the utility tunnels under the campus of Michigan State University. Failing to off himself, he instead hid in a friend's house for a month. During that time, private investigator William Dear, hired by Egbert's parents, speculated to the media that he might have gotten lost during an attempt to use the utility tunnels for a Live Action Roleplaying session. The press, of course, ate this shit up, especially when Egbert went and blew his brains out in 1980.
This incident was later used by hack writers to produce the cheesy 1981 "horror" novels Hobgoblin and Mazes and Monsters, both of which ran with the basic plotline of "roleplayer loses his mind because of roleplaying and ultimately ends up killing or nearly killing himself" - Mazes and Monsters even got a freaking film adaptation a year later, which you can read about on its own page.
This controversy was bad enough, but at the time the advent of real-but-mostly-harmless "Satanic" groups like the Church of Satan (largely atheists being counterculture to the above fundie revival), as well as other cults that allegedly kidnapped and brainwashed children, gave Christian fundamentalists more fuel for their paranoia. At the same time, therapists and social workers were pushing for greater recognition of child sexual abuse as a serious crime, and in spite of their good intentions they developed a tendency to be overzealous in investigating possible abuse; this was itself exacerbated further by the growing awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder and the assumption that memories "recovered" via hypnosis were perfectly accurate representations of events (as opposed to being unintentionally created by the therapists and social workers themselves). The end result was a bunch of people who were convinced that the US was filled with cannibalistic, child-raping, and generally evil Satanic cults that controlled the secular world from the shadows and whose very existence was a threat to society.
This ended up getting linked to tabletop RPGs because of one particular asshole.
Meet Patricia Pulling
When her son Irving killed himself in 1982, Patricia Pulling (also writer of the book "The Devil's Web: Who Is Stalking Your Children For Satan?") claimed it was because he had been placed under a "D&D curse". Not totally in her right mind, she first tried to sue Irving's principal, and then TSR itself. Naturally, the legal system threw her out on her ear, noting that this made absolutely no sense and that the more logical answer had to do with pre-existing social and psychological problems, such as being bullied at school. But the damage was done in giving her a public appearance to begin with.
Inspired by the two-year legal battle, some fucktards in Canada produced the 1983 film "Skullduggery", which went a step beyond its equivalents from before; a roleplaying game explicitly identified as D&D ultimately turned a player into a serial-killing lunatic. Hobgoblin had titled itself after a fictitious Celtic-themed RPG, whilst Mazes & Monsters had used its same-name D&D pastiche, but here the real game was explicitly named, and thus came the shame.
Furthermore, by 1983 Mrs. Pulling was making connection with a bunch of fundy Christian groups, along with one Illinois psychiatrist by the name of Thomas Radecki, director of the National Coalition on Television Violence. Together, they founded Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons - a collection of religious bigots, bullies, jerks, clueless parents and assorted well-meaning but ignorant folks out to stop the depredation of "evil D&D". When Pulling's case was finally dismissed in 1984, BADD (a name that implies someone on the marketing team was phenomenally self-aware or unaware) went into full attack mode. Naturally, the infamous Dark Dungeons tract by Jack Chick was written during that same year.
It must be repeated that BADD lost every single attempt at litigation they ever attempted, but the credulous public ate up their bullshit and responded by shitting on D&D players everywhere. Teachers, parents, Christian pastors and even on occasion the police tried to stomp on those who liked to roleplay; they used everything from verbal and emotional harassment to seizing and destroying roleplaying materials, blocking RPG groups from using public spaces to socialize and even sabotaging groups by planting false evidence of satanic rituals and/or possession of drugs and/or pornographic material before calling the police.
Amazingly, during the 1980s, the tabletop gaming community seemed to actually just take this shit. For a significant portion of the '80s, the prevailing attitude was one of apologetic self-censorship, striving to prove that they were moral people by passive resistance. However, behind the scenes, angry players were going on the attack; writers began publishing investigations into the seedier side of many anti-D&D big names in Dragon Magazine. The academic credentials of Thomas Radecki and Patricia Pulling were debunked. Numerous links were forged with academics and government agencies studying youth suicide and academic publications on gaming were collated and made available to gamers wanting to investigate and/or debunk anti-RPG claims.
Gamers began to coordinate lobbying campaigns by phone, letters, public forums, the burgeoning internet and word of mouth as a means of informing the media, law enforcement, educators and local government about RPGs and their role in youth culture. Links were forged with the Skeptics' Society and other secularist organizations who had been independently questioning the existence of "Satanic ritual abuse". Articles were written in Skeptics Society journals and psychology journals, and law enforcement officers and criminologists, such as Robert Hicks, began to debunk and expose the religious origins of anti-gaming claims and question their relevance in law enforcement initiatives. Perhaps the greatest blow to the credibility of B.A.D.D, Patricia Pulling and Thomas Radecki was the publication of Michael Stackpole’s “Pulling Report” in 1989. This report severely criticized the ethics and methodology of anti-RPG campaigners, provided conclusive evidence that the suicide rate was lower amongst roleplayers, and was widely distributed amongst law enforcement, educational bodies, game manufacturers, gamers, and government agencies.
The cultural zeitgeist changed. Thanks to years of work by D&D's defenders and other skeptics, the "Satanic Ritual Abuse" phenomenon being exposed as equal parts mass hysteria and con artistry, and the recurring failure of its attackers to actually win any legal battles or fail to avoid being debunked, the public grew out of it. Some people tried to keep the fire of it going - in 1988, authorities chose to focus on Chris Pritchard's being a D&D player as the "reason" for his murdering his stepfather, rather than his long history of mutual antagonism and his heavy drug and alcohol use. But years of moral hysteria with no actual payoff had robbed BADD and its fellow shitheads of any significant standing from anyone beyond the fundamentalists and the paranoid. The steady stream of actual intelligence revealed that most of the witnesses giving "testimony" to the abuse were remembering things that never happened and were also logically impossible, such as mass human sacrifices in an area where such activity could not possibly have gone unnoticed. In other words, these shitheads were delusional at best and at worst were outright lying about the abuse they supposedly witnessed in order to get their fifteen minutes in the spotlight. In 1989, an absolute fuck by the name of William Schnoebelen published a pair of articles that claimed D&D was a New Age Satanist front to steal people away from Christianity; by then, most people looked at Schnoebelen's claims that D&D could actually summon demons and work real magic (and the fact he was being bankrolled by Jack Chick), and dismissed him for the crank that he was.
Not That BADD
Ironically, the Satanic Panic had some rather positive effects on the RPG world:
- First and foremost, it was instrumental in forging a shared sense of community amongst roleplayers of all types; they might still bicker and argue over internal minutia, but now they'll come together in the face of an outside threat. Prior to the Panic, RPGers had just been hobbyists; coming together for support under the Panic's suffocating blanket made them a culture in their own right.
- Secondly, it established roots between roleplayers and alternative religious subcultures. Whether this is a necessarily a good thing depends obviously on one's perspective (plenty of D&D players would be happy not to be associated with "I shall play for you the songs of my people" style neo-Paganism.) During the late 80s and the 90s, the roleplaying community became extremely critical of Christianity, if not outright hostile (a sentiment you still see quite often even today) though that sentiment is waning now. The years in which the most public face of American Christendom was highly critical of the largely innocuous pastime of roleplaying had bred a strong resentment of Christianity as a whole into the RPG community despite the fact that one of the game's two co-inventors, Gary Gygax, was Christian himself - albeit of a liberal persuasion, a few other foundational authors of the fantasy genre were also Christian and there are also Christians in the RPG community (point is, it's a big tent, for both groups, at least in mainstream society). Another highly-influential D&D contributor was Tracy Hickman, a devout Mormon and sometime missionary. The only good things to come out of this are an increase in fact-checking among all sides involved and a willingness to branch out in story elements, which led to the rise of games franchises like Call of Cthulhu in the 80s and World of Darkness in the 90s.
Meanwhile in Italy
An interesting side note in this story is what happened in Italy. News from USA media filtered here. Italian culture is a strange duck where "proper intellectuals" think that nothing past the middle ages could have real influence or meaning. Therefore the D&D part was completely skipped. But the "satanism doing bad stuff to children" kinda took roots. There were some investigations that supposedly uncovered satanist cults abusing children. Something that might surprise you - or really not if you know a thing or two about history - is that basically the only ones to come out and say "wtf is this bullshit about Satan? None of this can be real" was the Catholic Church, of all people. After all the inquisition were torching exactly the people putting up this kind of panics in the middle ages (usually). Not so funny, some thirty-odds years later some journalists said "What if we do our job for once?", started digging and found out that there was no real basis and kids were taken for their family on bogus charges. And never fucking returned. The whole thing spawned a trial started in 2020 called "Il caso di Bibbiano" (Bibbiano's case, from the name of one of the towns involved). Really scary stuff on what can happen when media-induced hysteria meets overzealous psycologists.
The Satanic Panic in the Modern Era
There are still some lingering attempts to tap into this long-dead phenomena - in 2013, several news articles claimed that in Israel, playing D&D was actually frowned upon by the Israeli Defence Force. Almost immediately, reporters who'd done actual research reported that this was complete bullshit; D&D is hugely popular in Israel, to the point that a good DM can actually get paid money for being willing to run peoples' games. This situation in the IDF was probably confined to the certain type of Jewish fundamentalist who objects to pictures of women being published in newspapers. Fundamentalists, who by their very nature assume that any form of media not endorsing whatever cause they follow must be evil, still sometimes make the same old complaints under the pretense that "the Satanists are powerful enough to hide the evidence" in-between bouts of attacking other boogeymen, but nobody listens outside of their own echo chambers for the most part. While the panic has never truly stopped since its inception, the major driving forces have long since subsided in the eyes of the public, and the more contemporary forms of media are more likely to be targeted by fundies nowadays due to their greater prevalence in society - most notably video games, but TV and movies remain a favored punching bag as well.
On an amusing note, Thomas Radecki would later be arrested in 2013 and sentenced for 11-22 years in prison for over-prescribing addictive opioids through a crooked rehab program, dealing in proceeds of unlawful activity, and trading said opioids to 13 different female patients in exchange for sex. As is the trend elsewhere, it figures that the loudest moral guardians usually have a few skeletons in their closets.
And of course, there is QAnon, which is the lovechild of all the above with the special brand of insanity found only on /pol/. It would be better for everyone if we kept it at that.
This was the Satanic Panic. Good fucking riddance, but it's a shame that it won't stay dead.
But Since It's Still Here...
Are you sitting here wondering about the fact that, despite all the grief it's given the hobby, there's not a shred of info detailing how other tabletop publishers themselves
lampooned creatively handled the entire debacle? Do you find yourself thinking "There's absolutely no fucking way Dungeons and Dragons was the only game ever targeted"? Just want some more fundie shenanigans to laugh at? Look no further, nondescript reader, for we hath delivered!
Below is a list of other, smaller moral panic-style controversies; we're sticking primarily to tabletop because, besides being a /tg/-based wiki, if we had to cover every time any piece of new media got tarred as Satanic (even if it never so much brushed the topic of magic), it'd take an entire year just to get one-sixth of it done.
- Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic: The Gathering are obvious candidates vis a vis "summoning otherwordly beings" and "controlling supernatural beasts", the former in particular since it was marketed towards children, on top of the fact that the former was made by foreigners. As far as "understandable motives easily abused for zealotry", marketing questionable material towards kids is pretty high on the Fundie Moral Outrage Shitlist™, since that definition is extended to almost fucking everything. See also: Pokemon, Harry Potter, etc.
- Most of the outrage over Pokemon was over ghosts, psychics, and frequent use of the word “evolution” (which was only chosen because the word sounded cool to the Japanese). Incidentally, at the peak of Pokemon's own hysteria, the Catholic Church actually spoke in defense of the games and the first movie! The church has done this increasingly often over the years, even labeling formerly controversial episodes of shows like Star Trek, The Simpsons, and Futurama that dealt with religion as positive depictions of the exploration of faith.
- Vincent Baker's kill puppies for satan is a parody of early '00's "darker and edgier gaming", but also reads like the logical conclusion of what a tabletop game envisioned by the above moral guardians would actually be like, and garnered the appropriate outrage to boot.
- Mage: The Ascension's Technocracy invokes this, encouraging such panics in order to turn public sentiment against the Traditions; the idea is that, by staining them as a worldwide conspiracy bent on conversion and indoctrination, their worldwide conspiracy bent on conversion and indoctrination can thus proceed unopposed.
- Speaking of White Wolf yet again, their Classic World of Darkness games such as Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse has the in-universe Black Dog Game Factory, a subsidiary of Pentex and tongue-in-cheek riff on themselves and other tabletop publishers. Black Dog uses Satanic Panic-style imagery to portray its competition's playerbases as self-hating, self-harming turbonerds who are out of touch with reality and thus no grasp of The Real Issues™, which sounds not unlike the "srs bsns" manner in which some of the books and many of the players approach its themes.
- The Dark Matter setting has the Final Church, a faction which draws directly from the sort of cults that were believed to influence tabletop games; their supplement's disclaimer drives home the point, in no uncertain terms, that such entities are entirely fictional.
- RIFTS books all begin with a disclaimer warning that it contains violence, war, magic, and the supernatural - usually juxtaposed (and probably deliberately so) against an image that shows at least one of those things, or more commonly all four. Initially done as a response to the era's anti-RPG hysteria, it's mostly become a sort of traditional relic unique to the series.