Dungeons & Dragons and Stranger Things

Non-traditional dice for the game Dungeons & Dragons scatter the table. The game, played with the help of dice, character models and a game book, is popular among students. // Photo by Sloan Salinas Student Publications

[This article contains minor spoilers for Stranger Things Season 4 Vol. 1.]

Since season one, fans of “Stranger Things” have seen the classic roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) as a central part of the young protagonists’ lives.

Now, as the release of season four, volume two draws closer, Mike Wheeler, Will Byers, Dustin Henderson and Lucas Sinclair have grown up significantly since that first D&D game of the show in the Wheeler’s basement.

Nevertheless, the game is once again front and center in the newest season with the addition of Eddie Munson, metalhead leader of the “Hellfire Club,” the Dungeons & Dragons club of Hawkins High School. When Vecna, a dark wizard from the Upside-Down and the season’s main antagonist, starts murdering students in Hawkins, the authorities, and soon the public, are quick to place Munson as their number one suspect.

Already labeled as a “freak” and “outcast” by the general population of Hawkins High, Munson’s widely-known participation in D&D only acts to solidify his position as a scapegoat, with people claiming the game involves devil-worship and ritualistic sacrifice.

While viewers of the show today might scoff at such dramatic accusations, the portrayal in “Stranger Things” of the public opinion of D&D is much closer to the truth than one might expect.

A Dungeons & Dragons game (known as a “campaign”) involves a group of players (that form a “party”) and a “dungeon master” (also called a “DM”). Each member of the party has their own character and special skills.

Each character’s specialty contributes to the success of the overall party.

The DM, armed with a Rule Book, leads the party through adventures, during which the players use polyhedral dice and basic math to make decisions for their characters.

One campaign is usually drawn out through several sessions of play and therefore, many parties choose to meet on a recurring and preestablished basis. Despite its age, D&D has millions of players worldwide to this date, with new platforms such as Twitch allowing people not just to play, but watch others play as well.

However, the game was not always so popular. Prior to the creation of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974, the publication of Anton LaVey’s “The Satanic Bible,” the Manson Family murders, a fabricated Evangelical memoir and the 1973 film “The Exorcist” began a culture of paranoia amongst devout Christians across the United States.

This paranoia continued to grow and by the beginning of the 80s, people were terrified of the mere idea of the occult. This hysteria led to a surge in accusations of abuse and ritualistic practices in a Red Scare-Esque phenomenon known as “Satanic Panic.”

The first step in the demonization of the game took place in 1979 when a young college student, James Dallas Egbert III, went missing from his dorm. The private investigator hired for the case learned the student played D&D and determined that the boy had lost touch with reality and wandered into tunnels beneath the school, unable to differentiate between real and fantasy.

However, the teen returned later, confessing that combined pressure from his parents and school had made him suicidal and the game had nothing to do with it, but by then it was too late: Dungeons & Dragons had been condemned by the public.

The controversy only grew from there. In 1983, a woman named Patricia Pulling founded the organization “Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons” (BADD) after her son took his own life two years earlier. She blamed the tragedy on D&D, saying her son had been “cursed” by another player during the campaign.

Pulling and members of BADD conducted an aggressive media campaign through both main-stream media outlets and conservative Christian media outlets, warning parents that Dungeons & Dragons would lead their children down a dark and dangerous path. “Stranger Things” fans saw these warnings referenced in the first episode of the new season, as Eddie Munson dramatically reads from a magazine article claiming that the game has been linked to “violent behavior…Satanic worship, ritual sacrifice, sodomy, suicide and even murder.”

While this article specifically was fabricated for the show, it was most likely adapted from a real article from Newsweek in 1985 titled “Kids: The Deadliest Game?” which blamed D&D for teen suicides and even included a statement from the aforementioned Patricia Pulling.

Something else that helped to build the case against Dungeons & Dragons during this time was “recovered-memory therapy.” This was the process in which psychologists helped patients “reconstruct” traumatic memories that they had repressed or forgotten, usually related to abuse.

It is important to note that recovered memories are not the same as dissociation, which is a proven common response to childhood abuse.

At its peak in the 90s, recovered memories were used to support numerous accusations of ritualistic abuse from people supposedly involved in Satanic cults. People were suddenly “remembering” being forced to do things such as participating in animal sacrifices and devil worship.

Many people lost jobs and went to jail because of recovered memory-related accusations.

In the mid-1990s, the FBI finally published a report showing that Satan-worshipping activity and ritualistic abuse had never actually been proven, despite the many people whose lives were ruined by the claims.

Psychologists came out to say that the process of recovered-memory therapy more often involved the power of suggestion and manipulation of memories that more often led to creating false memories and harming the patient’s mental health even more.

As years went on and more research was conducted, psychologists actually began to see that people who participated in role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons saw lower rates of suicide, improved problem solving and teamwork and an increase in confidence, especially among kids with behavioral struggles and or anxiety.

In addition to these findings, leaders of BADD, including Patricia Pulling herself, were shown to have lied about their qualifications, cherry-picked data and twisted words and personality traits to fit the narrative of evil they worked to spread.

Today, D&D is enjoyed by people of all ages and genders, and the times of recriminations of witchcraft and otherworldly evil are buried within the past. Now, the Satanic Panic is destined to live in works of fiction such as “Stranger Things” where audiences can have a laugh about dramatic claims of Devil worshipping teenagers, instead of worrying about being on the receiving end of them.