In 1983, in 11th Grade, I was walking in the halls of my high school holding my yellow spines, when a kid I knew approached me. He was one of the student council nerds, and I was a D&D geek, so there were some friends in common. He informed me that Dungeons & Dragons was “Satanic,” and that by playing it I was worshiping Beelzebub and Mephistopheles. I informed him that I did not believe in Beelzebub and Mephistopheles, and that was the end of the conversation.
Some Generation X gamers complain that the D&D5e and OSR kids today don’t know what it was like back in the 80s, during the Satanic Panic, when Dungeons & Dragons was Public Enemy #1. I’m happy there are kids today who don’t know what it’s like to be bullied because you like D&D, or Star Trek, or anime; or because you’re small, or obese, or shy, or gay, Jewish, Black, Asian, atheist, Mormon, punk, goth, or just weird.
But it did happen. And more importantly, it still happens today in many places. If you’re lucky enough to be accepted by your peers, that’s excellent. Please be sure you’re accepting of all your peers, too.
This Is The Sickest Stuff I Have Ever Seen! About Pat Pulling
If you’re a Gen X tabletop gamer, you remember Pat Pulling, the public face of anti-Dungeons & Dragons hysteria, who appeared on 60 Minutes and inspired the ridiculous 1982 Tom Hanks movie Mazes and Monsters. Pulling was a self-described “occult investigator” and licensed private investigator, who regularly lied to support her desperate thesis that her son’s suicide was caused by a fantasy role-playing game and certainly not something she might have done, no way, no sir.
Pulling tells the story of her son’s tragic death in the prologue of her 1989 book, The Devil’s Web: Who Is Stalking Your Children for Satan? Her 16 year old son was named Irving, but his nickname was “Bink,” so he really couldn’t win. One day Pulling came home to discover Bink had shot himself with the family’s pistol, which is an impossible-to-prevent tragedy until you remember a family member is far more likely to be killed by a privately-owned handgun than any imaginary intruder.
Don’t get me wrong, Irving’s death is a genuine tragedy, and I don’t mean to diminish that. But I reserve my sympathy for Irving Pulling and not for Pat, who instead of processing her grief chose to spend the next 15 years spreading dangerous Satanic Panic nonsense and trying to ban writing she didn’t like based on her own personal religious delusions.
Pulling found D&D materials in Bink’s bedroom, which she supposedly never knew about. There were plenty of genuinely concerning materials in the room, evidence that Irving was quite troubled. But Pat just latched onto the idea that D&D was a negative influence that caused her son to kill himself. Her own complicity in not keeping her gun locked up disappeared, and suddenly the tragedy was TSR’s fault.
In fact, Pulling sued Bink’s high school for introducing her son to D&D. Unsurprisingly, the case was thrown out of court. Pulling fails to mention this, or her other numerous legal failures, in her book.
Pulling and her friends at Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (BADD) put out a pamphlet, directed at “EDUCATORS, LIBRARIANS, PASTORS, POLICE, [and] PARENTS.” It’s a lengthy and rambling warning about D&D and Satanism, that looks like it was typeset by those infinite monkeys trying to type Hamlet. Its stated goal is trying to get D&D books banned in schools and libraries. It’s largely in ALL CAPS, and contains dozens of out-of-context quotes from D&D materials and so-called occult texts.
Dungeons and Dragons: Witchcraft Suicide Violence
By Mary Dempsey, Pat Dempsey, and Pat A. Pulling
…and I’m going to review it, section by section.
To understand the basic thesis, remember that D&D pulled from every mythology it could get its hands on, from Greek and Norse through IP it wasn’t licensed to use, like Tolkien’s Legendarium, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and Moorcock’s Eternal Champion.
One mythology it exploited was Christian theology, particularly demonology. Pulling and her co-authors were the type of people who delusionally believe that Christian demons are real—therefore, there is no difference between pretending these demons are real and actually worshiping the “real” entities (since Pulling et al were themselves pretending demons were real).
This is the warped logic that made Dungeons & Dragons “Satanic”; and it continues today when self-proclaimed Christians rail against Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. (Tolkien is a funny one, since he’s apparently a satanist and a Catholic hero simultaneously—go figure.)
That’s the message of this pamphlet, the same message that kid at school repeated to me. D&D mentions demons, therefore it gives power to the “real” demons.
Narrator: Demons do not, in fact, exist.
If this statement is something you’re unsure about, rethink your life.
Here’s the money quote from the pamphlet’s rambling introduction.
Because of this intense and emotional involvement in Fantasy Role Playing [this topic has not been mentioned], we find young people who are latent schizophrenic pushed easily over and into, [sic] a real Fantasy world where their ethics become situational and their traditional values are eroded. We find examples of young people being sucked Into a vortex of undesirable real-life behavior. We find young people stepping easily into their character becoming one with this same D&D character. We find emotional involvement at a high level while playing the “game” particularly when ones’ [sic] character is killed. Depression often results: sometimes violence – sometimes murder – sometimes suicide – sometimes mental problems.
The pamphlet will spend the next 40 pages carefully detailing evidence to support these claims. Oh wait, no it won’t. It will spend the next 40 pages on random D&D quotes and occult nonsense. If you’re waiting for Pulling and friends to, perhaps, provide clinical evidence that roleplaying games can trigger schizophrenia, well, guess what? It’s not going to be mentioned again.
But Pulling and friends do get right to the main point—Dungeons & Dragons causes suicides.
There are six supposed suicides listed, including Bink Pulling.
ALL HERE HEAVILY INVOLVED IN DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS: ALL DEATHS INVOLVED WEAPONS: SAVE ONE: THREE DIED ON THE FULL MOON: ALL WERE WHITE MALES BETWEEN THE AGES OF 12 to 18: THREE WERE HONOR OR GIFTED STUDENTS.
I started to investigate the people listed, and discovered this important work had already been done by The Escapist. To summarize: none of these deaths occurred on the full moon, one wasn’t a suicide, and none of them can reasonably be connected to D&D. The father of one suicide claimed he witnessed his son summoning actual demons, so he’s quite the reliable witness. For two of these suicides, the parents insisted D&D had nothing to do with it.
This is a one-page list of institutions that banned D&D. There is not enough information here to confirm or disprove any of the claims. For instance, one item on the list just says…
…and an Internet search could locate no reference to a D&D ban in that city. The Fresno Bee keeps its archive behind a paywall, but I found only one actual article during the period about D&D and the headline did not mention a ban. I’m calling shenanigans.
These are quotes by random people, some of them supposed doctors and experts, some of them supposed players. Few of these quotes are adequately sourced.
Here’s an example:
JOHN ERIC H0LMES, editor of the basic rule book for DUNGEON [sic] AND DRAGONS AND ASSOCIATED WITH TSR INC..: [sic] “SHOUTING THE DUNGEONS AND DRAGON [sic] CHALLENGE MY PLAYERS RUSH INTO THE FRAY WITH THEIR MAGIC WAR HAMMERS’ [sic] BEFORE GETTING AN ANSWER, THEIR FANTASY SELVES INDULGE IN MURDER, PILLAGE, ARSON, RAPE” (SEE PAGE 9 OF THE DUNGEON MASTERS GUIDE). PAGE 31
There is a reference to pillaging on page 9 of the DMG, although this is part of several complaints in that book about characters that just “loot, pillage, and rape,” thereby not understanding the point of the game. Anyway, this quote is not from the AD&D1e DMG, as anyone who has read it knows. It’s from the November 1980 issue of Psychology Today.
John Holmes, a doctor, was in fact a TSR contributor. The quote by Holmes above refers to him DMing other medical professionals in a D&D game. I am reasonably confident that no actual murder, pillaging, arson, or rape took place; and that these trained doctors and nurses did not go on to murder, pillage, or commit arson or rape. If they did, the pamphlet provides no evidence.
This conflation of imaginary violence with real violence is typical of both far-right and of some supposedly left-wing media criticism. Reactionaries assume that writing or reading about violence (or playing a game like Grand Theft Auto or Dungeons & Dragons) promotes real-world violence, a belief with no basis in reality. (And for some reason, real-life violence like boxing, MMA, and American contact football, all the way through “Stand Your Ground,” militias, and oh yeah ACTUAL FUCKING WAR is just fine.) Some cultural Leftists make perfectly reasonable points about violence in media being triggering to certain people, and call for content warnings; but others echo the reactionaries, morally equating fictional violence with real violence. Hey Leftists, guess what? Criticizing and boycotting culture are fine, but actually banning content is just Nazi shit, so cut it out.
Here’s a good rule-of-thumb. Giving a speech full of lies about how an election was stolen and then sending your followers to the Capitol, which leads to a violent armed insurrection, is causation, not just correlation. Pretending to kill a pretend Gelatinous Cube with a pretend sword and then a year later killing yourself is just correlation (if that), not causation. Got it?
Here’s another “statement,” from someone presented as an actual D&D player.
KELLY [sic] JEAN POPPLETON (DECEASED) FREMONT, CALIF.
I CAN ALMOST SEE THE ORCAS [sic] COMING AFTER ME AND A SPELL BEING CAST ON ME. … I MIGHT GET A LITTLE CARRIED AWAY AT TIMES, BUT I FINALLY COME BACK TO EARTH. Note – Kelly [sic] was slain two days after this statement. Involved in drugs.
If Pulling wants to make the case that this girl’s murder was linked to D&D, then she should make the case. (Here’s an article about Poppleton’s murder—I did not get it or any other sources from the pamphlet, because it doesn’t provide any.) Simply saying the murder was temporally proximal to a girl stating that D&D wasn’t a problem for her demonstrates nothing.
This pamphlet is full of this kind of “proof” that isn’t proof of anything. Kellie Poppleton also attended school; does public school cause murder? I’ll bet she watched TV. Did that cause her murder? She was fond of metabolizing oxygen—did that lead to her murder? Let’s ban oxygen!
This section defines what a religion is, establishes that “witchcraft” is a religion, and then makes the claim that separation of church and state means D&D shouldn’t be allowed in schools and libraries. If you need a neck brace from the whiplash that logic gave you, I’m not surprised.
Here the authors conflate Wicca, a New Age religion purportedly inspired by what little we know of certain pre-Christian European cultural practices, and Satanism, an unrelated Christian myth that doesn’t even exist. A certain kind of Christian thinks every non-Christian religious practice is “Satanic”; hilariously, if Satanism existed, it would be people who believe in the Christian god worshiping a Christian angel through practices described in the Christian Bible.
But Satanism doesn’t exist. The Satanic Temple is a rather excellent atheist religious liberty political group; the Church of Satan is a bunch of ridiculous Satanism LARPers promoting a kind of grade-school libertarianism. Neither has anything to do with what Christians imagine Satanism is, except perhaps some symbolism and costumes. Most importantly, what Christians imagine Satanism to be—a global conspiracy of evil anti-Christians with magical powers—is completely imaginary. Just like the demons and devils and spells and liches in D&D.
What about the demonology in D&D? The game uses demons and devils and other occult mythology the same way horror and fantasy fiction use them—as scary villains. Of course in D&D you can play as the bad guys—the pamphlet lists the alignments, and freaks out that Evil alignments are an option. But if playing a villain in D&D makes you evil, I guess playing cops and robbers leads directly to bank heists. In elementary school my friend Steve and I played “spies” inspired by James Bond movies, and that’s why today in 2024 I’m a Soviet deep-cover SMERSH agent.
The next section is just quotes from the DMG describing how your fictional player character can pretend make pretend spells, but framed as if the book were describing real procedures to make “real” spells. That these people think spells are real makes me wonder how they did things like put on their pants in the morning.
D&D Vs. Witchcraft – Occult
Here the authors unveil a brilliant strategy, selectively quoting D&D manuals and comparing them to a random excerpt from something called Dealing With the Devil by D. Cohen, a 1979 book by a prolific non-fiction author who sometimes covered occult and paranormal topics, and who for this pamphlet’s purposes had a scary Jewish name.
In one example, the Player’s Handbook said “threat of pain” when talking about the Spiritwrack spell, while Cohen wrote “I shall torture thee” when discussing the Key of Solomon. The game about pretending to control demons sounds slightly like the book about really pretending to control demons, therefore your child is controlling demons.
This section goes on for ten pages, comparing random D&D quotes to random quotes from various books about the supernatural. Yes, we get it, D&D has magic in it, and Gygax and team mined both fantasy literature and the occult for inspiration. Good catch.
Special Center Section
Blood & Human Sacrifice
This is just eight pages of D&D spells, monsters (Lizard Men!!!), and occult references from various TSR books and magazines—all capped off with a spicy quote from Revelations.
As for the section title, I’ve personally never played in a D&D scenario featuring blood or human sacrifice or missing children, although such plot points are entirely possible. I was confused about “graveyard desecration” until I realized they meant tomb raiding, which is a huge part of classic D&D. I guess Lara Croft and Indiana Jones are Satanists. Satan worship and witchcraft have never figured into any D&D game I’ve been part of, although demons and devils are part of the game worlds and I guess a female Druid could be a witch.
D&D RELIGIOUS THEME
This six-page section is just more random quotes, more occult and supernatural references. As an example, the Player’s Handbook jokingly calls the newly-popular D&D a “cult,” and to Pulling this means it’s an actual cult. It’s science!
Eight droning pages of D&D quotes that supposedly have “negative” messages. An example:
P.H.- PAGE 112 (DETECTION OF MAGIC): “Furthermore, if the creature dominated is forced to do something totally against Its [sic] nature OR SELF DESTRUCTIVE, the expenditure of strength points is doubled.”
I checked page 112 of the Player’s Handbook, and this quote (the ALL CAPS emphasis was added by the pamphlet authors) is not from the psionic power Detection of Magic, it’s from the psionic power Domination. These people can’t get any of their quotes or sources right, because they’re not really trying.
The pamphlet finishes up with an ALL CAPS tirade.
“OUR GENERATION HAS EFFECTIVELY USHERED IN – – – (THE TEEN SUICIDE ERA). NEVER BEFORE IN THE HISTORY OF THIS WORLD HAVE OUR TEENS BEEN BOMBARDED WITH HARMFUL, NEGATIVE INFLUENCES AIMED AT THE DELICATE, SENSITIVE, EASILY SWAYED MINDS OF OUR CHILDREN. THE HEALTHY GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT OF OUR CHILDREN IS [sic] BEING HINDERED BY VIOLENT FANTASY ROLE-PLAYING GAMES, ROCK MUSIC (WHICH DIRECTS THE KIDS TO “GET HIGH, SHOOT-UP, COMMIT SUICIDE AND SATAN WORSHIP”), PORNOGRAPHIC LITERATURE, VIOLENT MOVIES AND LASTLY – VIOLENT VIDEOS. WHAT CAN BE FOUND IN THESE THINGS THAT BUILD’S CHARACTER, INTEGRITY AND HIGH IDEALS. [sic]
Are we in the “Teen Suicide Era?”
Wikipedia says “The death rate from suicide for teenagers peaked in 1980 for females and 1994 for males.” So I guess you can’t blame Pulling et al for being concerned. Thing is, they just spent 42 pages completely failing to make any actual connection between D&D and other media and teen suicide.
Do children have “delicate, sensitive, easily swayed minds?”
I asked ChatGPT to answer this question in the persona of a modern, accredited child psychologist. (If I ever use any AI content on this blog, I will be up front about it.) If you’re skeptical about ChatGPT answers, I can’t blame you. But it’s proven to be pretty good at pulling together Wikipedia-style answers from its language model.
Here’s what I got, and it’s interesting:
Children’s minds are indeed in a critical stage of development. They are absorbing information rapidly, learning new skills, and are highly impressionable. This period of growth makes them sensitive to their environments and the behaviors, attitudes, and emotions of those around them. The concept of neuroplasticity supports this, as children’s brains are more malleable and capable of forming new neural connections, which means their early experiences can have a profound impact on their long-term development.
However, it’s also important to recognize that children are resilient and have the capacity to adapt to various situations. They are not just passive recipients of external influences but are actively constructing their understanding of the world. With the right support and guidance, children can learn to navigate challenges and build coping mechanisms that serve them throughout life.
Basically, Pulling and her cohorts are continuing their claim that media directly control children’s minds, when the truth is far more complicated than that. But remember, their thesis is not that D&D might be a bad influence, a hypothesis I would disagree with but that could conceivably be supported with data and reason. Their idea is that D&D is composed of actual occult texts that work, producing negative results and corrupting children to worship an actually-existing Satan.
Tellingly, this pamphlet effectively supports neither hypothesis.
Does rock music direct kids to “get high, shoot up, commit suicide, and Satan worship?” Not really, no. Some rock music makes reference to these things, but I’m trying to imagine a major label approving a hit song directly telling children to commit suicide. Then again, they did release a song informing me that Trent Reznor wanted to fuck me like an animal, so I guess you can’t trust the three remaining record labels to maintain Pat Pulling’s sense of propriety.
I can name several popular songs that are clearly against teen suicide, but there is one by Morrissey explicitly promoting it—the ever-popular suicide by double-decker bus, specifically. But that’s, you know, Morrissey. And I can absolutely guarantee you that the main thing that prevented me from killing myself in my 20s was the music of The Smiths, and that’s not a joke.
And what can be found in fantasy roleplaying games, rock music, pornography, and violent movies and videos that builds character, integrity, and high ideals?
I’m going to answer that about Dungeons & Dragons specifically, and leave it to others to defend the high ideals of old Vivid videos and Natural Born Killers. Yes, D&D builds character. It teaches you to cooperatively create with a team of peers; poses ethical questions the players have to ponder; and promotes reading, not just of TTRPG books but of other literature as well. If you cheat in D&D you’re going to be weeded out of all your gaming groups; this teaches integrity. And while D&D contains demons and devils and thieves and Mind Flayers, it also contains honor and chivalry and loyalty and knights and good clerics (definitely fantasy characters) and heroism in equal measure.
Dungeons and Dragons made me who I am today, and I’m a good person. Pat Pulling would think I’m evil (a Jewish atheist socialist sci-fi/fantasy author from a coastal city in a blue state), but I’m definitely a far better person than she was. For instance, when my teen stepson has issues, I ask myself how I might be exacerbating these issues and how I might help instead, rather than blaming TikTok and trying to get books banned.
Defeating the Demon Gygax: In Conclusion
Dungeons and Dragons: Witchcraft Suicide Violence purports to prove that D&D is a dangerous influence on our teens, and is linked to a malevolent worldwide Satanic conspiracy.
It essentially posits these theses as a given, then attempts to support them with quotes from TSR materials and from various people, some of whom are presented as experts. It’s telling that this pamphlet does not contain a single footnote. There are no real sources given, except for error-filled references to D&D books.
Even if all six of the deaths listed were in fact suicides and were in fact linked to D&D, six anecdotes do not indicate a trend, especially when 4 million people were playing D&D at the time this pamphlet was written. As we’ve seen, there was an increase in teen suicide at the time. But if Satanism was actually involved, where were the medical institutions studying this? The Satanic Panic wasn’t fueled by the American Medical Association or Harvard Medical School; it was a select clique of money-grubbing wingnuts like Pulling and complicit news media ghouls. It’s telling that BADD never won a court case; these claims did not hold up under scrutiny.
Unless… unless they were sabotaged by the Global Satanic Conspiracy!