Sunday School Scapegoats: How D&D And Heavy Metal Became Targets For Satanic Panic

Everything old is new again. Tracing the history of this widespread moral hysteria.

By Alyse Wax · @alysewax · May 17, 2023, 6:33 PM EDT
Satan's Little Helper

The Satanic Panic started in 1980 with a book, Michelle Remembers, co-written by Michelle Smith and her psychiatrist (and future husband) Lawrence Pazder. Claiming to be the true tale of Michelle's childhood – as remembered through the now-discredited practice of recovered memory therapy – Michelle said that she was abused by the Church of Satan, starting at the age of five. Among her claims were that she witnessed human sacrifices, was rubbed with blood and body parts of those sacrificed, tortured, and forced to take part in a non-stop, 81-day ritual in an underground room in a cemetery that summoned Satan, removed visual evidence of the abuse she had undergone, and hidden the memories until "the time is right."

Almost immediately, the debunking began. Most notably, during the alleged 81-day ritual, Michelle still attended school and showed no signs of abuse. Michelle was unable to identify any of the hundreds of alleged participants in the ritual, except for her mother. There was no historical record of a car accident as described in the book. Pazder also never attempted to contact the police to investigate any of the alleged crimes Michelle "remembered." Despite this, Pazder and Smith became celebrities in their "field." Pazder was used as a consultant in the McMartin preschool trials, and Smith appeared on Oprah Winfrey's daytime talk show. Michelle Remembers was used in training material for law enforcement and social workers.


The Satanic panic of the 1980s wasn't solely due to a book. This was just another moral panic, much like the Salem witch trials or McCarthyism. However, with the rise of conservative and evangelical Christian beliefs, along with the decline of the "traditional" nuclear family unit and the increase of mandatory reporting laws, this decade's moral panic was Satanism. Plus, it had a catchy moniker.

eddie munson stranger things

While most of the Satanic panic shown in modern media (for example, Stranger Things) revolves around heavy metal music and role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, the bulk of the 1980s Satanic panic had to do with alleged Satanic ritual abuse in preschools and daycare centers.


The first, and biggest, case was the McMartin preschool trial in Southern California. This started when, in 1983, the mother of one of the students went to the police, claiming that her son's teacher, Ray Buckey, had molested him. In addition, the mother claimed that the teacher "flew in the air," another teacher "drilled children under their arms," and accused various employees of sex with animals. (The mother was later diagnosed as an acute paranoid schizophrenic and was found dead three years later from chronic alcoholism. She died before the preliminary hearing in the trial concluded.) Police investigated and found no evidence to bring charges; even still, they sent a letter home to parents alerting them of the investigation and asking them to ask their children if anyone had inappropriately touched them, photographed them naked, or had seen Buckey tie up a child.

Unsurprisingly, this led to hundreds of interviews with children, employing methods that were later seen as suggestive or leading. After a few months, 360 children were determined to have been abused. The strange allegations were what turned the case into a cause celeb. In addition to the mother's claims, other claims included seeing witches fly; the children claimed to have traveled in a hot air balloon; and were flushed down toilets into secret underground tunnels where rituals took place. In the end, seven defendants were charged with 321 accounts of child abuse on 48 children. Charges were dropped against five defendants, leaving only Ron Buckey and his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey, on trial. Peggy was acquitted of all charges; Ron was acquitted of all but thirteen counts. He was later retried on six of those counts, with a hung jury as a result. The district attorney decided not to attempt a third trial. In 2005, as an adult, one of the accusers recanted his testimony and apologized for lying about what he saw.


This case was not an isolated incident. Across the United States alone, dozens of cases were similar to the McMartin case. Allegations in these other cases included ritual murder of babies; children being taken out in boats and thrown overboard; blood drinking; ritualistic slaughter of animals ranging from rabbits to elephants; forced penetration with magic wands; and the use of feces and urine in all different ways. Torture was a key element, often in secret tunnels or cages. No forensic evidence ever corroborated these claims. Most convictions were later turned over on appeal or otherwise overturned.

While sexual abuse may or may not have occurred in each of these cases, there was absolutely zero evidence of any sort of Satanic rituals.

The daycare sex abuse scandals were certainly the most tragic stories, but it was by no means the only place conservative Christian groups found Satan. They found it most frequently in music and tabletop games.

stranger things dungeons & dragons

Dungeons & Dragons was a huge focus of the Satanic panic. There were two suicides that the media linked to the game. The first, James Dallas Egbert III, survived his first two attempts, and his parents hired a private investigator. The P.I. learned Egbert played D&D, and sometimes he and his friends played a live-action version in the steam tunnels beneath their university. The media grabbed hold of this narrative and said that D&D was a "bizarre and secretive cult." Egbert eventually died by suicide on his third attempt a year later, and there was no connection to Dungeons & Dragons. Clinical depression was the cause.


The second, Irving Pulling Jr., took place in 1982. His mother, Patricia Pulling, was so distraught that she needed to place the blame somewhere. Irving was active in D&D, and Patricia filed a wrongful death lawsuit against both her son's school principal and the publishers of D&D. She believed that a D&D curse was placed on Irving shortly before his death. Her lawsuits, unsurprisingly, were dismissed, so in 1983, she formed B.A.D.D. (Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons). She gained some success with both conservative Christian media and mainstream outlets, appearing on 60 Minutes with D&D game creator Gary Gygax and the president of the National Coalition on T.V. Violence. The only effect B.A.D.D. ever seemed to have was that the controversy convinced D&D publisher to temporarily remove references to demons, devils, and "other potentially controversial supernatural monsters." The change was implemented in the game's second edition, but by the time the third edition came out, the controversy had disappeared, and the terminology was reintroduced.

Stranger-Things eddie munson

The final prong of the Satanic Panic was music. In 1985, the Parents Music Resource Center was founded by Tipper Gore (wife of Al Gore) along with several other "Washington Wives." The stated goal of the P.M.R.C. was to create a rating system for music as we have for movies, pressuring radio and T.V. stations not to play certain music, printing warnings and lyrics on album covers, and more. The P.M.R.C. was behind the warning labels plaguing albums in the 1980s and 1990s. They also had a list they referred to as the "Filthy Fifteen," consisting of fifteen songs held as evidence of the music industry's leniency towards sex and violence. Two songs were singled out for "occult" lyrics: "Possessed" by Venom and "Into the Coven" by Mercyful Fate. The P.M.R.C. eventually shut down in the 1990s.


By the 1990s, the Satanic panic had waned, and the moral panic had shifted to video games. However, everything old is new again, and a new version of the Satanic panic can be seen throughout believers of QAnon, who believe that celebrities and Democrats are pedophiles who drink the blood of babies in Satanic rituals. Déjà vu.