In the 1980s, a serious moral panic gripped the United States -or at least a substantial number of people in it. It seems like conspiracy paranoia now, but at the time, many were convinced that satanic cults were kidnapping, ritually torturing, and sexually abusing children on a large-scale. Parents were already primed to believe the worse, after hearing about drug abuse and seeing their children participating in a culture they didn’t understand. Along with heavy metal music, the role playing game Dungeons & Dragons was part of that culture. So when college D&D player James Dallas Egbert III disappeared, it was easy to blame the game instead of his depression, drug use, and conflicted sexuality.
[Private detective] Dear, along with the Egbert family, wanted to keep Dallas’s drug problems and sexuality out of the news, but Dear recognized the high profile case as a fantastic opportunity for self-promotion. Never shy of an opportunity to talk to the press, Dear promoted his D&D theory, and the media ate it up. So did their audiences. The D&D theory became gospel and rapidly assumed a place in urban legend. Sadly, Egbert remained suicidal, and in 1980 he died as the result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Others got into the act, and before you know it, bookstores and TV talk shows were full of “experts” and ex-cult members telling tales of satanic ritual abuse and the vast network of occultists behind it. Another phenomenon, “repressed memory,” came into use, to explain why adults suddenly remembered incredible tales of abuse from their childhood. The ball kept rolling downhill until everyone who worked or lived around children was a suspect. It culminated in the sensational McMartin Preschool Trial, the longest and most expensive trial in American history. Matt Staggs has written a condensed history of the moral panic of the 1980s, with profiles of some of the key players who saw the satanic ritual scare as a chance to grab headlines and make some money. -Thanks, Matt!