One of the most terrifying plot twists of season 4 of Netflix’s Stranger Things was a scene in which the inhabitants of Hawkins turn on the Hellfire club, gripped by the Satanic panic of the 80’s.
While the backstory of the big bad, Vecna, echoed the story of Satan, the secondary antagonist, Jason, managed to weaponize the ignorance of the decade to turn the entire town against our beloved gang, all avid D&D players.
It seems ridiculous now, but in the 80’s, paranoid suburbanites were terrified of D&D, viewing the game as a corruptible force that was poisoning their youth into worshiping Satan, sparking grisly murders and suicides.
The lore of D&D is a mix of Tolkien fantasy tropes, with some folkloric and religious influences; the inclusion of demons within the game sparking much of the controversy. Towards the end of the 80’s, D&D backed down, distancing itself from the negative press by removing the words “devil,” “daemons” and “demons,” replacing them with “baatezu,” “yugoloth” and “tanar’ri,” original names with no religious connotations.
Demons and devils returned to D&D in the early 2000’s, and no one cared; paranoid suburbanites had moved on, now blaming Grand Theft Auto for inspiring real life violence. It’s easy to look back and laugh, considering how much fantasy fiction has imbued itself into pop culture; the thought of an adult finding a game involving goblins and wizards to be threatening is hilarious.
Or is it?
Recently, the Satanic Panic has made an alarming comeback, through the reality distortion field known as TikTok. This time, it’s extremely online teens who are succumbing to the fear, rather than out-of-touch parents.
A belief in ritualistic human sacrifice and Satanic worship is a fundamental tenet of QAnon – over time, that paranoia managed to trickle into the mainstream, accelerated by a general distrust of authority and institutions.
The spike in popularity of New Age belief systems, as well as organizations like The Satanic Temple, which satirizes the excesses of organized religion, muddied the already murky waters. Now, we have elected officials like Marjorie Taylor Greene referencing Satan as a corrupting influence (as if we have a shortage of real problems to worry about).
But the very idea of Satanism doesn’t make sense, when one thinks about it; in order to earnestly believe in Satan, the hypothetical Satanist must also believe in God, along with everything else that Christian fundamentalists believe in – you can’t worship Satan without understanding the divine hierarchy.
Hence, Christians have imagined an enemy who happen to share their exact worldview, a fictional other who chose to worship the “bad guy,” despite believing that they will be condemned for all eternity for fraternizing with him – doesn’t make a lot of sense! Plus, it’s not like God-fearing Christians aren’t capable of monstrous acts – there’s really no devil-worship required.
Despite the implicit absurdity of the concept, we’ve seen Satanic Panic find new life in the age of misinformation, most famously in the wake of the Astroworld tragedy, where a few spooky set-pieces and out-of-context clips led some content creators to suggest that Travis Scott was ritualistically sacrificing his audience.
Mundane explanations, like crowd mismanagement, couldn’t compete with the exciting idea of Scott being a cackling pantomime villain, sacrificing innocent souls to the underworld. It’s just as absurd as the idea of a few nerdy D&D players secretly engaging in blood-soaked Satanic rituals; sometimes, a spooky aesthetic is just that – an aesthetic.
Sadly, Stranger Things is not stranger than fiction – there are still plenty of Jasons out there, ready to mislead the gullible.