I confess, that as a young, impressionable teenager, I played Dungeons and Dragons and regularly listened to heavy metal music. My hair was long, and I wore a jean jacket bedecked in the names of rock groups. I used to ride my bicycle for miles to meet a group of similarly vulnerable young friends, where we would hunch over maps, rolling dice and imagining swordsmen, monsters, and buxom wenches. Today, my friends and I are tragically unsuccessful in life (those of us who survived), worshipping demonic forces, and unable to tell reality from fantasy.
Oh. Wait. We’re not. My friends and I are engineers, lawyers, real estate agents, fathers, coaches, husbands, and partners. How did that happen? And why didn’t it happen the way we were warned? I distinctly recall catastrophic warnings that D&D would disturb our developing minds, that heavy metal music was destroying our souls and morals.
In the 1980’s, a group called Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (BADD) was formed by the mother of a young teen lost to suicide. Because D&D was new on the social scene, was strange, unknown, and had unknown effects, the youth’s suicide was blamed on the role-playing game. A lawsuit against the makers of the game failed, so the well-intended concerns over the game’s danger went into the social realm. The group joined forces with a similarly-concerned psychiatrist, Thomas Radecki, MD, to raise social awareness of the dangers they perceived in this game. Because role-playing is sometimes used for therapeutic reasons, the role-playing in the game, involving violence, sexuality and fantasy, were believed to have an untoward effect on the youth who fell under its influence. Conservative Christian organizations joined forces with the campaign, and linked the influence of D&D with the dangerous immoral influence of heavy-metal music, which supposedly led young people into the arms of demonic influence. Worldwide, groups like BADD distributed information to police and the public, warning of the dangers of games such as D&D.*
Hollywood joined the panic, with films like Mazes and Monsters, starring a young Tom Hanks. In this film a role-playing game was blamed for destroying a young man’s reality-testing, and leading him into dangerous psychosis. Predictably, the media-based anxiety industry fed on the panic, and shows like Geraldo, 60 Minutes, Donahue and the Sally Jessy Raphael Show all covered the issue, with sensational exposes that suggested parents and society needed to act aggressively protect children from these dangers.
Parents were warned that youth who had a history of sexual or physical abuse, who had low self-esteem, were socially isolated and were creative might be at risk of being warped by this game. In the early 1990’s, the concern over D&D melded with the social fright over Satanic Ritual Abuse. Eight percent of the American population was alleged to be “secret Satanists,” and countless crimes, murders and suicides were blamed on the insidious influence of secret Satan-worshipping. Wild claims proliferated, that some games contained secret instructions on hacking (which actually led to the US Secret Service conducting a raid on one game manufacturer), and that D&D books were printed using ink containing secret Soviet mind-control chemicals.
Around the United States, the recovered memory movement boomed, and charges of child abuse and secret Satanic rituals were believed to occur in every neighborhood and city. The recovered memory movement and panic over Satanic ritual abuse led to parents and daycare workers going to jail, as the mental health industry unquestioningly (for the most part) joined forces to protect young people, right wrongs, and punish wrong-doers. Those who questioned or challenged the movements were denounced as uninformed or oblivious at best, and even labeled as secret Satanists themselves. Psychologist Richard Knoll was one of the very few mental health professionals or academics who publicly challenged this phenomenon, but was called a witch by licensed mental health clinicians, who were rabidly advocating for their patients.
In the mid-1990’s, the movement began to die, as facts piled up against the fear. Lawsuits began to expose the damages done by the allegations of recovered memories. The FBI released a report documenting that they found no evidence of secret Satanic cult abuse. Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus published research demonstrating that memory is susceptible to influence, particularly from well-intended counselors trying to recover memories. The teen players of D&D grew old enough to advocate for themselves, forming groups to stand up to the purveyors of fear. Research showed that rates of suicide in registered players of role-playing games was actually lower than the general population. Empirical research demonstrated that role-playing games had no measurable negative impact on psychological functioning, emotional measures or reality-testing. The leaders of BADD were shown to have exaggerated their credentials, and cherry-picked their data, using facts to their convenience and to feed their goals. In fact, Radecki, who claimed that D&D warped the morals of vulnerable adolescents was arrested in 2013 for sexually exploiting his patients, trading Suboxone for sex.
Sadly, this episode was not an isolated case, by any means. Fear and misuse of medical science fed social outcry over crack cocaine’s influence on babies. Thirty years later, we know what we should have known then, that the real things we should have worried about were issues of poverty, nutrition, and racism. Myths and panic over lysergic acid (LSD) were promulgated through the ‘60s and ‘70s, with unsupported claims that LSD was somehow stored in people’s bodies and could trigger flashbacks years later. Fellow PT blogger Christopher Lane has documented the extremely limited research and political influence which combined to lead the APA to include the diagnosis of Hallucinogen Persisting Perceptual Disorder (HPPD) in DSM-IV (and preserved the diagnosis in DSM-5), despite mounting evidence that there are severe methodological issues with this research. And countless people today who used LSD in their youth, now look around and wonder, like singer Jimmy Buffett, “where are all the flashbacks they warned us about?”
The history of failed moral panics is long, and is not over by any means. Why do we jump onto these flaming bandwagons, led by the anxiety industry of modern media? There’s any number of reasons. Society is changing faster than ever, as technology introduces changes on daily basis. When changes pile up like this, it’s easy to retreat into fear, skepticism and negative bias against these innovations. Fear can seem to be an effective control, a strategy used by parents the world over. “You’ll shoot your eye out” is the line from A Christmas Story, and little Ralphie worries that the grown-ups might actually have been right, when the ice hits his eye and breaks his glasses.
What I call the anxiety industry exploits our fears over the many dangers that apparently abound in our society. The 24/7 news industry, talk shows, reality shows and self-help books all make money from us as they rivet our attention by telling us that we, our children, our spouses, our lives, sanity and futures are at risk. Our shirts aren’t white enough, our diet is killing us, our children’s futures are jeopardized and our sexuality is both a curse to be feared and a treasure which must be jealously guarded.
Psychtherapists are incredibly vulnerable to the influence of sample bias, where they make judgments on the limited sample of people who enter their offices. When therapists hear enough patients telling these stories, these well-intended folks can easily then join a social crusade to heal and protect the people feel are vulnerable. Many therapists are caregivers at heart, Momma/Poppa Bears who want to protect, and “fixers,” who want to make things better.
American society is filled with positive intent. We truly do want to make the world a better place, for ourselves, our children and others. Sadly, our commitment to this positive intent can blind us to its dangers. The fire of our positive intent has led us to hurt people, in our zeal to help them in the ways we think they need to be helped. The strategies of fear and panic lead to shaming, to violations of rights, and to a “we know best” attitude which diminishes autonomy, freedom and personal responsibility. Good intentions do not mean someone is right, nor that their actions are harmless.
We must learn from these panics in our history. As Dr. Knoll says in his powerful, controversial essay, Speak, Memory, we must listen to our history, and learn from it. When we skip from panic to panic, we ignore these lessons. Psychologists, mental health clinicians, and brain researchers are on the front lines of these issues today, and we must be wary of our own tendencies to advocate on good intentions, in advance of data. We must allow data, real-world objective results, and conflicting hypotheses, to inform our efforts and opinions.
Society must become far more skeptical of the confident predictions of well-intended doom-sayers. In every moral panic of the last century, doctors, therapists, psychologists and academics fed the fear. We must question the proclamations and predictions made by the anxiety industry, researchers, writers and therapists, when their concerns reflect moral concerns and anecdotal experiences, rather than empirical data. Today, sex, videogames, the Internet, social media, and brain-changing devices and experiences are all ripe areas of moral panic. In our fear over cell phones, radio towers, and sex on the Internet, we are repeating history, to our future regret. Engage your skepticism and distrust, when someone tells you to “Be afraid, be very afraid,” no matter the initials after their names, their many anecdotal examples, and most of all, their commitment to helping you.
* I’m indebted to Dr. David Waldron, Australian professor and historian, author of the rich history Role-Playing Games and the Christian Right, Community Formation in Response to a Moral Panic, available at: http://ptgptb.org/0025/moral.html