Forty years ago in East Lansing: MSU student’s disappearance causes moral panic over ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ 


FRIDAY, Aug. 16 — In mid-August of 1979, 16-year-old MSU student James Dallas Egbert III vanished from campus. Allegedly leaving behind a suicide note, Egbert traveled in secrecy down to New Orleans, staying with various friends along the way. He took his own life a year later on Aug. 16, 1980.  

While the story of a prodigal student’s disappearance and eventual suicide is tragic in its own right, Egbert is best remembered for having his story hijacked in the early days of the Satanic Panic. If you're not old enough to recall, the Satanic Panic was a 1980s moral outrage that sprouted from hysterical media reports of cult-like activity in rural communities.  

After it became public knowledge that Egbert was a fan of the “Dungeons & Dragons” tabletop roleplaying game, his story was picked up national media outlets which erroneously suggested the game had ties to Satanic cults and rituals. Rumors spiraled into tall tales of MSU students meeting in steam tunnels to host secret sessions of “Dungeons & Dragons,” and the supposedly sinister RPG was implied to have a link to Egbert’s disappearance.   

It’s a partially forgotten, and likely baffling, controversy to younger generations. In 2019, “Dungeons & Dragons” hardly conjures an image of hooded figures with blood dripping from their mouths sitting around a pentagram. Instead, we picture Doritos, Mountain Dew and perhaps a sci-fi film playing in the background. 

The 1984 book “The Dungeon Master,” written by private detective William Dear, documented Egbert’s story. A New York Times video report also delves into the scandal.  


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