Is Stranger Things 4 based on a true story? Inside Dungeons & Dragons panic
Eddie Munson's storyline in the new episodes has its roots in 1980s cultural fears.
Note: This article contains spoilers for Stranger Things season 4 volume 1.
Given that all sorts of supernatural shenanigans occur throughout, it's very unlikely that you'll have Stranger Things down as a TV series that's based on a true story.
But although the vast majority of the series is very much fictional – at least we don't think the Upside Down exists in real life – there are a few elements of the show which are indeed inspired by real events.
Specifically, a storyline involving Joseph Quinn's Eddie 'The Freak' Munson, who was introduced as the leader of Hawkins High's Hellfire Club at the beginning of season 4, has its roots in a very real moral panic pertaining to Dungeons and Dragons during the '80s.
Indeed Eddie's arc as the falsely framed 'satanic ritualist killer', corrupted by the role-playing game, strongly reflects two real-life cases: James Dallas Egbert III and Irving Lee Pulling.
"The satanic panic of the time was definitely at the spine of my character," Quinn previously told Men's Health.
It's not the first time the Duffer Brothers have referred to the sociocultural climate of the 1980s – there are numerous allusions to the Cold War, for example – but this aspect of the '80s is one that viewers might not be so familiar with.
Is Stranger Things 4 based on a true story? Inside Dungeons & Dragons inspirations
In 1979, 16-year-old Egbert disappeared from Michigan State University and was discovered to have died from a self-inflicted gunshot. William Dear, the private investigator hired to find him, concluded that D&D was the likely cause, disregarding evidence of possible mental health issues at the time.
Soon after, in 1982, Irving Lee Pulling also died from a self-inflicted gunshot, with his mother Patricia Pulling concluding his suicide, much like Egbert’s, to be caused by D&D, again ignoring clear complex psychological factors at play.
This led Pulling to form the activist group BADD in 1983 – Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons. This group was dedicated to fighting the roleplaying game, claiming it featured “sex perversion, satanic type rituals, sadism, demon summoning [and] insanity”, among many other sins.
BADD’s activism was heavily entwined with right-wing conservatism and Christianity, affording it a wealthy bedrock to produce an intensive media campaign across print, broadcast, and radio press much like the magazine article read by Eddie in season 4’s debut episode.
This campaign resulted in a strong debate on 60 Minutes between Pulling and D&D co-creator, Gary Gygax. Despite the heavily biased structure against the game and creator, Gygax’s analogy remains one of the strongest and simplest arguments against BADD’s ideology: “Who is bankrupted by a game of Monopoly? Nobody is. The money isn’t real.”
Much like how basketball captain Jason Carver claims Eddie to be “a vessel for Satan”, in 1985 Jon Quigley of the Lakeview Full Gospel Fellowship decried D&D as “an occult tool that opens up young people to... possession by demons". In spite of extensive research involving the Centers for Disease Control that established no clear link between the game and violence, because D&D was the single factor connecting these cases, for Pulling, Quigley and BADD, it became the only possible explanation.
D&D became a simple scapegoat for the myriad of complexities within 1980s adolescents, particularly within the eyes of conservatives both political and Christian – it allowed them to shift blame for whatever they could be responsible for, especially when the true cause appeared to lie within those demonising the game like Pulling.
In his 1984 book The Dungeon Master, William Dear would eventually conclude that Egbert’s family pressures and his struggle with his own sexuality were likely among the factors that led to his eventual suicide, dismissing the initial claim of D&D’s responsibility.
Ironically, like an embryonic Streisand effect, the moral panic around D&D led to a significant boost in its sales, jumping from $2.3 million in 1979 to $8.7 million by the end of 1980 – and this was long before the heights of BADD and Patricia Pulling’s campaigning.
Likewise, there are a number of studies which suggest roleplaying games like D&D contain educational and therapeutic benefits, building cooperative and problem-solving skills alongside developing the socio-emotional skills and freedom of expression that conservative communities feared so greatly.
Others have also noted D&D’s primary skills (role-playing, character development) are central functions of cognitive behavioural therapy, and in fact, the game provides an outlet for ‘outcasts’ like Stranger Things’ Hellfire Club to form close-knit friendships and develop individuality in a healthy and welcoming environment.
Jason’s world-shattering encounter with Vecna’s existence and consequential doubling-down on the supposed ‘satanic’ nature of Eddie serves as a powerful metaphor for conservative America’s desperate need for control over 1980s American adolescence, with the moral panic over D&D a terrified response to the possibility of losing that power.
The power to control is a thematic thread-line sewn throughout the fourth season of Stranger Things – as Vecna gains it over Hawkins, so does the town descend further into the panic fuelled by Jason’s belief in ‘the satanic will’ of the Hellfire Club.
In many ways, the very moral panic that fuelled Patricia Pulling and BADD is what strengthens Vecna, allowing him to manipulate those at their weakest point, warping their minds into ignoring everything else but one single belief. Fighting that battle alone can be near-impossible – you need someone to guide you through the darkness; someone like a dungeon master.
Read more of our Stranger Things coverage:
- Stranger Things fans go wild for Kate Bush's Running Up That Hill after iconic scene
- Where did Stranger Things leave off? Recap ahead of season 4
- Meet the cast of Stranger Things season 4
- When is Stranger Things season 4 volume 2 released on Netflix?
- Who is Vecna in Stranger Things season 4? Explaining new villain
- Will Eleven be the final villain of Stranger Things?
- Who is Joseph Quinn? Meet Eddie in Stranger Things season 4
- Stranger Things season 4 part 1 ending explained: What happened to Eleven?
- Who plays 001 in Stranger Things 4? Meet actor Jamie Campbell Bower
- What is the Stranger Things age rating? Fans say season 4 is 'scariest' yet
- Will Nancy and Steve get back together in Stranger Things?
- Stranger Things 4 soundtrack: every song featured in the Netflix show
- Who is Eduardo Franco? Meet Argyle in Stranger Things season 4
Stranger Things 4 part 1 is released on Netflix on Friday 27th May, with more coming on July 1st. Stranger Things seasons 1-3 are now available on Netflix.
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