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There was a scare in the 80s and less so the 90s surrounding things like the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) or other media that depicts magic as a narrative element and a neutral part of the fictional world. The scare surrounding this is that it was/is seen by some as gateway into real-life magic and/or devil worship. Magic had been depicted before, but D&D introduced a role-play aspect, which is what I guess sparked this scare(?!)

I found explanations of the scare, for example here, but apart from what caused it, it doesn't tell me whether during that time there was actually increased occult practices.

Did D&D and similar media which depict magic neutrally in a fantasy/narrative setting actually lead to an increased interest in the occult though? Causation might be hard to determine, as well as belief of the individuals, so I will settle with:

Was there, during the 1980s, increased interest in the occult, in the sense of people buying occult books and trying magic? I imagine there are, somewhere, statistics which could answer whether more books were sold that treat magic spells or similar practices.

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  • Interest in or active belief in?
    – Steve Bird
    Oct 8, 2021 at 15:21
  • @SteveBird How about experimenting with?
    – kutschkem
    Oct 8, 2021 at 15:22
  • 3
    Even though D&D and the like may have increased the general awareness, there was a long tradition of F&SF literature, from comic books through "Lord of the Rings" (which was VERY popular in the 1960s). Then we have the general spiritualism & occultism prevalent around the late 19th & early 20th centuries...
    – jamesqf
    Oct 8, 2021 at 16:48
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    wikipedia itself says, "The controversy over the game led to a major boost in sales from 2.3 million dollars in 1979, to 8.7 million by the end of 1980 in a Streisand effect with the publicity" so the controversy led to a 4x increase in interest in D&D, now you just have to find the answer if D&D actually leads to an increase interest in the occult. If by occult you mean satanism, i am not so sure, if you mean a general interest in things like tarot, magic, etc, then I would think yes there was probably an increase in reading about these things but reading != believing.
    – ed.hank
    Oct 8, 2021 at 17:30
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    I think this could be somewhat objectively answered by looking at sales statistics of books about occult topics. I doubt there is a way to judge what people believed.
    – kutschkem
    Oct 9, 2021 at 15:04

1 Answer 1

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It occurs to me there may actually be a way to measure this, if I take the question quite literally. Here's the Google ngram graphs for the words "occult" and "magic"

ngram for "occult" ngram for "magic"

It looks like there was in fact an inflection point to an upturn in "occult" and "magic" references around the time Advanced D&D was released by TSR (1977-1980 for the core rulebooks). The timing is, if not related, incredibly coincidental. However, I have a few caveats that should be added.

  • The previous "occult" trajectory when those same complainers were young adults (in the 1966-1972 years) was far steeper without benefit from TTRPGs.
  • Correlation is not causation. Its quite possible the new gaming system took off in part because of an uptick in occult interest.
  • There's certainly no evidence I can see in the graph that the anti-D&D campaigns of the mid 80's had any noticeable affect on the curve.
  • A correlation (rather than a causation) jibes much better with my personal experience.
  • Take that shooting up of "magic" after about 1993 as completely unrelated. That was the release date of the card game Magic the Gathering, which had a unique game system that proved incredibly addictive, and made it the best selling card game of all time. Nearly all hits from about 2000 forward are likely for that one card game.

"Personal experience" is anecdotal of course. But I was into D&D at the time myself, had a lot of friends who were as well, and I also knew several Wiccans (and a couple of dabblers). I've met exactly one person who was into both. Otherwise, it was a completely disjoint set.

In general Wiccans didn't think occult forces were something to toy with, and the dabblers were your right-brained dreamer types.

D&D players tended to be left-brained mathy types who didn't believe in much of anything supernatural. That version of the game was heavily math reliant, so if you didn't like spending a lot of type playing with numbers and stats and adding things up, it really wouldn't have appealed to you.

Part of what made the whole BADD thing so annoying for us was that clearly they believed in magic and demons way more than any of us did. If anyone was out there promoting that stuff as real, it was the anti-D&D people.

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  • The animated Tolkien films, the Hobbit (1977) and Lord of the Rings(1978) dropped in the 70s as well as occult related movies such as the Exorcist(1973) and the Omen (1976) show fantasy or actual occult related media was in the minds of the public well before D&D entered the scene.
    – justCal
    Mar 3, 2022 at 1:04
  • The timing isn't right for the latter two. The Hobbit and LotR are better timed, but Hobbit didn't even make the top 35 box office its year (the entire list I could find). LotR was 19th. Omen 2 and Exorcist 2 respectively would be better explanations (but they were just sequels). Pete's Dragon and Freaky Friday did better numbers than any of those 4.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 3, 2022 at 2:03
  • In terms of other cultural factors, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) is taking hold at the same time. This includes many bands invoking fantasy/mystical motifs as well as occult subjects/trappings.
    – vsfDawg
    Mar 4, 2022 at 16:47

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