Welcome to Thrift Store Finds! Today we’re diving down into the icky sticky muck that helped jump-start the satanic panic of the 1980s. So grab your graph paper and sharpen your no. 2 pencil, cause I’m about to master this (book) dungeon. 

Welp, it happened. After reading several fantastic books in a row, I rolled the polyhedral die and the result was a punch in the face from Miss Rona. Rona Jaffe, that is.

That’s right, I finally read the infamous Mazes and Monsters, and I have a lot of feelings. So buckle up. This ain’t gonna be short.

For the uninitiated, Mazes and Monsters is a 1981 novel largely based on the real disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III who went missing in 1979. When police were unable to track down Egbert, his parents hired private investigator William Dear. Unfortunately, instead of focusing on the suicide note that Egbert left behind, or digging into the root causes of Egbert’s trauma, Dear latched onto the fact that Egbert was a frequent player of Dungeons & Dragons. Since the players also sometimes LARP’d in the steam tunnels under the school, Dear speculated that Egbert’s disappearance was the result of a D&D game “gone wrong.”

Real cracker jack investigative stuff. 

To the surprise of no one, the media jumped at the sensational nature of the claim. And before you could say “Hail Baphomet,” the newest focus of America’s satanic panic was born.

It’s the same tired story that crops up every decade or so, be it Magic Cards or Harry Potter: A creative work made for young people gets misunderstood by the older generation who passes judgement while simultaneously refusing to try to understand the subject of their ire.

Rona Jaffe expertly portrayed this scenario from the absolutely wrong perspective in her cash-in on a tragedy fictional tale.

Dell's front cover featuring an illustration of a smiling young woman with three floating male heads surrounding her.
Honestly, this is the strangest cover.

The story begins with chapters that introduce our four college student heros. They’re young (Jay Jay’s just sixteen!). They’re smart (Daniel could have gone to MIT!). They’re hot (Robbie’s a swimmer!). They’re also all broken in some way. Rich kid Jay Jay may seem to have everything, but his parents ignore him. Kate is brave on the surface, but her parent’s divorce has left her afraid of commitment. Daniel’s life is pretty much fine, but the fact that he looks like John Travolta means he has all this darn meaningless sex and has never found true love. And then there’s Robbie. Good old Robbie would give you the shirt off his back, but secretly he’s traumatized because his older brother, Hall, ran away when he was a child. 

But it’s not their good looks or trauma that bond these young people together, it’s the game. You see, all four of them are obsessed with the role playing game Mazes & Monsters. In fact, they love playing it so much, they barely have enough time to study. Good thing they’re all geniuses!

Things actually start out pretty good. Jaffe is a fine writer, and her descriptions of dorm life, cafeterias, and college parties are so spot on that I was actually transported back to my own college experiences more than a few times. 

In fact, by chapter four I was slightly panicked that I might actually be liking this book. Young Adult fiction wasn’t a thing in the 80s, but Jaffe’s ability to add just the right details, along with her dialogue choices, read like proto-YA. Take this line from Robbie when he first meets the formidable Kate: “I wish we could start in the middle. I wish we’d known each other for two weeks and we knew everything about each other, and we liked each other a lot, and I wouldn’t be so nervous.”

But, alas, my reading pleasure was short-lived, because once Jaffe starts to put on the gas, things go off the rails fast.

Front cover for the book "Mazes and Monsters," which has been designed to look like graph paper with a few pencil outlines depicting a maze in the bottom left corner.
This one is a little better. But it’s still trying to hide what type of tale it really is.

Jay Jay decides to take the game to the next level by suggesting the gang play it irl in the dangerous caves just down the road from campus. “These caverns were the game. If a clever Maze Controller, himself of course, were to chart them, and then use real props . . .” At first, everyone is skeptical, but it doesn’t take long before they’re wandering around in the dark saying things like “Be careful of the water, I think it has a hypnotic lure.”

So, ya know, LARPing. 

Which I will give you is nerdy as fuck, but it’s definetly not sinister. Have you ever seen a LARPer? I have. There are a bunch of them that gather in the park near my house on Sundays. The most dangerous thing about them is how wildly they swing their foam swords. 

But this is Jaffe’s story, fueled with the Boomer’s contempt of things they don’t understand. And soon Robbie is acting more and more like his M&M character, the holy man Pardieu. “In some almost imperceptible way, he had begun to change. Before, he had been sweet, now he was almost saintly.”

That’s right, this whole book is about not being able to handle LARPing.

Even still, I could have had respect for Jaffe’s story if she had gone full bore. The moral panic around D&D was that it could drive you insane at best and summon demons at worst. Jaffe should have leaned into that. If you’re going to exploit the trauma of a real-life person, the very least you can do is double down when it comes to the misguided reason for the culture’s anxiety.

But Rona couldn’t do it. And I think it’s because somewhere, deep down, she knew that a simple game wasn’t the reason Egbert had attempted suicide. She knew that the angst around D&D was unfounded. So just when she should ramp things up, she backs off, making only a few weak attempts at blaming the game for Robbie’s mental illness.

A scanned newspaper article from the 1980s with the headline "Satanic games at Uplands?"
Just one example of the headlines at the time.

Unable to tell reality from fantasy, Robbie disappears from school and is assumed dead after his friends tell the police he had been playing M&M in the caves. Meanwhile, in his hallucinatory state, Robbie becomes homeless on the streets of New York City while searching for his brother Hall. He’s saved when, in a lucid moment, he thinks to call Kate and tell her where he is, but not before breaking down in fear. “He knew he was crazy, and he began to cry.”

So that’s the infamous book that kick-started your parent’s fear of a role playing game. 

What’s so astounding is that nothing irreversible happens. Good fiction hinges on a character’s growth. If your hero is a happy middle aged dad in the first act, he better be at least a little bit more by the end. And while Jaffe makes an attempt to show that the ordeal has helped them all grow, it’s really nothing more than the usual evolutions of a college student.

An illustrated poster with three young men and a young woman dressed in medieval-looking gear.
Rona wasn’t the only one to cash in. They even made a movie!

The only change that occurs is that the friends are not interested in playing the game anymore—a game that can’t even remotely be proven to be connected to Robbie’s mental health issues. It’s as likely that he could have thought he was the Monopoly Man. Jaffe even goes out of her way to list the much more likely reasons for Robbie’s poor mental health: pressure at school and untreated trauma.

So what was the point, Rona?

At around the center of the book, Jaffe accidentally reveals the truth. “The best monsters were the ones in the mind.” She’s right. We live in a society that would prefer not to look at the horror it inflicts. Instead of examining the real evils we face daily, we choose to create flashy boogeymen that help us explain it all away. And with this book, Jaffe has done the same.

If this lack of actual Satanic action left you cold, give Incubi a try.

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