Disappearances & Dragons: The James Dallas Egbert III Story

A young college student disappeared 40 years ago, and the blame was placed on an unusual suspect.

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Moral panics rise from fear. They usually occur when some image or stereotype sticks in the popular imagination, growing and festering, turning isolated incidents into a wave of paranoia. Different decades and cultures have produced their own panics, from the American fear of juvenile delinquency in the 1950s to the vampire lynch mobs in Malawi in 2017.

Throughout the 1980s, the United States was gripped with what’s been referred to as the “Satanic Panic,” a surge of anxiety that blended such disparate items as reports of cult activity and ritual abuse, Halloween candy tampering, heavy metal music, horror films and novels, and role-playing games. One of the ignition points for this phenomenon occurred in 1979 when a young college student named James Dallas Egbert III disappeared. While the reasons for Egbert’s disappearance would become clear later, some observers and media personalities knew exactly what to blame: Dungeons & Dragons.

Born in Dayton, Ohio, Egbert was considered a child prodigy. Talented with technology at a young age, the 16-year-old Egbert enrolled at Michigan State University as a computer science major. He was a fan of science fiction, fantasy, and Dungeons & Dragons. The table-top game designed by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson first appeared in 1974. In it, players assumed fantasy characters that were guided through adventures by a “dungeon master.”

On August 15, 1979, Egbert left a suicide note. Egbert certainly was dealing with issues that could have led to suicide, including pressure over his school performance, possible drug use, and the fact that he was grappling with his sexual identity. Police began to search for the missing student; soon after, his parents hired William Dear, a private investigator, to help determine their son’s whereabouts. While examining a board with a pattern of pushpins, Dear realized that the arrangement of the pins suggested the shape of campus buildings, including the power plant. By this point, the investigator had put together a few theories; Dear got permission to search the steam tunnels under the school, based on the power plant design.

In the tunnels, Dear found evidence that Egbert had been there, including items that suggested that Egbert had gone to the spot intending to take his own life. However, Egbert was nowhere to be found. This is when the paths between the media’s focus and the merits of the case diverge. Dear disclosed some of his theories to the media, but decided to keep some of the information out the press, notably anything related to specific personal problems. However, he did discuss the notion that Egbert might have entered the tunnels while playing a live-action version of D&D; also called LARPing (live-action role-playing), where players act out scenarios on location instead of around a table. Dear also noted the erroneous idea that players might sometimes believe that they are in fact their character, and that Egbert could possibly be wandering in that kind of state. The media, taken with the novelty of the thin connection between the game and Egbert’s disappearance, ran with it.

Over the next few weeks, Dear’s investigation took more turns than the tunnels. He received anonymous calls that promised to reveal Egbert’s location if Dear would leave Michigan. He complied. Information led him to a friend of Egbert’s who had allowed the younger man to stay at his place. Egbert had then moved to other locations, then on to New Orleans. Eventually, Egbert called Dear himself, and the investigator went to retrieve him and hand him into his uncle’s custody on September 13. It turned out that Egbert did indeed attempt suicide in the tunnels with sleeping pills on August 15; however, he woke up and made his way to the older man’s home. While there, media attention exploded. The older man, afraid of the attention and the implications if the exact details of his relationship with Egbert went public, helped Egbert hide elsewhere in Michigan, and then helped arrange transportation for him to New Orleans. Egbert made a second unsuccessful attempt on his own life, and then worked in an oil field until the man urged him to contact Dear. Upon being interviewed by Dear, Egbert admitted that academic and parental pressure, combined with his drug use, fed into his suicide attempts. Gaming played no part in it.

By that point, the genie was out of the bottle. Attention surrounding the case, even after Egbert was found, was fixated on the D&D angle. Dear and his associates kept details of Egbert’s drug use and sexuality out of the news, partially in deference to the family, and partially because Egbert himself didn’t want his younger brother, Doug, to be bullied over the facts. Absent that information, the gaming angle continued to be pushed in news and talk programs.

Egbert attempted to resume a normal life. He switched schools, attending Wright State. Dear remained in contact with him as a friend and adviser. Egbert eventually struggled further with drugs, and his relationship with his parents deteriorated. On August 11, 1980, he shot himself in the head; he died five days later, one year and a day after he entered the tunnels. Egbert’s own parents never blamed gaming for his troubles, instead attributing some measure of his unhappiness to the unusual emotional and social demands that fall on gifted children.

In 1981, Rona Jaffe, a novelist and writer for Cosmopolitan, wrote a novel inspired by the Egbert case. Mazes and Monsters, reportedly written in three days, involves a group of college students who take their titular games to the nearby caverns. One player is suffering from mental illness and begins to believe that he is his character. The book was adapted into a CBS Movie of the Week in 1982, and it featured Tom Hanks as the troubled student in his first dramatic leading role.

Cover for the book, The Dungeon Master
The Dungeon Master by William Dear (©Houghton-Miflin)

Adding to the D&D panic that year was the suicide of high school student Irving Pulling. His mother, Patricia, placed the blame on Dungeons & Dragons. She founded “Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons” (B.A.D.D.) in 1983, and led a media campaign against the game; she also filed suit against TSR, Inc., then D&D’s publishers. Dear published his own book in 1984, The Dungeon Master: The Disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III, in an effort to set the record straight. The book outlines his conversations with Egbert and dramatically downplays any involvement that gaming might have had in his death.

Nevertheless, the various elements of ire directed against D&D at the time merged with other moral panics associated with heavy metal music, horror films, and stories of Satanic ritual abuse that propagated in the ‘80s. The resulting “Satanic Panic” played out for years in talk shows and court rooms. Though the most of the phenomenon had died off by the 1990s after fruitless lawsuits against acts like Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest and the 1990 acquittals and dismissals of the ritual abuse-connected McMartin pre-school trial, the stigma surrounding D&D remained.

Cover for the book, Mazes and Monsters
Rona Jaffe’s Mazes and Monsters VHS cover. (©Warner Home Video)

In recent years, D&D has attained a new level of recognition and respectability as a number of celebrities including Stephen Colbert, Patton Oswalt, Vin Diesel, and Joe Manganiello have talked openly about their love of the game. Role-playing and table-top miniature games continue to do big business, and Gen Con welcomes thousands of fans every year. Egbert’s story is a tragedy; it’s the story of a young man who grappled with problems larger than himself and was unable to overcome them. It’s also a reminder that games, hobbies, music, and film are more often than not a release from everyday problems, rather than their cause. The best thing that parents can do is always the best thing that parents can do: ask if there’s a problem, and listen to the answer. You may not roll a 20 every time, but you’ll definitely earn points for wisdom.

 

Featured image: Shutterstock.com.

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