Keep These Satanists Out of Congress!

On April 1, Jake Rush, a conservative congressional candidate from Florida, was outed for his involvement in vampire role-playing games. The story, which was apparently spread by supporters of his opponent, incumbent Ted Yoho, accused Rush of living a “bizarre double life” and dropped plenty of choice words like “ritual,” “occult,” and “Satanic.” 

Unfortunately for Yoho’s supporters the appeal to moral panic may have backfired. Rush released a statement defending his hobbies and blasting Yoho for creating a distraction from real issues, all of which suggests that the popular fear of Satanic role-playing games may finally be played out.

While some of the online dialogue offered by Rush’s more villainous characters is disturbing, Rush is hardly the strangest (or even the most vampiric) GOP candidate to come out of Florida. The articles attacking him appeal to the panic of the 1980s, when role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons were associated with madness, suicide, and a conspiracy of Satanic criminals. Saint Peter’s Blog, referring to two of Rush’s characters, asked, “But who will the GOP be supporting? Will it be the “straight shooting” Republican Jacob A. Rush, Archbishop Kettering, or Chazz Darling? Or perhaps all three …”  The implication that Rush’s role-playing constitutes a “double life” or even a “split personality” is like a journalist in 1980 claiming that Ronald Reagan might confuse his identity with Webb Sloane, his character from Prisoner of War.

An article for Red State demonstrated reliance on our embedded cultural myth of Satanic cults, remarking, “Jake Rush also happens to be into Satanic symbolism, vampirism, “rape” photos, whips, chains, and … you get the picture.” This tactic of substituting innuendo for evidence was effective with Red State’s readers, causing one panicked commenter to post, “Keep these Satanists out of Congress!” 

Fears of Satanic role-playing games were once so politically expedient that in 1985 Winston Matthews ran for attorney general of Virginia and made a proposed law banning Dungeons and Dragons from public schools the core of his platform. But today appeals to panic over games are less effective—mostly because gamers are no longer defenseless teenagers who are too young to vote.

In 2008, Michael Goldfarb, a blogger for the McCain campaign, compared Obama supporters to D&D players living in their parent’s basements. He then apologized when this remark enraged gaming voters. In 2012, Republicans attempted to smear Colleen Lachowicz, a social worker from Maine running for state senate as a Democrat, by informing voters that she played the online computer game “World of Warcraft.”  

The website colleensworld.com declared, “Maine needs a state senator that lives in the real world, not in Colleen’s fantasy world.” As in this latest instance, statements made “in character” were presented out of context. In any case, the strategy backfired. Not only did Lachowicz win the election, but outraged gamers around the country donated $6300 to political action committees that supported her campaign.

This most recent incident shows that appealing to fears of deviant hobbies is still a strategy in the Republican playbook and not one reserved only for Democrats. Rush, showing that this tactic no longer comes without risk, reverses the accusation, charging Yoho with a playing a game. Indeed the fantasy of being a moral crusader liberating America from invisible Satanists has been a popular game in America for decades.

Joseph Laycock is an assistant professor of religious studies at Texas State University. His forthcoming books include The Seer of Bayside: Veronica Lueken and the Struggle for Catholic Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2014) and Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic Over Role-Playing Games Says About Religion, Play, and Imagined Worlds (University of California Press, 2015).

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