If anyone sits down and watches Reefer Madness nowadays, chances are they’re probably stoned. The 1936 anti-marijuana movie, if it’s viewed at all, is generally only watched by aficionados of the very substance that it’s attempting to decry, viewers reveling in retro irony.
Dark Dungeons, a forty-minute film released earlier this month, calls back to Reefer Madness’ unintentional kitsch by being a faithful adaptation of one of the most infamous religious comics ever made. You’ve probably been handed a Jack Chick Tract at some point. The small, black-and-white comics handed out by street preachers and self-appointed missionaries warn of hell and damnation for listening to rock music, doing drugs, being a member of the Catholic church, and, memorably, playing Dungeons and Dragons. The Dark Dungeons comic is a tiny screed against fantasy roleplaying games. According to Chick, if you roll dice and pretend to be an elf you’re on your way to dealing with black magic, worshipping Satan, and killing yourself. The only way out is to trust Jesus and burn your fantasy novels. Really. Read the comic. It ends with a book burning.
The short screed is very much a product of its time. Heavy metal, Satanism, dark magic(k) and imagined occult conspiracies were a persistent bugbear of the 1970s and 80s. Bands bedecked themselves in “Satanic” imagery in order to look edgy, and Beatrice Sparks (the literary charlatan behind Go Ask Alice) “discovered” a (fake) diary about a kid who’d supposedly gotten involved with the occult. Dungeons and Dragons, a game where kids pretended to be magical people who cast magic and sometimes worshipped fictional gods, was the source of a healthy amount of pearl-clutching, and Dark Dungeons is the apex/nadir of all of the hype and hoopla of that era.
Two things happened, though, that soon destroyed America’s obsession with the dangerous, imagined occult. The first is that grunge and gangsta rap unseated pentagram-strewn hair metal as the dangerous genre du jour. Soon, being edgy wasn’t about invoking demons or screaming about hell. Being transgressive was about drive bys, drugs, and not giving a shit. By the middle nineties, the panic over kids worshipping Satan seemed ridiculous.
The second thing (related to the first) is that popular culture gradually realized that people who are obsessed with demons and elves are fucking dorks.
This wasn’t exactly a secret or a revelation, of course. This is Spinal Tap is all about how metalheads who sing about Stonehenge are sort of doofy, and even if more genuinely dangerous music hadn’t showed up, the whole metal/occult/Satan thing would have probably drowned in its own excess anyway. Anymore, bands that steep themselves in sword and sorcery type imagery do so in such a way that acknowledge their inherent ridiculousness. Any pretense of actual edge takes a back seat to deliberate kitsch.
The point is, a cultural wave that was previously perceived as dangerous very quickly turned into a source of ridicule, and the shocked masses of that era look not so much like they are clutching at pearls, but straws.
The Dark Dungeons film does not need to be a spoof of 70s and 80s moral panic. In fact, it is officially licensed by Jack Chick, and every single line of dialogue from the comic makes it into the movie. Make no mistake, the folks who made this movie are a bunch of gaming dorks with cameras who completely disagree with the source material, but the filmmakers are smart enough to know that they don’t need to wink at the audience very much, if at all. Chick’s words and ideas about how D&D will lead to demon-summoning and suicide are their own, best counter-argument. The movie isn’t a masterpiece (there’s some Cthulhu stuff in there that feels sort of forced) but does work as a sort of reverse-engineered Reefer Madness. The only people who are ever going to watch it are dorks like me, but when I saw it I got a bit of nostalgia for a time that, admittedly, I was a bit too young to take part in.
I looked around at the other gaming people in the room and thought. “Hey guys, remember when the preachers and moms were afraid of us? Remember when we were dangerous? That was kind of fucking cool.”