“Mazes and Monsters” (1982) was one of the 1980’s’ weirder television events — it was a made-for-TV movie that was a hysterical cautionary tale about “Dungeons & Dragons.” It was based on a novel by Rona Jaffe that was ostensibly a fictionalized version of a real case, in which a Michigan college student was supposedly driven insane by the role-playing game three years earlier. (The media reports that sensationalized the boy’s disappearance in 1979 were subsequently debunked, so Jaffe’s book was based on what was essentially an urban legend.)
“Mazes and Monsters” was weird and dumb. It was a pretty labored melodrama based on a thin, reactionary premise, and it actually wound up being a depressing story. But its infamy has earned it a kind of ironic, enduring devotion from 80’s pop culture nerds.
And here’s the kicker — it starred Tom Hanks, in his first leading film role, at age 26. Hanks played the sensitive, unstable undergrad who was pushed over the edge, and he actually did a good job with the material. If you’re curious, the entire movie is available for free right here over at TVfanatic.
I never really played D&D. I was a third grader when “Mazes and Monsters” aired on CBS, and by the time I reached high school, role-playing games had been supplanted by video games. I’m not even sure D&D ever had a massive following in my little stretch of New York’s suburbia anyway. My older brother played regularly with a couple of his friends, but the game was hardly spoken of by anyone else. It just never caught on with kids in my age group.
But this movie was something people talked about. They thought the danger it depicted was real. Seriously, look at the newspaper ad below. (Somebody over at Youtube commented that the film was basically “Reefer Madness for D&D,” and I thought that was pretty funny.) Here’s the thing about the world before the Internet — there was obviously no fake news spreading like wildfire online, and that was a very good thing. But neither could you instantly debunk an urban legend. (We still had a few, back then.) If you heard that D&D could make teenagers psychotic, you couldn’t check Snopes.com to verify that. (Encyclopedias were also giant-ass book sets that they advertised on TV, but that’s another story.)