American Psycho 2 – Overhated Sequel Is Campy Slasher Comedy

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With the rise of the internet culture and positive exposure in shows like Stranger Things, Role-Playing Games have acquired a reputation as a fun hobby that virtually anyone can enjoy. Of course, it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when weekend warriors and wizards were frowned upon by society, with these innocent gamers becoming associated with crime and the occult during the infamous “Satanic Panic” – “Stranger Things 4” touched upon this very thing.

Believing that young gamers are secretly devil worshippers simply because they enjoy getting together to collectively tell fantasy stories about slaying monsters in faraway lands is obviously ridiculous, but old-school Dungeons & Dragons did in fact have plenty of horrific inspirations behind the game. That’s why it makes sense that some sensitive teachers and parents might have been scared off by the manual’s allusions to the horror genre.

And with Hollywood once again attempting to bring the game to the big screen with Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley’s upcoming D&D: Honor Among Thieves, which promises to be a much more faithful take on the IP than the 2000 iteration (and its direct-to-video sequels), we thought that this might be a good time to look back on the horrific history of Dungeons & Dragons.

Originally created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson way back in 1974, Dungeons & Dragons began life as a wargaming supplement before becoming the interactive story generator that we know and love. Obviously inspired by the works of fantasy authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, the creators set out to gamify the mythic hero’s journey in a faraway land. However, despite what some critics claim, Tolkien’s Middle Earth was only one small part of what informed the creation of D&D.

Gotta love that vintage dark fantasy artwork!

It’s actually quite difficult to point out a single source of inspiration for the game, but it’s clear that Gygax and Arneson’s work was almost exclusively informed by the popular dark fantasy narratives of their time, with the duo forgoing the genre’s traditionally bucolic elements in favor of hellish monsters and supernatural terror. Borrowing from decidedly gloomy stories like Michael Moorcock’s Elric books (which popularized future RPG staples like cursed weapons and magic potions), the game wasn’t exactly “child-friendly” at launch.

In fact, Dungeons & Dragons owes a lot more to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian than anything else, with Howard’s thrilling yarns about warriors facing eldritch abominations and embarking on perilous quests in a long-forgotten land feeling a lot more in line with the modern tabletop RPG experience than Tolkien’s idyllic version of Europe. Not only that, but Howard was also a close friend to H.P. Lovecraft, with the two exchanging plenty of notes on their respective mythos and even writing stories set in each others’ weird worlds.

This cosmic horror influence inevitably made it into D&D, with the game always having featured thinly veiled versions of Lovecraftian monsters (Gibbering Mouthers are clearly Shoggoths and the Kuo-Toa are obviously the Deep Ones). The Cthulhu Mythos would also inspire the vast pantheon of ancient gods in the Forgotten Realms setting, and it’s no coincidence that the success of D&D soon led to the creation of the other immensely popular role-playing series, Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu. Directly gamifying Lovecraft’s troubled protagonists and madness-inducing gods while still featuring pulpy dungeon crawls and slayable monsters, Chaosium’s game was a gruesome alternative for players who were interested in pure horror.

That being said, if you look at some of the older D&D adventures, you’ll find countless examples of adventurers being forced to face traditionally horrific monsters and locations, from the Lovecraftian Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh to the infamous Tomb of Horrors. Even the archetypal concept of an adventuring party exploring a dark dungeon filled with deadly traps and unnameable creatures borrows heavily from gothic horror, and that’s why plenty of old adventures are inspired by the stories of writers like Edgar Allan Poe and even Bram Stoker. After all, there’s a reason why undead beings like zombies, ghouls and vampires are some of the most common adventurer fodder ever since the very first RPG campaigns.

Beyond the world of literature, many of the game’s monsters also drew inspiration from real world mythology and even cryptozoology, with the monster manual featuring everything from the legendary yeti to the Germanic Kobold, as well as the Jewish Golem!

Scary enough for John Carpenter!

Some of the game’s original creations are quite terrifying as well, with the many-eyed beholder having its origins in a literal nightmare and the gelatinous cube tapping into the same otherworldly horror as The Blob. It’s actually said that Gygax took inspiration from a bag of bootleg plastic toys when coming up with the original monster manual back in the 70s, leading to some downright bizarre designs. Coupled with the lovably strange artwork, this explains the sheer weirdness behind many of the game’s man-eating beasts.

Obviously, none of this “spookiness” justifies a country-wide panic associating D&D with satanism and murderous cults. Despite what religious propaganda and fear-mongering media (like the early Tom Hanks movie Mazes and Monsters) would have you believe, role-playing was never a gateway to criminal or even occult activities; it just so happened that these games had the same target audience as other stigmatized media of the time, such as heavy metal and horror fiction.

Even back in the 80s, TSR representatives explained that the game was never meant to glorify its “scary” or “occult” elements, going so far as to point out that the player characters were technically forces for good. However, as internet culture continues to exemplify, it’s really hard to rationalize complex issues when faced with a paranoid mob, especially when subversive media is involved.

At the end of the day, the horror genre has always walked hand-in-hand with dark fantasy storytelling, and that’s why RPG-influenced media has a habit of also featuring horrific elements (like the aforementioned Stranger Things or even films like Joe Lynch’s horror comedy Knights of Badassdom). However, much like the fantasy stories that inspired it, Dungeons & Dragons remains a fun form of escapism where heroes triumph over the terrifying forces of evil. While the monsters and demons aren’t necessarily the focus of the experience, these spooky elements are definitely a big part of what makes role-playing so much fun, and I hope to see some of that in the upcoming adaptation.

D&D: Honor Among Thieves releases in theaters on March 31, 2023.



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