Hi and welcome back to our off-topic chat series, Lord Snow Presides! We return again to that never-ending fountain of bad Christian fantasies: Frank Peretti’s 1986 book This Present Darkness. In this installment, a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ invades an evil, Satanic video game arcade. Today, Lord Snow Presides over a setting that broke my even, sent my spine’s cringe-o-meter off the charts, and brought up more than a few memories.
(Please click here to find the master list of previous This Present Darkness discussions. Also, any page numbers cited come from the 2003 paperback edition of the book.)
The Basic Scene.
Before we begin, here’s the basic scene layout.
Krioni and Triskal, two of the angels, walk outside with Hank Busche–the pastor of the only TRUE CHRISTIAN™ church in the tiny town of Ashton. However, they also guide him to a new place that somehow he’s never seen before.
Hank Busche has taken to walking outside in Ashton and praying out loud for the people there to surrender their lives to the Mad Blood God of the Desert (MBGD) that he worships.
The reaction of the townsfolk has not, thus far, been recorded by our intrepid author. If they think he’s a creepy, scary lunatic, like most people would upon seeing a guy walking around, waving his arms, and praying out loud in public, or if they think he’s a massive hypocrite, since Jesus flat-out condemned the practice of praying in public, or even if they’re impressed and seriously tempted to check his church out, like Christians dearly, dearly wish people would react to their silly, attention-seeking displays, we don’t know.
But the angels have a special purpose in mind for today’s walk. They take him to a video arcade called “The Cave.” There, he meets a stoned kid. This kid, Ron Forsythe, is the son of some TRUE CHRISTIANS™ who just started attending his church. Busche casts a demon out of him right outside the arcade, prays for him, and invites him to church. Ron, for his part, is super-duper-impressed with Busche’s Jesus Aura. As the scene ends, it seems like this pastor may well have scored himself a sale today.
Arcades, As Imagined By Satanic Panickers.
The Satanic Panic was a really weird time. I’m sure it was no coincidence at all that it came about right when technology made a massive leap sideways and upwards. And technology confuses authoritarians. They don’t understand it, so they can’t utterly control it. So instead, the authoritarians back then engineered moral panics about it. With all the other panics going on, they all molded together into one big conspiracy theory.
One element of the conspiracy involved bar codes containing “666” as a base. See, it was spelled out by two broad bars set in three locations along the code, which makes as much sense as the year 1978 being code for “18” because it contains “1” and “8” on its ends. So Satan was taking over America, one grocery-store canned-goods aisle at a time.
People whackadoodle enough to buy that conspiracy theory already believed that video games contained arcane powers to ensorcel the unwary away from Jesus. And arcades, which were just big collections of video games clustered together, seizing kids’ attention away from church? Obviously demonic.
In sweaty, feverish fundagelical imaginations, arcades took on the weirdest split identity imaginable: kids could get up to literally any horrific and off-limits activity they pleased there, blissfully free of all adult supervision–in a business that depended to an almost-absolute degree on parental approval and funding.
Speaking as one of those kids (as well as the employee of a larger-scale one years later), I can tell you now that yes, some kids did get up to mischief around arcades. They just didn’t normally do it while in the actual arcade. Otherwise, arcades were as squeaky-clean as a fork run through a dishwasher.
But fundagelicals’ mental conversation always returns to scary technology: must be bad.
So here is how Frank Peretti describes The Cave, which is apparently Ashton’s only video arcade (p. 149):
The Cave was aptly named: the power it took to run the rows upon rows of flickering, beeping video games was made up for by the total absence of any other lights, except a little blue globe here and there in the black ceiling with an occasional watt meandering through it. There was more sound than light; heavy metal rock music pounded from speakers all around the room and clashed painfully with the myriads of electronic sounds tumbling out of the machines. One lone proprietor sat behind his little cash register, reading a girlie magazine whenever he wasn’t making change for the game players. Hank had never seen so many quarters in one place.
Here were kids of all ages, with few other places to go, congregating after school and all through the weekends to hang out, hang on, play games, pair up, wander off, do drugs, do sex, do whatever. Hank knew this place was a hell hole; it wasn’t the machines, or the decor, or the dimness–it was just the pungent spiritual stench of demons having their heyday. He felt sick to his stomach.
Wow. Someone’s watched Tron (1982) way too often.
Flynn’s Arcade in 1982’s Tron.
But it wasn’t just Frank Peretti thinking this way. This is what Satanic Panickers generally thought of video arcades. He just pandered to them, like he did everywhere in his book.
A Real Video Arcade.
Meanwhile, here’s a video of a 1980s-style arcade that opened up a year or so ago in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina:
“Walking Back in Time,” by StephenVlog. Uploaded 11/19/17.
That’s just about the perfect picture snapshot of every single arcade I ever played in as a child. I’m amazed at the accomplishment!
I never saw these “kids of all ages” doing drugs or doing sex. What I saw were kids trying to make a quarter go as far as they humanly could–all in pursuit of a new sport that older authoritarians didn’t understand at all.
If demons don’t really exist, then yes, it’s exactly the unfamiliar machines, decor, and dimness that unnerved authoritarians back then. Backmasking does happen–but only in fundagelicals’ imaginations. They’re able to spin a few details backwards into a whole conspiracy theory using only their paranoia and frustrated control-lust. It’s the worst superpower in the world.
The Pentecostals in the Laser Tag Arena.
By the early 1990s, arcades tried to reinvent themselves as family destinations. Here’s a promotional video shot in the mid-90s of one such place:
“Exhilarama – Memorial City.” Uploaded by Marylyn Peklenk in 2015. Believed to have been filmed around 1996.
This particular indoor theme park sat in a huge space in a huge mall. It looks kind of dim in the video, but I assure you–as someone who worked there only a few years before the video was filmed–that it was more brightly-lit than any business I’d ever seen. Leaving there to go into the mall itself always felt like leaving reality for a sad, charmless sub-reality.
Around 1992 I guess, Biff and I got second jobs there to pay for our trip to Japan. We worked there for the better part of a year. Mostly, we worked around the Laser Tag arena. Sometimes, our bosses stationed us nearer to the front of the place to run the Virtuality game. Other employees patrolled the actual video-arcade part of the place, or ran the foodservice booths in the middle, or gave out prizes for earned tickets, or helped out with the birthday parties.
So that’s the reality of video arcades of the 1980s and 1990s compared to what fundagelical Satanic Panickers thought they were. Now let’s move on to Frank Peretti’s fantasy of what happens in his fantasy video arcade.
The Real Problems.
Man oh man, I see so many problems with this setting.
Biff and I were both Pentecostal at the time, of course. We’d grown up with Atari games and video arcades. We saw nothing whatsoever wrong with these games or with anybody working there. The craziest thing I ever saw the staff get up to there was this, and it is so scandalous, y’all: after the park had closed for the night, the third-party contractors who ran the huge Stompy Robots arena game would sometimes open it up for free to the park staff to play for a little while. And I never saw guests at this park do anything scandalous at all. If guests were doing drugs or doing sex, they kept it away from the staffers’ eyes.
But by far the biggest and worst problem with this entire scene is that lots of Christians actually played video games and liked going to arcades. Obviously, I was one of them. So was Biff. So were pretty much all of our fundagelical friends.
We’d grown up with the technology and understood it quite well. In fact, we were the first generation of people to speak this language like near-natives. And once we figured out that one element of the Satanic Panic was dead wrong, the truth cast a shadow on every other element in it.
What Hank’s Confrontation Looks Like in Real Life.
I can’t end this post without mentioning this. It’s too funny.
As I said, I worked at Exhilarama. Sometimes my bosses scheduled me to run the Virtuality game near the front entrance. For reference, this is what the game looked like:
“You Can Experience VIRTUALITY VR (VR in 1990).” GAMERTAG VR uploaded this on August 31, 2019.
The game consisted of two round podiums with guardrails. Customers stood inside each one and wore a helmet and strapped on a fake gun to their arm. I could run a couple of different games from its console. (We also had sit-down pods that housed a driving and WWI flying-ace game.) If absolutely nobody could be found to stand in the other podium, I played. And, uh, I was pretty good at it.
And every so often while I was there, a fundagelical guy would stomp into the place and look around with an expression of sorrow and disgust. I soon grew to dislike that expression–and to recognize it instantly as the precursor to a confrontation. It’s like they all followed a script. And they probably were.
They’d turn and look for a worker–which would be me in these cases, by a longshot.
Then they’d stomp over to me with an intent look on their faces.
And then they’d unleash a torrent of incomprehensible preaching and whining. Often, they’d recite Bible verses to condemn this entire theme park/arcade/kids’ birthday party venue.
Finally, they’d demand that we shut everything down in Jesus’ name.
(That’s Christianese for abra cadabra!)
How It Ended in Real Life (Around Me).
And when they’d talked themselves out, I’d sweetly reply in fluent Christianese. I’d tell them nothing was wrong and Jesus was fine with everything here and that two TRUE CHRISTIANS™ worked here. (And did you think my parents’ house was the only place Biff exorcised?)
Sometimes, I’d bring up how Christians have always opposed every single technological advance that’s ever been made, from printing presses to radio to televisions to, yes, video games, only to eventually discover that it’s perfectly safe–so was my visitor’s antipathy toward Exhilarama just unfamiliarity? I’d end by saying that what matters is what’s in our hearts and the witness we present to the world. Did he want to pray with me?
I don’t know how my co-workers’ encounters with fundagelicals ended, but mine always went away very confused. Still angry, still paranoid of new things, still trapped in their conspiracy theories, but at least they did go away.
Man, I wish today’s fundagelicals were still like that.
The Real Danger.
On that note, what this flock of frightened squawking geese should have worried about were skating rinks.
When I was a kid, skating rinks were hotbeds of hookups, drug deals, and bullying–in all of the cities I lived in. My best friend used to meet her older boyfriend (we were 15; he was like 17 or 18) there and slink off together when we were supposed to be hanging out and skating together. I knew a lot of kids did that and more. All of the stuff on Peretti’s list of nefarious deeds actually happened at skating rinks–or in the parking lots outside. These rinks were huge, had almost no adult supervision, and possessed a lot of darkened nooks and crannies that enterprising teens could escape into. Booming rock and pop music? Oh yes, rinks featured lots of that too.
So yeah. You could have knocked me down with a feather when the Southern Baptist Church I briefly attended at 16 declared their intention to build a skating rink for their youth group. It’s one of the reasons I left them. But I’d soon discover that in the 1980s, a lot of churches had a designated “Skating Night” shindig at local rinks. They went up there with “Pizza Blasts” as ways to
bait and switch entertain engage teens.
At the time, I didn’t get why fundagelicals loved skating rinks but condemned video game arcades. But I do now. I know it has to do with their relative levels of familiarity to older fundagelicals. That might be why Frank Peretti used an arcade as the setting for one of his first explosive scenes of Jesus Power in use. But we’ll get into that in the next LSP!
Today, friends, Lord Snow Presides over a scene whose setting sums up fundagelicals’ deep distrust and hatred for technology.
NEXT UP: We look back at the Toronto Blessing – and examine how people process experiences like it when they deconvert. See you tomorrow!
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Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. Lord Snow presides over a suggested topic for the day, but feel free to chime in with anything on your mind. We especially welcome pet pictures! The series was named for Lord Snow, my recently departed white cat. He knew a lot more than he ever let on.