“They call it a card game; I call it an occultic activity, an initiation into satanic rules and regulations,” explained Mary Ann Di Bari.

“The game was introduced in Pound Ridge Elementary School in 1994 around Halloween,” Di Bari said.

Along with an invitation to come and play Magic from a teacher, each fourth grader, including Di Bari's granddaughter, Krystal, found Magic Cards in their cubby holes where they keep their personal belongings. The first series of Magic Cards often depicted demons, vampires and monsters with commands to mathematically “sacrifice” creatures to gain power or to cast spells on opponents to slow them down.

Di Bari said the first permission slip for the game was “useless.” She recalled that it read: “come and be smarter,” and that it called Magic “a creative enrichment course in math.” As a result of the controversy another permission slip was later sent out, she said.

Then her granddaughter began having nightmares, which Mary Ann discovered later were being triggered by the images on the cards.

“[Magic] is filled with the symbology of the demonic: the pentagram, the broken cross, the New Age occultism, Christ as a fat woman on a cross, Wiccan, witchcraft, Freemasonry,” explained Di Bari. “[There was] symbology from almost every pagan system that ever was; that is why it is called ‘The Gathering.’”

And the game did not stay simply a game. “It was spilling over into the actual living of life, and the mentality of the children,” she explained, recalling that “children were swinging in the gymnasium from ropes ... saying: ‘Satan enter me; I want you.’”

What do the game makers have to say for their product?

A look at their Web site and a call to company headquarters revealed that the company that manufactures it, called “Wizards”, is now a subsidiary of Hasbro Inc., makers of, among other things, Mr. Potato Head. Said spokesman Todd Stewart, “All [‘Magic’] is is a trading card game. ... There is no violence depicted.”

Reminded of images form half a dozen cards that did depict violence — including a rape being perpetrated by a monk and human sacrifice — Stewart said violent cards were “a minor part of the game.”

He said that charges that there were Satanic elements in the cards were “absolutely untrue ... It's not Dungeons and Dragons; it's not a role-playing game,” he insisted, “it's fantasy.”

Comparing the game to chess, Stewart explained that it was a math-based game, with nearly 7 million adherents worldwide. Competitions are held around the world culminating in an international championship each year in various locations such as Sydney, Australia, and Toronto.

Among the proponents of Magic: The Gathering, Stewart listed “ministers, doctors and teachers,” and added that “many Catholic organizations endorse it.” He boasted that there is “a school in Seattle that allows the kids to play one hour a day,” since the game helps students with math.

“Teachers say all the time that grades increase in math because students understand math from the game.”

In fact, it was as a math enrichment course that Magic was originally billed in the schools of Bedford Central School District.

Despite Stewart's assurances, many people, including Di Bari, remain unconvinced that Magic is good for children, or anyone else for that matter.

Father James Le Bar, exorcist for the Archdiocese of New York, and a speaker at a conference which Di Bari and other parents held in the Bedford area, said: “Magic: The Gathering seems to be a type of game that seems to invite the evocation of evil spirits.” Father Le Bar conceded that he didn't know for sure, since as he put it, “I have never played with [the cards], and I don't intend to.”

He noted a difference between the card came and a game like checkers, noting that a fascination with checkers is unlikely to have negative consequences, whereas a fascination with Magic: The Gathering might.

And it's not just the Catholics who see the danger.

The Rev. George Mather, a Lutheran minister from Sherman Oaks, Calif., and an author and lecturer in the area of cults and the occult, wrote to Ceil Di Nozzi in a letter provided to the Register that “unless one has a familiarity with occult symbolism ... the game might appear as another form of amusement and innocuous.”

“The truth is it's filled with the worst aspects of the occult,” he wrote. “You might say it represents the darker side of evil, Satanism!”

Andrew Walther