Copyright

Mass Hysteria & Moral Panic: Definitions, Causes & Examples

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Collective Behavior: Crowd Types, Mobs & Riots

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
 Replay
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:01 Mass Hysteria
  • 1:05 Do You Smell Gas?
  • 1:54 War of the Worlds
  • 2:39 Moral Panic
  • 4:00 Dance and Music
  • 5:26 Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Timeline
Autoplay
Autoplay
Speed Speed

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Juli Yelnick

Juli has traveled the world engaging in cultural immersion experiences that bring her Master of Liberal Studies findings to light.

What do the fabled chicken little and the band KISS have in common? In this lesson we will discuss mass hysteria and moral panic by using specific examples of each and comparing the causes of these phenomena.

Mass Hysteria

Do you remember the story of Henny Penny, also known as Chicken Little? In this folktale, a chicken believes that the world is coming to an end and hysterically runs around shouting, 'The sky is falling!' As a result, Chicken Little created mass hysteria.

Mass hysteria is defined as an imagined or assumed threat that causes physical symptoms among a large number of people. Sociologist Robert Bartholomew, author of several books on mass hysteria, including The Martians Have Landed: A History of Media-Driven Panics and Hoaxes, explained that mass hysteria symptoms typically include smelling gas, seeing strange objects, acting like animals, and fainting. Mass hysteria is a short-term event that may or may not have a specific cause. According to Bartholomew, people can start having real symptoms just from stories they hear, and sometimes, there is no real explanation for why mass hysteria happens; it just happens.

Do You Smell Gas?

An example of mass hysteria that had no apparent cause took place in a Tennessee high school. A teacher reported a petrol-like smell in her classroom shortly after arriving to the school in the morning. That morning, she had several students in her classroom develop dizziness, nausea, headaches, and shortness of breath.

Although the school was evacuated and around 100 people reported these types of symptoms, no gas leak was ever found. In fact, investigators searched for days and still could not locate any trace of a gas leak or any other cause for such symptoms. Even those individuals who reported the symptoms showed no abnormal results in blood tests done to try to solve the mystery. In the end, this case is considered an instance of mass hysteria without a known cause.

War of the Worlds

An example of mass hysteria that does have a known cause occurred on October 30, 1938, during a radio broadcast adapted from H. G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds. It occurred when Orson Welles caused thousands of listeners to believe that an actual Martian invasion was taking place. The hour-long radio broadcast was narrated in a news bulletin format without any commercial breaks.

It caused many in the audience to become hysterical, reporting that they could smell poison gas or see lightning flashes in the distance. According to some historians, approximately six million people heard the broadcast. 1.7 million thought it was true, and out of those, 1.2 million actually exhibited hysterical behavior.

Moral Panic

According to Emeritus Professor of Sociology Stanley Cohen, moral panic is a fear that grips a large number of people that some evil is threatening the well-being of society. Panics happen in part because they provide an avenue for groups of people to assess and redirect society's moral values. A moral panic is specifically framed in terms of morality and is usually expressed as outrage. In addition, moral panics are typically exhibited from the older generation towards the younger generation.

Most of the time, moral panic involves issues related to sexuality. For example, the civil rights and women's liberation movements of the 1960s and 70s dramatically altered society's rules about sex, race, and gender. Any large-scale shift towards social liberalism tends to create a fearful moral panic among social conservatives, who believe that these trends could lead to the unraveling of Western Civilization.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about Study.com
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account
Support