Mass Hysteria & Moral Panic: Definitions, Causes & Examples

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  • 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
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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.

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