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History and Examples of Mass Hysteria and Moral Panic

Padma Mohapatra, Juli Yelnick
  • Author
    Padma Mohapatra

    Padma has taught English for over four years. They have a Masters degree in English from Central University of Punjab. They also have experience in editing, reviewing, and tutoring.

  • Instructor
    Juli Yelnick

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

What is mass hysteria? Learn about cases of mass hysteria in history and the difference between moral panic and mass hysteria. See moral panic examples. Updated: 10/10/2021

What is Moral Panic?

Moral panic refers to an exaggerated reaction of the public to an issue or a group of people that are believed to inflict harm to society or adversely affect its existing culture of harmony. More often than not, this perception finds its grounds in false, irrational, or superstitious notions.

The theory of moral panic was first developed by Stephen Cohen in the year 1972. He studied the relationship between Mods and Rockers and the media through the 1960s. Mods and Rockers represented two youth sub-cultures that coexisted peacefully for a long time. One of the incidents of their clashes was extensively hyped by the media that led people to fear and predict such acts of vandalism. This apparent threat to the social order was then decided to be subverted by moral policing the two groups. A further consequence of this hyped reporting led to the two groups finding themselves on opposing sides.

Mass hysteria (also called mass sociogenic illness, epidemic hysteria, mass psychogenic disorder) refers to a phenomenon where a close-knit group exhibit signs of hysteria. The term 'hysteria' is used to signify the feeling of excessive emotion that is often out of one's control. The causes behind mass hysteria are often not justified as it cannot be categorized as a physical disorder but more like a plague of the mind. Mass hysteria results in people showing traits of collective delusion guided by an unshakable belief in a bizarre concept.

Therefore, mass hysteria is a group of people showing hysterical signs. When we talk about moral panic, we are referring to the induced fear (mainly by the media) in a large group of people who are convinced that societal norms are under threat.

The basic differences between the related terms like groupthink, mass psychosis, and epidemic hysteria are listed below:

  • groupthink: Mass hysteria is also an example of an extreme form of "groupthink", where the most persuasive member (leader) suppresses the individual thought of the members and results in a shared opinion about a subject.
  • mass psychosis: This refers to when a cohesive group exhibits common traits associated with mental illness.
  • epidemic hysteria: This refers to a phenomenon where otherwise healthy people show symptoms of hysteria as a reaction to culture-related stress.

Hysteria Definition

Hysteria is referred to as uncontrollable emotion or excitement. From being associated with the fluid movements in the female body that led them to behave differently to a later understanding of how it is a result of mental trauma, the definition of hysteria has witnessed many changes throughout the course of history. Hysteria can happen to anyone and it mainly manifests when one is going through some kind of mental trauma or pain.

Mass hysteria is a psychological condition that usually affects a group of people with a shared environment and culture (like school students). It is characterized by inexplicable symptoms in the masses that are a result of shared anxiety. Some cases of mass hysteria have also resulted in the loss of life and other serious dysfunctions. According to a 1997 review of research by the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health, it is "seen as a social phenomenon involving otherwise healthy people."

Some examples of mass hysteria are:

  • The Salem Witch Trials: In this, some 300 people had to go through a series of trials and executions based on false allegations regarding the practice of witchcraft. Fear spread that young children were having fits due to certain members of the community colluding with the devil. This event lasted for about a year and resulted in the questioning of religious beliefs and legal systems of the time.

Salem witch trials

A picture of Salem court where a woman is on trial surrounded by numerous men. There is also a man lying on the floor. All seem to be in a rush of hysteria and the woman has her hands raised, probably as a defense.

  • War of the Worlds radio broadcast: During a radio broadcast adapted from the novel War of the Worlds by H.G Wells, Orson Welles led his listeners to believe that an actual Martian invasion was taking place on the planet. It is one of the rare examples of mass hysteria that does have a known cause.

Orson Welles during a broadcast of the War of the Worlds radio show

A black and white image of Orson Welles during a broadcast. His left hand is raised as he is speaking something.

Moral Panic Definition

Moral panic is an exaggerated perception fueled by media houses that a group of people or some cultural behavior negatively affects or is in the way of society's best interests. It is induced and may also be politically motivated to manifest specific emotions among people. Moral panic coupled with media coverage leads to a deep sense of fear and often resentment among the masses towards the targeted individuals/community.

Both of these phenomena (moral panic and mass hysteria) are related to the fear of the unknown, the sense of perceived threat to the existing conditions, and the dangers associated with change.

Mass hysteria differs from moral panic. Moral panic is a result of the perpetration of an imaginary threat to society by the overhyping of the media whereas, mass hysteria is a phenomenon where we witness a breakout of an abnormal illness whose causes cannot be identified.

Some issues which come under the category of moral panic are:

  • Islamic terrorists
  • Punks and skinheads
  • Benefit culture

Symptoms of Mass Hysteria and Moral Panic

The root cause of hysteria is psychological distress which could occur due to several reasons. It is mainly supposed to be triggered by an environmental incident that affects a group of people who then exhibit shared symptoms of hysteria. In some cases, these people are unable to deal with the emotional and social pressures that come as a result of a pandemic or other calamity that they experience mass numbness or blindness. Doctors believe that people suffer real pain even though it is not a physical ailment but a condition triggered by the mind.

Some of the symptoms of mass hysteria include:

  • hyperventilation
  • dizziness
  • abdominal pain
  • chest tightness
  • headaches
  • fainting
  • heart palpitations
  • nausea

Some symptoms of moral panic include:

  • heightened concern
  • hostility towards the group posing a threat to the society
  • consensus about the spreading rumor that fuels a panic reaction

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.

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Mass Hysteria in History

Mass hysteria is a rare phenomenon that has been documented frequently over the ages dating back to the 14th century. For a long time in history, hysteria came under the category of physical ailments. Before that, hysterical occurrences have been found in ancient Egyptian and Greek societies as well. Hysteria was classified as a women-only disease that was a result of the imbalance of fluids in the female body. Almost any symptoms of any kind in a female were somehow attributed to hysteria. This long-lasting myth was finally busted by Jean-Martin Charcot in 1880. The French neurologist believed that the symptoms of hysteria find their origin in some unidentifiable injury of the nervous systems, some psychological scar or trauma. It should not be stereotyped as a female-only disorder owing to the common ideas about gender.

Moral Panic Examples

Moral panic finds its expression in outrage and bursts of moral values that need to be restored as a measure against the imagined threat.

Two examples of moral panic are:

  • Mods and Rockers

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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Video Transcript

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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Frequently Asked Questions

What are examples of mass hysteria throughout history?

A few examples of mass hysteria are:

The Dancing Plague (1518), The Salem Witch Trials (1692-1693), The June Bug Epidemic (1962), and The War of the Worlds broadcast (1938)

Is mass hysteria real?

Yes, mass hysteria is real. People suffering from psychological stress are prone to get afflicted by this. It also results in real physical pain though it originates in the mind. An example of mass hysteria includes people imagining that they are suffering from an illness and start manifesting the symptoms of the same due to excessive worrying.

What can cause mass hysteria?

As mass hysteria is a result of assumed or imagined fear it has a number of noticeable causes. Mass hysteria can be triggered by environmental factors, group thinking, emotional pressures, and psychological trauma.

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