What are Moral Panics?
Moral panics are situations in which the general public experiences an unjustified panic about a specific social issue; politicians and other interested parties create moral panics to direct what the public worries about and focuses on. In his 1972 book Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Stanley Cohen set the stage for the sociological study of moral panics by examining the classic moral panic in 1960s Britain of violence between two subcultural groups: Mods and Rockers. Cohen expressed that the major issue was the “fundamentally inappropriate” reaction to social figures in society to the minor events that occurred (Goode and Ben-Yehuda 1994). Cohen defined a moral panic as the following:
Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylized and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible. Sometimes the object of the panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough but suddenly appears in the limelight (Cohen 1972:9).
Since Cohen’s book on moral panics, more scholars continue to expand on this work. For example, McRobbie and Thornton (1995) claim that creating moral panics has become the way in which the media presents the public with everyday events. They state that politicians and businesses alike use faulty logic to appeal to the public’s emotions which, in turn, serves their political and corporate agendas. This manipulation of moral panics leads to moral entrepreneurship: When a group claims that it knows the cause of and best solution for a societal issue (Critcher 2003). The media also play a role in such manipulation. They create a signification spiral in which they associate different social problems and raise alarm in the public (Hall et al. 1978). In a signification spiral, the media reduce deviant people to an easily recognizable–and often disturbing–image to create a scapegoat for a social issue. The link between moral panics and deviant subcultures is strong because many moral panics center around the creation of a caricature of a given subculture; a caricature that is often misinformed and that instills fear of the subculture into the public consciousness (Ben-Yehuda 1986). Some examples of subcultures that the media creates moral panics are goths, satanic worship, gamers, rave, heavy metal, and hip-hop. In order to put the idea of moral panics into context, a few examples from each time period, as well as a timeline, can be found throughout the page.
Timeline of Significant Moral Panics
1950s: Comic Books
1960s: Mods and Rockers
1970s: War on Drugs, Increase in Crime, Video Games and Violence, Crack Babies,
1980s: Dungeons and Dragons, Satanic Ritual Abuse, Super-Predators, Rock and Roll
1990s: Sex offenders
2000s: Human trafficking
Violence and Video Games
1970s – Present
Violence and Video Games
Ever since the inception of video games in the 1970s, people have questioned what effects these games have on those that play them. The first major concern about the violence in video games came with the release of the 1976 game “Death Race” (Kent 2001). In “Death Race,” the objective is for players to run over as many “gremlins” with their car as possible, but the general public believed the game involved killing innocent pedestrians and promoted such behavior in real life, causing an outcry against the game (Ferguson et al. 2008). Similar concerns are still very apparent today. In particular, many concerned parents and lawmakers accuse the video game franchise “Grand Theft Auto” where players steal cars, rob banks, and flee the police of promoting this type of behavior in those that play the game, especially adolescents, because players start to lose sight of what is fake and what is reality.
Video Games and School Shootings
A significant rise in the concern of the link between violent video games and violent acts occurred after the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. The two shooters, seventeen and eighteen-year-old boys, regularly played the video game “Doom,” a first-person shooter game where one has to kill hordes of demons in order to survive. Immediately after the media released the video game habits of the shooters, people started to question if playing “Doom” and video games like it could have caused the shooters to commit a mass shooting. Anderson and Dill (2000) claim that the shooters used “Doom” to plan out their fantasy of killing school athletes which they later played out in person.
More recently, the Sandy Hook school shooting again brought attention to the effects of violent video games. The 20-year-old shooter, Adam Lanza had apparently frequently played violent video games such as “Call of Duty” and “Gears of War.” One news source claims that Lanza used these video games to “train himself for his massacre” by accumulating over 83,000 kills in online games (Bates & Pow 2013). In another news article entitled, “Sandy Hook massacre: Adam Lanza was ‘obsessed with mass murders,’” includes pictures of some of Lanza’s video games in the article (Swaine 2013), further pointing the blame at the video games Lanza played.
Are Video Games Really Causing Violence?
If the media seem to claim that violent video games cause real-life violent acts, where does empirical research stand on this issue? Some studies such as Anderson and Dill’s (2000) research on the relationship between aggressive behavior and video games claims that exposure to such games had a negative impact on academic achievement and increased the frequency of aggressive thoughts and behavior. However, as Ferguson (2008) argues, such increases in aggressive behavior are so minor that they do not equate to an individual committing an actual crime. In addition, Ferguson (2008) suggests that because nearly all young males are exposed to violent video games, studying the video game-aggression link is a waste of time and resources and more time should be spent investigating the other factors that have a role in mass violence. In addition, although the popularity of violent video games is increasing, overall rates of violent crime are decreasing.
News Clips Linking Video Games to Violence:
1994 ABC News report on the violence in Mortal Kombat
Bill O’Reilly on how video games can cause players to behave more aggressively
AIDS: A Moral Epidemic
Few things are as viscerally terrifying as the threat of disease. Most people don’t think of disease when they think of moral panics—after all, a lethal disease is a legitimate danger to humanity, so surely some amount of panic is justified in that case. However, there are ways in which we have been trained by the media to be more frightened than is necessary in the case of a public health threat such as ebola, H1N1, and the like; while there is generally little cause for widespread alarm in any of those situations, the media’s portrayal can lead to panic in a way that is ultimately more harmful than helpful. This is especially true in the United States, where we are lucky enough to be relatively insulated from global health emergencies, a privilege that makes us feel all the more horrified when a pandemic hits our safe haven (Humphreys 2002: 845). AIDS is unique among epidemics because of its association with homosexuality, which thus allowed the media to perpetuate a signification spiral — a self-fueling cycle of increased panic surrounding a perceived moral threat — based on a moral condemnation of homosexual activity (see Critcher 2006: 44). Moral panics concerning sexuality are, in general, much more common than moral panics about disease. Societal norms constantly police sexuality, expression, and identity, even as society as a whole becomes gradually more sexually liberal. The social control of human sexuality helps to perpetuate hegemonic power structures and to alienate those who do not conform (Gronfors and Stratsform 1987: 54). In the 1980s, researchers, particularly those writing from queer/feminist angles, first began to write about the concept of “sex panic” (Burgett 2009: 77). The national-scale moral panic over AIDS in the 1980s perfectly mixed a moral panic over sex and a moral panic over disease.
Role of the Media
The ways in which various outlets and actors—news media, scientists, politicians—discuss the AIDS epidemic is complicated by several factors. Perhaps the most significant complication was that AIDS was not only a deadly virus, but also a sexually transmitted disease that the general public came to associate heavily with gay men. The media in particular is consistently a catalyst for, and a tool of, moral panics because its primary purpose is to entertain, rather than to inform—presenting factual evidence in a straightforward way may be informative and helpful to the general public, but it is not as entertaining as sensationalistic reporting on dramatic issues (Nelkin 1991: 295). Media outlets also have a tendency to present, in the name of objectivity, multiple perspectives on any given issue, even if some of those opposing perspectives lack the same scientific validity as those on “the other side,” sometimes inadvertently affirming false or misleading information in the name of fairness (Nelkin 1991: 296). Furthermore, the media is beholden to somewhat conservative societal values. If society is not ready to accept gay people as fully human, then the news media cannot present them as fully human subjects. In the 2010s, we are accustomed to seeing news articles and TV segments openly speaking about queer subjects, but back in the 1980s, the New York Times would only print “gay” in quoted passages, never independently (Nelkin 1991: 299). This heavy stigma against homosexuality placed, in turn, its own stigma on the disease of AIDS, and then, in a cyclic pattern, shouldered gay people in the U.S. with even more accumulated stigma. Thus, gay people could be, and were, blamed for their own death, demonstrating one of the potential dire consequences of moral panics.
Stigma and Gayness
Because AIDS was more prevalent among gay men, the media was quick to blame the homosexual lifestyle, among with other factors such as drug use, for the virus’s spread (Nelkin 1991: 299). Because homosexuality was already a taboo lifestyle to begin with, the AIDS epidemic was an easy way to make gay people the scapegoat for the crisis, creating a folk devil: the sexually promiscuous, morally deficient, inherently tainted and unclean gay man.
“Kevin Cahill: ‘When a fatal infection had struck down veterans attending an American Legion convention, health professionals across the country joined in the search for a solution. When women using tampons became ill with toxic shock syndrome, medical societies and research centers immediately focused their enormous talents on that problem. But when the victims were drug addicts, and poor Haitian refugees and homosexual men, their plight did not, somehow, seem as significant to those expected to speak for the health professions.’” (Kayal 1985: 218).
The United States’ national consciousness was firmly rooted in homophobic, sexually conservative ideals. Of course, what resulted during the AIDS epidemic—the widespread practice of blaming and even actively persecuting gay men for their own illness and death—was not unique to the queer community. Societal crises that are mired in moral issues and primarily affect minorities are prime candidates for this kind of large-scale victim-blaming (Kayal 1985: 219). Another contemporary example of this phenomenon would be the current public debate and panic regarding trans folks and public bathrooms; anti-trans activists paint trans people as immoral, dishonest predators who want to corrupt people’s children and assault women under the guise of being transgender. The AIDS epidemic, while certainly posing a very real danger, spawned an out-of-proportion moral panic with severe, permanent consequences for the gay community.
NBC’s earliest report on AIDS
Being Gay in the AIDS Generation
What are Satanic Rituals?
George Rhoades Jr. defines satanic ritual abuse as “a method of control over people of all ages consisting of physical, sexual, and psychological mistreatment through the use of rituals, with or without satanic meaning or overtones” (2010). Satanic worship can consist of activities including eating human flesh and feces, forcing children to spend time in a grave or a pit with snakes, animal abuse, and sexual abuse of children (Moore 2001; Bottoms and Davis 1997). Many satanic activities are done by cloaked individuals in a conspicuous manner to avoid detection by others.
Satanic Panic Daycare
The 1980s were filled with many “mini-panics” – demonic influences in heavy metal music, fantasy role-playing games, tarot cards and ouija boards – which may have contributed to the escalation of satanic panics (DeYoung 1998). Along with these mini-panics came the shift of more women in the workforce that had young children, which escalated the worry amongst the population. Forty-five percent of women were working and using public and private daycares, which was the highest percent thus far; however, few women had concerns about the safety of their children (DeYoung 1998). It was other stressors, such as large budget cuts in federal funding, that cultivated this new fear of daycares. Additionally, many parents soon made contracts with numerous daycare providers in order to cope with the decrease in finances. This mix of economic stress as well as being stuck in a contract was the ideal situation for a moral panic to arise and spread like wildfire. One of the most prominent cases was the McMartin Preschool with over 100 accusations emerging. Seven teachers, including several elderly women, were accused of abusing over 100 children over a 10 year period in a suburb of Los Angeles (Garven et al. 1998). Raymond Buckey and Peggy McMartin were charged with 65 counts of abuse, including rape, sodomy, fondling, oral copulation, and drugging of children (Pezdek et al. 2004). Another example was Kelly Michaels in 1988, who was convicted of 115 counts of sexual abuse against 20 different children (Moore 2001). The satanic daycare panics ended approximately in 1991 due to the discrediting of many claim-makers as well as the changing economic conditions. Although the satanic rituals were a thing of the past, many daycares tightened regulations as well as further investigated numerous daycares that were located nearby one of the daycares that were previously under investigation. On the state level, serious reforms took place including the Governor of Florida asking $30 billion to reform the current daycare system (DeYoung 1998). These changes in regulations are a landmark as to the end of the satanic panic. Government officials put policies into place in order to create a less threatening environment and ensure that this event will not happen again.
Evidence Against Satanic Abuse
Bottoms and Davis (1997) conducted a survey that targeted 40,000 psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and legal and social service agencies to determine the frequency of satanic abuse reported. The survey stated that around 11% of therapists had encountered an adult survivor, while 13% had encountered a child survivor (Bottoms and Davis 1997). Additionally, the therapists that stated they had encountered a case dealing with satanic rituals also attended a special workshop about and were trained on how to deal with patients that had encountered satanic rituals. A key aspect of these workshops were “memory recovery” techniques, which sometimes produce false memories (Bottoms ad Davis 1997). The emphasis on memory recovery in therapy shows that many victims may have been led to believe that certain events occurred when in reality they had not. Although the children interviewed throughout the McMartin case did not undergo memory recovery therapy, they did experience numerous interviews that many deemed unethical. Many of the jurors relied on videotaped interviews of the children for evidence; however, numerous interviews were filled with leading questions. Here is an example of one of the excerpts from an interview (Garven 1998):
I = Interviewer. C = Child.
I: Who do you think played that game [horsey]?
C: Ray and Miss Peggy.
I: Ray and Miss Peggy? Did Miss Peggy take her clothes off?
I: I bet she looked funny didn’t she? Did she have big boobs?
I: Yeah. And did they swing around?
Rather than asking what Miss Peggy did the interviewer implies that she took her clothes and swung her boobs around. This type of interviewing style was common throughout the interviewing process and is one of the reasons why the evidence was false and criticized by the public eye. However, evidence by the Children’s Institute International (CII) confirmed that the children experienced some type of sexual abuse and later children began to confess that they were taken down to underground tunnels and then shuttled to another area to be abused (DeYoung 1998). Because of the interviewing tactics used throughout the case as well as the fact that none of the witnesses never stated information that could have supported these allegations the judge deemed the McMartins not guilty. No one was convicted in the McMartin Preschool trial.
Documentaries and Podcasts
A podcast discussing the satanic rituals that occurred at the McMartin preschool in the 1987 joined by Richard Beck who is the author of We Believe the Children: Moral Panic in the 1980s.
Part of a documentary television program produced by BBC specifically focusing on satanic panics featuring interviews with Church of Satan High Priest Peter H. Gilmore, Disinfo’s Richard Metzger, Lucifer Rising author Reverend Gavin Baddeley, Lucifer Principle author Howard Bloom, and Frank Zappa.
A documentary depicting the lives of three male high schoolers that were convicted of murdering three boys and their struggle to prove their innocence over the course of ten years.
- In this book, Cohen defines moral panic and relates it to consumption of mass media. He investigates who creates moral panics and what their purpose is.
- Chas Critcher considers differences in moral panic response between the American and British public on issues such as AIDS, pedophilia, and drugs.
- Eriche Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda discuss how moral panics are created and progress into a full-blown societal issue by examining more current examples such as school shooting and terrorism.
- Hall et al. investigate the history of moral panics. They use examples such as the “mugging problem” to show how the media create societal issues.
- Kenneth Thompson depicts the development of moral panics and how the media shapes public opinion over time.
Video Games and Violence
Kent, Steven L. 2000. The First Quarter: A 25-Year History of Video Games. BWD Press.
- Kent examines the history of video games with discussion of concerns surrounding violent video games.
Bates, Daniel, Pow, Helen 2013. “Lanza’s descent to madness and murder: Sandy Hook shooter notched up 83,000 online kills including 22,00 ‘head shots’ using violent games to train himself for his massacre,” Daily Mail, December 1.
Critcher, Chas. Critical Readings: Moral Panics and the Media. Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2006.
Garven, Sena, James M. Wood, Roy S. Malpass, and John S. Shaw III. 1998. “More than suggestion: The effect of interviewing techniques from the McMartin Preschool case.” Journal of applied psychology 83(3): 347.
Pezdek, Kathy, Anne Morrow, Iris Blandon-Gitlin, Gail S. Goodman, Jodi A. Quas, Karen J. Saywitz, Sue Bidrose, Margaret-Ellen Pipe, Martha Rogers, and Laura Brodie. 2004. “Detecting deception in children: event familiarity affects criterion-based content analysis ratings.” Journal of Applied Psychology 89(1): 119.
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