Moral panic

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A moral panic is a public panic over an issue popularly deemed to be a threat to, or shocking to, the sensibilities of "proper" society. This is often fanned by sensationalist selective reporting in the media and exaggerated accounts offered by "moral entrepreneurs"[1] — a category that includes politicians on the make and activists in search of a cause. Moral panics can result in what is a real phenomenon being blown way out of proportion, or in what is not a real phenomenon in the first place being widely believed to be real. Moral panics often feature a caricatured or stereotypical "folk devil" on which the anxieties of the community focus, as described by sociologist Stanley Cohen, who coined the term in his study Folk Devils and Moral Panics, which examined media coverage of the mod and rocker[2] riots in the 1960s.[3][4]

Where the moral panic fingers a group whose members are conscious of their subordination, the denounced behavior may become "a symbol of opposition and rebellion".[5]



See the main article on this topic: Confabulation

In short, the creation of false memories of trauma.

Mass hysteria[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Mass hysteria

In short, the spreading of fear.

Folk devils[edit]

Folk devils are the personification of the evils identified in moral panics. Typically caricatured or stereotypical members of marginalized ethnic groups, they are the scapegoats for the anxieties of the community.[6]

For example, Chinese male immigrants were the focus of a moral panic (the Yellow Peril) over opium, infectious disease, prostitution and homosexuality in the 19th century in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.[7] This served as the model for subsequent drug focused moral panics.

More recently, in the 1990s, the neo-fascist British National Party constructed a folk devil in the form of supposedly work-shy fake asylum seekers from the Balkans and Africa who would overwhelm an already heavily burdened welfare system in the UK.[8]

Other examples include:

Culture of fear[edit]

Culture of fear is a term used by a number of writers and commentators to describe a culture in which fear is a driving factor in social and political discourse. Much of the time, such fear has been blown out of proportion by the media, the state, or some other body with an interest in seeing people afraid.[citation needed]

Conspiracy theorists will claim that the "culture of fear" is used to make people believe that they need the government to protect them from these threats (whether they're existent or not). A fictional example can be found in the film V For Vendetta, in which the dictatorial Chancellor orders that the news be saturated with scare stories to remind the people "why they need us." A real-life example of such a conspiracy theory is the fears that George W. Bush would use the threat of terrorist attacks to nullify the US Constitution, cancel elections, and bring in a dictatorship. When Bush left office having done nothing of the sort,[note 1] left-wingers abandoned this preposterous notion, and right-wingers proceeded to say the exact same thing about Barack Obama.

One problem directly leading to a "culture of fear", and ironically stemming from the fear, is the mainstream media's use of sensationalism to sell their stories. Snow that has fallen for 2 days is not merely a "snowfall" but a "blizzard".[note 2] Then, taglines, hyper-art and ominous music accompany minor events as they become full-blown historical events: "The Blizzard of 2008". "Firestorm of July". "Horror of Christmas Shopping hell, 2009". Each outlet competes with each other using known marketing techniques to make today's molehill into the news cycle's mountain.

Examples of this culture may include:

The trouble with all of the above is that it is very difficult to judge which (if any) fear is justified. If it all comes to nothing, then was the hype and fear justified or was the hype, fear and precautions taken the reason that it came to nothing?


Examples of things over which there were actual moral panics, or arguably could be called moral panics, organized by category:

Crime panics[edit]

Media panics[edit]

Music and audio[edit]


  • Dungeons and Dragons players summoning and worshipping demons and pagan gods, and/or committing suicide (see BADD). This one got so bad Gary Gygax, the game's co-creator, had to hire a bodyguard after receiving death threats[citation needed].
  • Pokémon is a bad influence on the children — promotion of psychic abilities and evolution (when, ironically, the game misrepresents evolution, confusing it with something more akin to metamorphosisWikipedia[15][note 4])
  • Violence and sex in video games causing youth delinquency and violence

Theatre, movies and TV[edit]

  • Beavis And Butthead
  • Disney promotes humanism, magic and other new age theologies and philosophies
  • The "video nastiesWikipedia", a set of movies banned in the United Kingdom for supposedly causing immoral behavior.
  • Family Guy
  • The Hunt
  • Joker
  • "Pre-Code" HollywoodWikipedia movies (risqué talkies released in the US before July 1, 1934)
  • The Simpsons
  • South Park
  • Theatre used to be associated with bawdiness, decadence, and moral corruption (and in William Shakespeare's time, cross-dressing). English Puritans actually managed to get all the theatres in London (including the famous Globe Theatre, which Shakespeare's company had built) shut down for quite some time in the 17th century.


Political panics[edit]

Medical panics[edit]

Religious panics[edit]

Sexual panics[edit]

  • AIDS in the 1980s
  • Birth control
  • Child sexual abuse in general
  • Demographic panics (e.g., genocide conspiracy)
  • Divorce
  • Joycelyn Elders' comment about teaching teenagers that masturbation is acceptable
  • Homosexuals are recruiting kids into their lifestyle
    • In the 1970s there was an even more frightening version, "Gay men are killing little boys". Every family TV show seemed to have a very special episode devoted to gay men trying to harm little boys.
  • Pornography — either a tool of the evil Patriarchy, the Gay Agenda, or Satan, depending on the cult agenda being promoted
  • Rainbow PartiesWikipedia, oral sex-themed get-togethers that almost certainly don't actually exist (unfortunately), and a similar panic over gel braceletsWikipedia
  • Sexualization of teenagers and adolescents (especially girls) (Don't tell Abercrombie & Fitch!)
    • The formation of "Non-virgin clubs" by teenage girls in the South and Midwest during the early 1950s.[20] Gasp!
  • Snuff films, in which people are murdered on camera and the videos are sold on the black market, a phenomenon that probably doesn't exist outside of lurid fiction.
    • "Crush" videos, the animal version of the above, which most certainly are known to exist.
    • Red rooms, a similar concept: supposedly live torture on the Internet.
  • Transgender women using the women's bathroom.
  • "White slavery" (early 20th Century), the belief that girls were being abducted from middle America and sold into the sex trade (not entirely unheard-of, but extremely rare). Resulted in passage of the Mann Act. Updated version is "sex trafficking", resulting in passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (ignores the facts that most modern cases of forced prostitution are local and that international trafficking of forced prostitutes tends to be avoided because of heightened visibility and legal risks). Often used as a cover to restrict pr0n.

Child predators on the internet, and child sexual abuse, are two examples of things which are real but the hysteria over them grew way out of proportion to the actual threat they posed.

Miscellaneous panics[edit]

  • Kony 2012
  • The Recovered Memory movement
  • Hitchhiking. While it's common sense to be wary of hitchhikers because they indeed might be dangerous, a 1974 study by the California Highway Patrol found that hitchhikers were far more likely to be the victims of crime from those who picked them up or from passersby than they were to be the perpetrators of violence[21]. (In fact, just standing on the shoulder of a roadway is more dangerous than driving in a car.)[22]
  • Pit bulls.[23][24]
  • The Prohibition movement (plus raising the drinking age to 21 in the 1980s out of fear of drunk driving, even though the enlistment age and the overall age of majority stayed the same)

"Satanic ritual abuse" and the "War on Christmas" are examples of things that probably never existed at all. For others, such as gangs, hate groups, outlaw motorcycle clubs, and a perceived epidemic of Satanism during the 1980s, the response to the moral panic often takes the form of law enforcement officials (fanned by activist groups drumming up moral panic over those groups' existence) treating them as criminal activity, which can then become a self-fulfilling prophecy or result in violations of their civil liberties in the name of combating something deemed a threat.

Things which are not moral panics[edit]

Some issues may actually be amoral in nature, but do cause a panic. In general, these are worthy of attention. There are currently several pressing public issues which have led to needed public debate and action that include:

Environmental hazards like global warming are often written off as "alarmism" or "moral panics" by deniers in a bullshit use of the term in order to downplay the dangers posed by these hazards.

Issues like abortion, terrorism, drinking and driving, and child sexual abuse need not have become moral panics had the level of public discourse over them not descended into hysterics.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Well, he was responsible for some serious violations of the Constitution, but nothing on the scale conspiracy theorists were saying.
  2. Unless one is in Minnesota, where this sort of snowfall occurs every other day, and where people are not afraid of snow anyway so it cannot be reliably used to drum up newspaper sales.
  3. A big bad scary adult drug dealer, of course: probably male, with a trench coat, for the sole purpose of addicting kids to drugs for the fun of it. Alternatively, a 'bad kid' who wears leather and skips class, who peer pressures the 'good' kids into smoking joints and being all bad like the rock and roll says.
  4. Not all of the time. Regional forms are analougus to peripatric speciation for instance. Shellos and Gastrodon having a west sea and east sea form also refences peripatri... Ya get the pic. Archen is based on Archaeopteryx, being thought to be the ancestor of all bird Pokémon, although recent research shows this might not be true. Some other Pokédex blurbs references evolution. Finally, Pokémon is not the first game, let alone JRPG to misrepresent evolution: "evolution" in JRPGs means that a character gains a new look and becomes stronger, usually gaining new powers.
  5. Actually he really is the anti-Christ but we need to turn down the rhetoric a bit.


  1. See the Wikipedia article on Moral entrepreneur.
  2. See the Wikipedia article on Mods and rockers.
  4. Stanley Cohen. 1980. Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockets. 2nd. New York: St. Martin's Press.
  5. Mark Fenemore. 2009. Sex, Thugs and Rock 'N' Roll: teenage Rebels in Cold-War East Germany. New York: Berghahn Books. p. 216.
  6. Stanley Cohen. 1980. Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockets. 2nd. New York: St. Martin's Press.
  7. Diana L. Ahmad. 2007. The Opium Debate and Chinese Exclusion Laws in the Nineteenth-century American West. University of Nevada Press. ISBN 0874176980.
  8. Daniel Trilling. 2012. Bloody Nasty People: The Rise of Britain's Far Right. London: Verso. ISBN 1884679591.
  9. May, Ashley, "Are creepy clowns really a threat?, USA Today, October 5, 2016
  10. Lesbian Motorcyclists Delivering Donor Breast Milk Are the Absolute Best by Christina Caterucci (Nov 29, 2016 • 6:11 PM) Slate.
  11. Gloomy Sunday Suicides by David Mikkelson (23 May 2007) Snopes.
  12. It May Be Freaky Friday, But Sunday Is Gloomy by Ash Pryce (7 August 2010) The Twenty-First Floor.
  13. What Your Parents Think All Your Music Sounds Like
  14. [, "Teens Today Are Getting High Off Their Computers"]
  15. Pokemon Evolution vs Darwinian Evolution, Superhero Etc
  16. "CALIFORNIA LEGENDS: The Bum Blockade — Stopping the Invasion of Depression Refugees."
  20. Morin, Relman."'Non-Virgin Club' New Aspect Off Teen-age Sex Misbehavior." Associated Press, 26 August 1951 (recovered 16 September 2014).
  21. 2014 kidnapping and murder of Israeli teenagersWikipedia
  22. "California Crimes And Accidents Associated With Hitchhiking" — text of 1974 CHP study