Things About Moral Panics Writers Should Know

I decided to do this article primarily for two reasons. One is that moral panics can make an excellent source of thought-provoking drama in fiction. The other reason is that many authors of stories that involve witch hunts in some form often end up creating very romanticized fantasies that fail to take into account the not-so-romantic realities of witch hunts. So if you're considering writing about a moral panic or witch hunt, here are some things to know.

Moral panics occur when people get worked up into into a frenzy over something perceived as a threat to a stable and just society. Rather than carefully and thoroughly investigating whether the source of panic is actually causing harm, or much harm as is claimed, or even whether it really exists in some cases, people caught up in moral panics take on a "shoot first, ask questions later" attitude that inevitably results in getting innocent people hurt and/or harmless things demonized. Moral panics can be likened to a severe allergic reaction: the body (society) tries to defend against a substance it perceives as a threat, but through its overreaction ultimately harms itself.

Moral panics come in all shapes and sizes. On the smallest scale, you might have a parent who decides without any real investigation that the music a child is listening to is reason for that child's bad behavior and so forces the child to get rid of it all and forbids that child from associating with peers who listen to it. On the largest scale, moral panics can span entire countries - you might have enough people worked up over the apparent threat of this music that they lobby for the government to ban it; or the people in government themselves might decide that the music is a threat and ban its sales, then make a point of profiling those who look like the type of people who would listen to that music as likely criminals.

As people are often suspicious of change and new things in general, any new or novel thing that appears to have the potential to upset a stable and just society can provoke a moral panic. If people are convinced that their religion is the reason their country is stable and just, then an upswing in people practicing another religion can trigger a panic. If people are convinced that a particular kind of family unit is the basic building block of a functioning society, then an uprising in families who don't adhere to that particular configuration can spark fears that society will be soon torn apart unless something is done to force people back into "traditional" configurations immediately. If people notice that some children are playing an engaging new game, they may panic over fears that children will become so enraptured in the game that they'll do absolutely nothing else.

One thing that often happens is that real issues are blamed on demonized or even nonexistent agencies. Scapegoated agencies can be real things that people feel distrustful of for one reason or another (EG, certain types of music, different cultures etc.) or imaginary boogeymen (EG, witches, secret societies, etc.) that they are convinced are working against them, or sometimes a bit of both.

The Salem witch panic ultimately began when nine-year-old Betty Parris and eleven-year-old Abigail Williams began exhibiting strange and disturbing symptoms (including convulsions and screaming) that the physician was unable to find an apparent medical cause for. The physician suggested that witches were responsible - that is to say, people who had made pacts with the Devil in exchange for the power to torment their neighbors. The two girls were urged to give the names of their attackers, and when they did, things swiftly went downhill from there. What made this a moral panic was not that the people slung wild accusations at each other, but that people were willing to arrest and execute people on little more than spurious evidence like "spectral evidence" (the accuser's claim that the alleged witch's spirit had appeared in a dream or vision), symptoms that could be easily faked (the aforementioned screaming and convulsing, plus a few more), and that they were willing to torture confessions out of people.

When teenage Dungeons & Dragons player Irving Pulling died of suicide in 1982, his mother Patricia Pulling jumped to the conclusion that his interest in the game must have been a factor. Pulling started the advocacy group "Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons" (BADD) to spread the "truth" about the game, often relying on unverified data and cherrypicked or strategically edited quotes from the game and from people who had talked about the game to "prove" how damaging and horrible the game was. (Fortunately, Pulling was never really able to get very far with her crusade and it ultimately fizzled out soon after her death in 1997.)

Moral panics be sparked by completely fabricated claims. The infamous modern witch hunt known as the Satanic Panic (a very complicated subject, but very much worth looking into for further research) was initially sparked when a man by the name of Mike Warnke released a book titled The Satan Seller in 1973. In it, Warnke described how he had fallen in with a cult of Satanists (who, according to Warnke, got up to a lot of sex, drugs, animal sacrificing, demon summoning, cursing, and suchlike as found in sensational fiction) in college and eventually went on to describe how Satanists are secretly manipulating world events. Warnke's book ended with a call to moral arms, encouraging people to protest and rise up against supernatural and horror entertainment, among other things. Even though there was never a single scrap of evidence for his extraordinary claims, many people believed it wholeheartedly and soon Warnke became something of a celebrity in evangelical circles. Thus the idea that a sinister Satanic cabal was secretly working behind the scenes was planted into the American consciousness. It wouldn't be until 1992 that Warnke was soundly debunked by Cornerstone Communications, but even then, many still believed in him completely.

In the meantime, others saw opportunity and hopped aboard the gravy train that Warnke had started, each with their own shocking tales of involvement with Satanic cults. (It would take far too long to go into them all here, but if you're curious, you can learn more at Swallowing The Camel.) Even though their stories quickly unraveled with just a little scrutiny or critical thinking, many people believed them wholeheartedly, and many people still do. But why?

There are a number of factors at work here. First, Warnke and several others ran ministries, and the perception of ministers as "men of god" excluded any possibility that they might be lying to many. (I have had people tell me on no uncertain terms that this is the very reason why everything these people say, no matter how absurd, must be true.) Secondly, some of the people who came out reported absolutely horrific stories of being abused, and to accuse someone of making it all up if it really had happened would have been a horrible, horrible thing.

When children are involved, things get really snarly fast. Basically, if people feel that children are threatened, their protective instincts will kick in and very often override their critical thinking skills. The Satanic Panic never really hit stride until the release of Michelle Remembers in 1980, a book purporting to detail the gruesome ritual abuse suffered in childhood by Michelle Smith as a child (then Michelle Proby) at the hands of a large Satanic cult. Despite elements and events in the book being highly fantastic (Michelle claimed, among other things, that Satan physically manifested and grabbed her with his tail, summoned/created fire, and created theatrical illusions) and improbable (many of the Satanists' pointlessly evil activities would have garnered a lot of attention and suspicion had they actually occurred and/or would have been incredibly and impractically time-consuming), many people believed in it. The fear that Satanists were abusing children would lead to the daycare sex-abuse hysteria that destroyed many innocent lives.

One notable day-care abuse case is the lengthy, expensive, and life-ruining McMartin Preschool abuse trial, in which parents and investigators alike clung to weak and spurious evidence to try to prove that Satanic abuse was going on. The fact that the many of the stories given by the children to investigators (who asked leading questions and if they didn't get the answers they wanted, would continue pressing for answers until the children relented and told them what they thought they wanted to hear) contained highly improbable, if not impossible details details (EG, that the abusers had live animals, including lions and an elephant, or that one man had stabbed a turtle through its shell with a knife, or that they had been flushed down toilets and traveled to other places through the sewers), and the fact that the teachers' alleged sordid activities would have left behind all sorts of evidence that was never found, were glossed over and ignored.

Those caught up in the spirit of moral panic will often be so convinced of the urgency of the cause and so caught up in spreading the "truth" that they'll rarely, if ever, think to do proper fact-checking. They often won't stop to consider whether the stories they're hearing from perceived authorities on the matter or the rumors they heard about something that happened to someone next state over or something that totally happened to a friend of a friend are distorted or made up for attention or propaganda purposes. Context also doesn't really matter for people caught up in a panic - in their minds, if there's even the remotest chance that something can be interpreted in a way that supports their position, then it does support their position, end of story. It isn't (usually) that they're deliberately ignoring or twisting it, but rather that their minds are in a mode to automatically filter out anything that doesn't agree with their beliefs while seizing upon everything that agrees or seems to agree. Anything that doesn't agree, in this mindset, is just meaningless noise to be filtered out so that the truth can be revealed.

Opposition will often be dismissed with self-sealing logic. One can go to just about any site or video that attempts to debunk moral panic material that has open comments and eventually find true believers declaring that the person behind the debunking is deluded, ignorant, or a shill or disinformation agent, no matter how well-researched and how well-documented the debunking is. (Incidentally, you'll also often find these types of people stating that if you ever saw the people making the debunked claims talking, you'd know they were telling the truth... as if skilled/charismatic liars don't exist.)

Moral panics can also create an atmosphere where criticism can be dangerous. When during the Salem Witch Trials Martha Corey voiced belief that girls slinging around accusations of witchcraft were lying, she was herself quickly accused of witchcraft. When her husband Giles Corey attempted to defend his wife against the allegations he was likewise accused. Both Martha and Giles Corey were killed - Martha by hanging, and Giles by pressing him between boards with stones as weight as a means to extract a confession through torture. The fact that Martha was a regular churchgoer made no difference - when the girls decided to point fingers in her direction, her doom was sealed.

So basically, the anatomy of a moral panic is:

  1. People become afraid that something is actively threatening a stable and just society, be it a certain type of people, a new type of entertainment, an ideology or new political movement, a cultural boogeyman, etc. It can potentially be anything people don't feel entirely comfortable with.
  2. They mobilize an aggressive effort to stamp out and/or warn others about the perceived threat without first investigating whether it really is a threat.
  3. They'll latch onto everything that seems to prove what they're afraid of, while filtering out everything that could disprove it.
  4. They will become so convinced of their own righteousness that they will often polarize those who disagree with them as deluded or as part of the threat, and in some cases, silence them through punishment.

If you liked this, you might also be interested in:

How Good People & Well-Intentioned Groups Can Go Bad
Mindsets & Rationales That Lend Well To Villainy
Basic Tips To Write Better & More Despicable Villains
Tips To Write Better & More Believable Cover Ups
Tips & Ideas To Write More Believable Masquerades
Not All Myths & Legends Are Based In Truth
Tips To Build Better Post-Apocalyptic And/Or Dystopian Settings
Things That Show Up In Christianity-Inspired Fiction That Aren't In The Bible
A Fun Experiment To Disprove Claims of Sinister Symbology
Tips To Identify Hoaxes & Urban Legends

External resources and references:

(Items marked with a caution sign (⚠) contain material that may be disturbing for some, particularly with regard to sexual abuse and/or gore.)
Salem Witch Trials
The Death of Giles Corey
The Man of Iron: Giles Corey
Biographical Data: Martha Corey
The Escapist: As BADD As It Gets
SELLING SATAN: The Tragic History of Michael Warnke
Chapter-by-chapter review of Michelle Remembers
Michelle Remembers: Fiction, Not Fact
"I'm Sorry" (former McMartin student recants testimony)
McMartin Preschool: Anatomy of a Panic
This Day In History: The McMartin Preschool trials
"McMartin" Ritual Abuse Cases In Manhattan Beach, CA

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