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Mass Hysteria – we’re all susceptible

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Most people will be aware of the mass panic caused when Orson Welles narrated an adaptation of War of the Worlds by H G Wells on 30 October 1938. For those who do not, the broadcast was given in the form of a news broadcast, telling of an alien invasion, which caused mass panic among 1.2 million listeners in the USA.  Of course, many would think that after that scare, a similar one could ever happen again.  Except it did, nearly 20 years later, and with much more serious consequences.

Leonardo Paez and Eduardo Alcaraz broadcast a Spanish language adaptation of Welles’s play on Radio Quito on 12 February 1949, which broke into the middle of a music programme in the guise of an emergency broadcast. Mass panic was set off in the centre of Quito with people attempting to flee and others looting. To make matters worse Radio Quito had not informed the emergency services who believed the attack was on the outskirts of town, causing police and fire engines to rush out to help. Realising what they had caused, Radio Quito announced that the broadcast was fictional. This merely turned panic to anger. Rioting broke out and the mob advanced on and laid siege to the radio station. Most of those inside had to flee up to the third floor. The station was then set on fire and was well alight when the police and fire brigade were trying to return from the outskirts. Some of the staff at Radio Quito were left with the dilemma of jumping from the third floor or burning to death. There were so many rioters that the government had to send out the army in tanks to clear a path for fire engines to attend the radio station and other fires. The eventual cost was 20 dead, 15 severely injured and US$250,000 worth of damage.

The gullibility of mankind is quite fantastic and as hard as many would find it to believe, it can all too easily lead to mass hysteria.  The truly frightening part of this is that there are none of us who are not susceptible to it, not one.  No, not even me – and not you, the reader either.

The broadcasts of The War of the Worlds are particularly good examples of the power of the media in spreading mass hysteria, and this has always been the case.  For centuries it was in writing.  Then came print, then in the 20th century, radio, television and the internet.  And there were and there always shall be those who believe that if it is in the media, it must be true.

The Book of Revelation and other parts of the Christian Bible talk of the “End Times” when God’s elect will be called up to Heaven in the rapture and there will be a holy war against the Antichrist.  For the greater part of the past 2000 years people have been told at varying intervals that they must prepare for the coming “end times” by the clergy, who stated that the signs of which were clear.  And after all, given that most people for the greater amount of this time were illiterate, they had to trust upon the clergy’s word, and if you could not trust a Man of God, whom could you trust?  So it was at some given intervals, people would gather expecting the end of the world to be upon them.  If disease or a natural disaster struck a people, it was obviously a sign of the end times, which of course was confirmed by the clergy.

At times there were people would actually gather at a given place on a given date, fully expecting to be called up to Heaven.  And while the advent of printing, better education and more widespread literacy curbed the credulity of some, the church still had a firm grip on most, so more and more people were seeing the obvious signs of the End Times.  In 1833 an American Baptist lay preacher, William Miller, predicted that the second coming of Jesus would occur on 22 September 1844.  Miller gained thousands of followers in the USA and the UK who became known as Millerites.  As the great day approached, many left their jobs and sold or gave away their possessions.  When 22 September 1844 came and went without incident, there were many Millerites remained loyal.  Some put forward new dates as predictions, and the movement split into different schisms.  One of these we know today as Seventh Day Adventists.

Many in this day and age may find William Miller’s prediction crazy and perhaps a quaint example of 19th century religious fervour.  It is worth noting however that exactly the same thing happened when Harold Camping predicted the Rapture on 21 March 2011, with thousands leaving their jobs and giving vast donations to Family Radio, which is owned by Camping.  But then the same had happened when Camping had predicted the end of the world in September 1994 – just as thousands had gathered to witness the end of the world many times over the centuries.

Not that it was just the end times which whipped up mass hysteria.  Biblical teachings were abused for centuries to whip up a frenzy against many enemies, be they Mohammedans, Jews, or suspected witches.  The witch hunts which swept across Europe are a particularly brutal example. The number of people killed as witches has been estimated to be at least 200,000 to possibly in excess of 1 million.  This would not have been possible with the support of the people, whipped into fear of the unknown by the clergy.

The Jews are a particularly relevant example of the dangers of mass hysteria.  It was not enough that the early Christian churches accused Jews of being “Christ killers”, in the 12th century they spread the rumour of the Jewish “Blood Libel”.  This particularly odious total lie claims that Jews kill Christians, particularly little boys, to use their blood for ritual purposes such as adding to Passover matzah (unleavened bread). The first claim came from Norwich in 1144 when the body of a little boy named William was found in woods and Thomas of Monmouth accused local Jews of killing the boy in a mockery of the crucifixion. Belief in this was so firm that a cult grew up around the boy and the church actually canonised him as Saint William of Norwich. And if the reader is astounded at medieval superstition, it did not stop there.  The Blood LIbel has continued to see Jews accused and castigated down throughout history as recently as 1928 a four year old little girl went missing in Massena, New York, and a rumour swept the community that Jews had kidnapped and killed her for a blood ritual. The local rabbi was called to the police station, drawing an angry crowd, where he was questioned by police and state troopers who asked him about Jewish blood rituals. It was only while this was going on that the little girl, who had wandered off, was found safe and unharmed. To this day there are people on the extreme right, radical Islamists and conspiracy theorists who maintain that the Jewish blood libel is factual, and there are plenty all too willing to listen and believe them.

On top of the blood libel, there grew a conspiracy of the Jews attempting to take over the world. This is nothing new but equally goes back to medieval times. Wider availability of books and increased literacy however made such claims more widely available to the general public. 1903 saw the publication in Russia of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Nobody knows the author of this document but is widely suspected to be Pyotr Ivanovich Rachkovsky, head of the Paris office of the Russian Secret Service. The Protocols is a fake document, purporting to be genuine notes of a meeting of Jewish leaders discussing their goal of global Jewish hegemony by subverting the morals of Gentiles, and by controlling the press and the world’s economies. From Russia it was quickly printed in several languages and widely distributed around Europe and further afield. Despite being denounced as a fake by The Times (London) in 1921, the Protocols went onto sell millions of copies/ Car manufacturer Henry Ford personally funded the printing and distribution of 500,000 copies of the Protocols across the USA and this is believed to have created the first “red scare” in US history. When the Nazis came to power in Germany, it was claimed to be a genuine document and historian Norman Cohn suggested that Hitler used the Protocols as his primary justification for initiating the “final solution to the Jewish question” in the form of the Holocaust in which six million Jews were rounded up and killed. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is still widely available today, online and in printed versions, most of the latter of which have been printed in Arabic languages by radical Islamists. It is also still held as genuine by the extreme right as being a genuine article, and if you doubt it’s power, consider the New World Order conspiracy theories of the present day, many of which speak of a Jewish-led conspiracy to subvert society by controlling the press and taking over the world’s economies.

As we have seen above, as media evolved, so radio also was responsible for causing panic.  So it was when television came along, it too would become responsible for contributing to mass hysteria.

In 1977 Anglia Television in the UK produced a spoof documentary under the fake name of a series; “Science Report”, calling the equally fake documentary “Alternative 3”.  It was originally meant to be broadcast on 1 April but problems in production led to it’s airing being delayed until 20 June 1977.  Alternative 3 told of an impending worldwide environmental catastrophe and of the USA, UK  and USSR carrying out a “brain drain” to ship the finest minds of the planet to secret bases on the Moon and Mars.  It further claimed that scientists who had previously tried to tell the media had disappeared and included footage purporting to be something alive crawling under the Martian soil.  As Alternative 3 was aired, switchboards at Anglia TV were jammed, are were those of police stations the length and breadth of the UK.  In the days that followed newspapers asked questions about airing such a hoax due to the mass panic it caused.  Believe it or not, there are people to this day who believe that Alternative 3 was genuine.

So you could be forgiven for thinking such a thing could never happen again, right?  Except on 31 October (Halloween) 1992, BBC 1 in the UK broadcast Ghostwatch.  Set in the same “mockumentary” style as Alternative 3, Ghostwatch was actually broadcast under the BBC’s Screen One productions, and included well-known British celebrities such as Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith and Craig Charles.  Loosely based on the allegedly true-life case of the Enfield Poltergeist, it was broadcast in the style of a live documentary set partially in studio and partially in a house where poltergeist activity was claimed to have taken place.  There were many depictions of supposed paranormal events in the broadcast, including an actor (Keith Ferrari) making sudden and momentary appearances as the ghost, “Pipes”. The show ended with the poltergeist supposedly taking control of the BBC TV network and possessing host Michael Pakinson, the suggestion being that anyone in the country could be possessed through their televsion set.

As with Alternative 3, Ghostwatch saw switchboards jammed and created mass hysteria the length and breadth of the UK.  This time however the repercussions were to be far more serious.  Martin Denham an 18 year old factory worker with learning difficulties and a mental age of 13 had watched the show.  He had problems with his central heating system causing knocking in the pipes.  Mistaking this for poltergeist activity, he committed suicide, leaving a note saying he wanted to be with the ghosts.  In 1994 the British Medical Journal reported the cases of two 10 year old boys suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after watching the show.  Reactions to the articles cited four further cases among children aged between 8 and 11 years old, as well as in elderly people.

The advent of the internet becoming accessible to all has also been responsible for the spread of mass hysteria since the 1990s.  Perhaps the greatest example of this, albeit along with newspapers, radio and television, was the Y2K scare.  For those who do not know, it became apparent in the 1990s that on the turn of 1 January 2000 most computer chronometers would click over to 1 January 1900.  For the better informed among us this merely meant that the computers would to the greater degree not work properly and would thereby become obsolete.  What followed however were wild media stories of planes falling out of the sky, industrial robots  and computer-driven machinery going haywire, nuclear reactors going into meltdown and a Third World War being starting accidentally by missiles launching by themselves.  There were a great many people took this all too seriously and there were reported cases of people selling up their homes and going to live in remote rural areas.  Of course, 1 January 2000 came and went without incident; apart from computer and software manufacturers suddenly becoming much richer.

Not that it needs the media to stir up panic.  Sometimes word of mouth is all it takes.  Word of mouth would have been largely responsible for the witch hunts which troubled Europe for hundreds of years (as was the case in Salem, Massachusetts, USA in 1692-3) and that would continue down history.  In 1983 school children in Houston, Texas, USA became terrified of being attacked by Smurfs. Yes, the little blue cartoon characters created by Belgian cartoonist Peyo. A rumour swept the city that gangs of Smurfs had armed with guns and knifes had infiltrated schools and were killing students and teachers, the story going that one principal had been killed at one particular school. The wild imaginations of preteen schoolkids got going and some would claim that if you wore blue you were safe, while others claimed that if you wore blue you would be killed. In the event several schools were disrupted as kids refused to go to school, some kept home by more gullible parents and some schools locked their students in. Some well-meaning teachers thought it a good idea to tell the kids that other cartoon characters were being drafted in to fight off the Smurfs, which only made matters worse. The panic only lasted days before it subsided but several schools were affected. In the event, the scare had been started due to a TV report of the arrest of 40 members of a blue jacket wearing youth gang, who called themselves The Smurfs.

Word of mouth when mixed with the media can be downright dangerous.  In 2000 the tabloid newspaper The News of the World started a campaign to name and shame 150 paedophiles in the UK.  Forget any notion of the altruistic aims of the editorship, they were merely trying to sell newspapers.  What followed was a series of vigilante attacks on completely innocent men and women.  In a frightening parallel to the witch hunts of old, many were targeted merely because they lived alone and / or chose not to become involved with their local community.  People within the LGBT community were attacked, the ignorant masses believing that gay must equal paedophile.  Nature and landscape photographers were beaten up.  The satirical magazine Private Eye carried a cartoon of a man running from a baying mob with the caption “I’m a PAEDIATRICIAN, you idiots.”.  The following week, it actually happened; a woman doctor had her office burned out and part of her sign vandalised – the part which read “Paediatrician”.  Following a great many police complaints the News of the World dropped it’s campaign, but the damage was done and attacks continued for some time to come.

These are just some of the instances of the power of mass hysteria, although there have been a great many more.  Be it the Nibiru end of the world prophecy of 21 December 2012, the New World Order, or marauding bands of feral smurfs, people can be gullible, and it only takes the slightest rumour to get them frightened.  And when people are frightened, they can get ugly.

I said earlier that we are no different, and if you doubt that I want you to try a little experiment.  Picture in your mind, right now, a UFO and an extraterrestrial alien.

I am telling you right now, that the vast majority of you immediately pictured the classic “flying saucer” and “grey alien”.  We all know these things do not exist but once an idea is planted in our minds it is very hard to remove, and that in itself is a form of mass hysteria.

Still think you’re not as susceptible as any of those involved in the above examples?  🙂