Moral Panic in America; Witches, Drugs, AIDS and Sex Offenders

I should have been a social sociologist. I would be making a lot more money than I am now.  Sociology and society fascinates me.  I know I should be writing something positive about America especially as we approach the Fourth of July.  But to be honest, as I write this today I’m just not in the mood to write about patriotism, fireworks or freedom. That may come tomorrow.  You may say that I’m looking into the darker side of American history and you would be right.  Mainstream media and our millions of electronic devices (social media, etc) heavily adds to moral panic in society. During this time of the year, I  couldn’t ignore what American society and it’s people have done to it’s citizens based on fear, racism and group-think.   To be honest, looking at the images and reading the explanations below makes me sick to my stomach.  Unfortunately, moral panic continues today but we may not be aware of them because we are currently experiencing he moral panic in the current day and are unaware of the consequences to society. (read moral panic #8)  It’s only when we look back in history are we aware of what occurred and the damage that has been done.

What is a moral panic?  A moral panic is a feeling of fear spread among a large number of people that some evil threatens the well-being of society. A Dictionary of Sociology defines a moral panic as “the process of arousing social concern over an issue – usually the work of moral entrepreneurs and the mass media.” The media are key players in the dissemination of moral indignation, even when they do not appear to be consciously engaged in crusading or muckraking. Simply reporting the facts can be enough to generate concern, anxiety, or panic.

Throughout American history, there has been numerous moral panics.  I could list hundreds here but I’ve chosen ones that are the most accepted by sociologists and the people that have chosen to study moral panics such as Stanley Cohen, who was a sociologist and criminologist who wrote the 1972 study Folk Devils and Moral Panics.

  1. WITCH TRIALS (1600’s)


The witch-trials emerge in the 15th century out of the practices surrounding the persecution of heresy in the medieval period, although they reach their peak only during the Wars of Religion following the Protestant Reformation. The period of witch trials in Early Modern Europe  were a widespread moral panic suggesting that malevolent Satanic witches were operating as an organized threat to Christendom during the 15th to 18th centuries.  Those accused of witchcraft were portrayed as being worshippers of the Devil, who engaged in such acts as malevolent sorcery at meetings known as Witches’ Sabbaths. Many people were subsequently accused of being witches, and were put on trial for the crime, with varying punishments being applicable in different regions and at different times.



Briefly, the Confederate states – after losing the Civil War – had visited upon them the ultimate indignity: Reconstruction, which gave freedmen (former slaves) the rights of human beings. That is to say, desegregation. That didn’t go over so well in the South (and still doesn’t, to some extent, anywhere in the US), and for about 100 years, any black person in the South accused (not convicted of any crime) of looking at a white woman, whistling at a white woman, touching a white woman, talking back to a white person, refusing to step into the gutter when a white person passed on the sidewalk, or in some way upsetting the local crackers was liable to be hauled from their house or jail cell by a mob, mutilated in a ghastly fashion, hung, and then burnt to a crisp. All governments – state or federal – and their agencies (like the cops) simply ignored this. You could buy picture postcards from proud local merchants of notable area lynchings.



This text is straight from the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology,  “The Sexual Psychopath Laws” (1950):

“Women and children are in great danger in American society because serious sex crimes are very prevalent and are increasing more rapidly than any other type of crime. J. Edgar
Hoover wrote, “The most rapidly increasing type of crime is that perpetrated by degenerate sex offenders …. (It) is taking its toll at the rate of a criminal assault every 43 minutes, day and night, in the United States.”Practically all of these serious sex crimes are committed by “degenerates,” “sex fiends,” or “sexual psychopaths.” Wittels wrote, “Most of the so-called sex killers are psychopathic personalities …. No one knows or can even closely estimate how many such creatures there are, but at least tens of thousands of them are loose in the country today. Other sex offenses are generally misdemeanors. Exhibitionism and homosexuality are the most prevalent of these. Hundreds of homosexuals can be found in any large city.”

4. WAR ON DRUGS (1970’s to late 1990’s)

brain on drugs

Some critics have pointed to moral panic as an explanation for the War on Drugs. For example, a Royal Society of Arts commission concluded that “the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, … is driven more by ‘moral panic’ than by a practical desire to reduce harm.”

Some have written that one of the many rungs supporting the moral panic behind the war on drugs was a separate but related moral panic, which peaked in the late 90’s, involving media’s gross exaggeration of the frequency of the surreptitious use of date rape drugs. News media have been criticized for advocating “grossly excessive protective measures for women, particularly in coverage between 1996 and 1998”, for overstating the threat, and for excessively raising it in women’s minds for the rest of their lives. For example, showing excessive concerns extending even into the late 2000s, a 2009 Australian study found that of 97 instances of patients admitted to the hospital believing their drinks might have been spiked, drug panel tests were unable to detect any drug in any of the cases.


McMartin Preschool case in Southern California

Some day care providers in the US were, during the 1980’s, accused of abusing children in satanic rituals. Their accusers? Children who had been coached by traveling “experts” to “remember” satanic child abuse by day care centers. No cross-examination of the children was allowed; most of them weren’t even present in the courtrooms. A national moral panic, fueled by trash like the book above and dozens of unbalanced fundamentalist parents ensued. Trials were held all over the US. “Satanic Panic” was the catchy name given to the rising fear that Satanic forces were taking over the country.

The most prominent of these Satanic sex abuse cases was the McMartin Preschool case in Southern California. Initial accusations were made in 1983; pre-trial investigations ran from 1984 to 1987; and the trial itself ran from 1987 to 1990, making it (at the time) the longest and most expensive criminal trial in United States history. Among the accusations were that children were taken to a maze of underground tunnels for the abuse and for rituals; they were forced to watch and/or participate in bestiality and the ritual slaughter of animals; saw “witches fly;” and the teachers wore robes with no clothes underneath. Seven teachers and administrators at the school were charged with crimes, but only two went to trial.


Peggy McMartin Buckey was acquitted on all charges. Her son, Ray Buckey, was acquitted on 52 of 65 charges; verdicts on the others were deadlocked. A second trial for Buckey produced the same results, and prosecutors declined to bring him to trial a third time.

6. AIDS (1980’s to 1990’s)


In the 1980’s a moral panic was created in the media over HIV/AIDS. The famous iceberg advertisement by the government clearly hinted that there was a lot more to HIV/AIDS than the public could possibly know about with the vast bulk hidden from view. Some media outlets nicknamed HIV/AIDS the ‘gay plague’ stigmatizing a specific section of the population as being the primary cause and carriers of the ‘gay plague’. While scientists gained a better understanding of HIV/AIDS as the 1980’s moved into the 1990’s and beyond, the illness was still seen by many as one either caused by or passed on by the gay community. When it became clear that this was not the case, the moral panic created by the media moved off in another direction blaming the general lax moral standards of the younger generation (both male and female) which then moved onto the next area of moral panic – the growth of the ‘laddettes’ – alcohol fueled young ladies who attempted to copy the behavior of young males. Statistically, the number of young people who behave in an anti-social manner at the weekend is dwarfed by the actual number of young people in the UK but the moral panic subculture created by the tabloid press would have the general population think differently.



In the past decade, there has been a growing convergence between schools and legal systems. The school to prison pipeline refers to this growing pattern of tracking students out of educational institutions, primarily via “zero tolerance” policies, and, directly and/or indirectly, into the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems. The school to prison pipeline has emerged in the larger context of media hysteria over youth violence and the mass incarceration that characterize both the juvenile and adult legal systems. While the school to prison pipeline is facilitated by a number of trends in education, it is most directly attributable to the expansion of zero tolerance policies. These policies have had no measurable impact on school safety, but have racially disproportionate effects, increase suspensions and expulsions, elevate the drop-out rate, and raise multiple legal issues of due process. A growing critique of these policies has lead to calls for reform and alternatives.

8. Registered Sex Offenders (Mid 1990’s to Current)


Some argue that sex offenders have been selected as the new realization of moral panics concentrating on sex, stranger danger, and national paranoia. People convicted of any sex crime are “…transformed into a concept of evil, which is then personified as a group of faceless, terrifying, and predatory devils…”, who, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, are perceived as constant threats in our neighborhoods, habitually waiting for an opportunity to strike. Consequently, sex offenders are often brought up by media on Halloween, despite the fact that there has never been any recorded case of abduction or abuse by a registered sex offender on Halloween. Academics, treatment professionals and law reformist groups such as RSOL and WAR have been vocal in their criticism that current sex offender laws are more based on moral panic and “public emotion than good science”, and have expanded over time to cover non-violent and low-level offenders, and treating them essentially the same as predatory offenders, often leading to disproportional punishment of being added on public sex offender registry, sometimes for life; and being subject to strict ordinances restricting their movement and places of living. Critics often point out that, contrary to popular media depictions, abductions by predatory offenders are very rare and 95% of child abuse offenses are committed by a someone known to the child; studies by the U.S Department of Justice found sex offender recidivism to be 5.3% which compares as second lowest of all offender groups, only those convicted of homicide having lower rate of recidivism. Critics claim that, while originally aimed towards the worst of the worst, the laws have gone through series of amendments, often named after the child victim of a highly publicized predatory sex offense, expanding the scopes of the laws to low level offenses. The media narrative of a sex offender highlighting egregious offenses as typical behavior of any sex offender; and media distorting the facts of some cases, has increased the panic leading legislators to attack judicial discretion, making sex offender registration mandatory based on certain listed offenses rather than individual risk or the actual severity of the crime, thus practically catching less serious offenders under the domain of harsh sex offender laws.  Additional reading…


Additional moral panics in America:

Rainbow Parties (2000’s)


Video games and violence (1990’s to early 2000’s)


Homosexual recruitment (1970’s to 1980’s)

Gay marriage opponent Leonard Gendron, a local pastor, holds a sign reading "Homosexuals are Possessed by Demons" outside the Massachusetts State House in Boston March 11, 2004 where the Massachusetts Legislature is debating an amendment to the state's constitution banning gay marriage. On November 11, 2003 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the state must issue marriage licenses to gay couples. REUTERS/Brian Snyder


Matt Duhamel, Filmmaker Host



Please follow and like us:
Tweet 20