9 senseless social panics that did lasting damage to America

As anti-vaccine hysteria rages on, a look back at some of the lowest moments in our nation's history

Published March 7, 2015 1:00PM (EST)

Senator Joseph R. McCarthy             (AP/David Schine)
Senator Joseph R. McCarthy (AP/David Schine)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet Editor's note: The following is the latest in a new series of articles on AlterNet called Fear in America that launched this March. Read the introduction to the series.

America is a fearful and gullible nation with a media misinformation machine that is more than happy to stoke our anxieties. Like windup toys, we obediently point in whatever direction the fearmongers tell us to and run, screaming and flailing our arms while demanding that someone do something about it. Many of these false social panics have done horrible and lasting damage, often long after the country has seemed to come to its senses.

Here are 9 of the worst social panics in recent American history.

1. Reds Under the Bed and Communist Hysteria

Red baiter Joe McCarthy would be right at home in today’s Republican party. Self-aggrandizing, prone to making baseless accusations, and cynically motivated by the endless pursuit of power, McCarthy was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1947. Though one of his first acts was to go to bat for a group of Nazis he claimed had been denied a fair trial, he was less concerned with justice for his fellow American citizens, whom he subjected to a witch-hunt that would make Bill O’Reilly proud.

McCarthy imagined communists, Soviet spies and “homosexuals” in the State Department, CIA, U.S. Army, Democratic Party, and likely, the constellations of the night sky. His campaign gave fuel to the House Un-American Activities Committee, which stepped up its own efforts to smear and blacklist “pinkos” in Hollywood. (For the record, Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis met in 1951 when she appealed to him, as head of the Screen Actors Guild, to remove her name from a list of Communist sympathizers.) After considerable damage was done to careers and lives, everyone finally got sick of McCarthy’s grandstanding and groundless fear-mongering, and he was censured—or technically, “condemned”—by Congress in 1954. But the long tail of McCarthy touches everything from Reagan’s much mocked “Star Wars” defense initiative, to '80s anti-Soviet movies (War GamesTop GunRocky IV), to Ted Cruz’s entire career.

2. AIDS Panic and Misinformation

The continuing AIDS crisis is a global tragedy that has devastated countless families, communities and an entire continent. Yet America’s reaction to the disease was nothing short of sheer hysteria that no amount of actual information could quell. Throughout the 1980s, movies, TV mini-series, talk shows and news items constantly warned of the dangers of young people contracting AIDS after just a moment of sexual “recklessness” (Something to Live ForKids). A 1987 episode of “Oprah” showcased a town in West Virginia that banded together against its lone HIV-positive resident. A family with three HIV-positive hemophiliac children (the Ray brothers) lost their home to arson after a court ordered a public school to allow the kids to attend. A posse of scared, overzealous parents banned teenager Ryan White from attending his school. And the nightly news showed doctors, nurses and cops wearing rubber gloves and, given the choice, hazmat suits for even the most casual contact with people presumed to have AIDS (which essentially meant all gay men).

The message to kids coming of age in the 1980s and '90s was that sex—even thinking about sex—could kill. Kind of a terrifying environment to grow up in.

2. Satanic Ritual Abuse

There were many victims of the satanic ritual child abuse panic of the 1980s and '90s. But the victims were not the children (unless you count the psychological damage to a four-year-old of being told that grownups dismembered babies in front of you). The scandals destroyed the lives of every adult associated with the McMartin Preschool in California, Frances and Dan Keller in Texas and hundreds of other daycare operators and workers.

The scandal was the modern equivalent of a witch-hunt, and gullible America was riveted. The seeds for the panic seemed to have been planted by the publication of a book called Michelle Remembers, which Slate describes as “the best-selling account of a Canadian psychotherapist’s work with a woman named Michelle Smith, who, under his care, began recalling forgotten memories of horrific childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her mother and others who were part of a devil-worshipping cult.”

The McMartin Preschool trial involved hundreds of children, some highly questionable child therapy practices now recognized as coercive, and a trial spanning three years and millions of dollars that led to no convictions. Dan and Frances Keller were less lucky. They served 21 years in prison after swift convictions for insane acts like feeding children bloody Kool-Aid and dressing as pumpkins while they shot at children’s legs. The Kellers were finally exonerated when the only real witness against them, an inexperienced doctor who examined a little girl they supposedly raped, recanted his testimony. Oprah, Geraldo, Sally Jesse Raphael and the rest of the media all helped spread the satanic ritual abuse fear.

Eventually, in 1992, FBI agent Kenneth Lanning, in his report on satanic ritual abuse, said that the entire phenomenon was not credible: “Hundreds of communities all over America are run by mayors, police departments, and community leaders who are practicing Satanists and who regularly murder and eat people? Not likely.” The National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, under the federal Department of Health and Human Services, agreed the problem was nonexistent in 1994. Yet many Americans continued to believe it was real.

The Satanic abuse panic spanned the political spectrum, which probably fueled its power. According to Debbie Nathan, an investigative reporter who co-wrote Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt, the preoccupation with Satan stoked the fears of the religious right; the desire to protect and believe the children motivated those on the left; and the anxiety about women going back to work and placing their children in daycare fanned the flames all around.

“I think it was a perfect storm of fear and anxiety,” Nathan told Slate. A perfect and horrific storm for the people in its path.

4. Superpredators

We still have not recovered from the myth of the teenage “superpredator,” which gave rise to a slew of harsh laws and crackdowns on juvenile crime, higher incarceration rates and thousands of ruined lives. In the early 1990s, the panic spread after a handful of high-profile murders involving children, a media frenzy and some social scientists more than willing to amp up the fear.

The (white) public was already primed to panic about (black) youth crime after the notorious Central Park jogger rape in 1989, for which four black teens and one Latino teenager were framed. The thinly veiled racist terms “wilding” and “wolfpacks” took off in the ensuing clamor. In 1994, the murder of an 11-year-old gang member nicknamed “Yummy” by two brothers aged 14 and 16 in Chicago shocked the nation and helped give birth to the notion that a generation of “superpredators,” remorseless, teenage psychopaths, was coming to get us. They were said to be “godless, fatherless and jobless,” and, everyone understood, mostly black. According to Berkeley criminologist Barry Krisberg, “when you describe another group of people as ‘Godless,’ you can do anything to them.”

A couple of academics added fuel to the fire, especially Princeton's John DiIulio, who crunched some demographic numbers and promised that juvenile crime would skyrocket in the ensuing years. He also coined the word “superpredator” which the media glommed onto. Northeastern University's James Fox warned of a coming “bloodbath of teenaged violence.” Politicians like Robert Dole and Newt Gingrich jumped on the bandwagon, and virtually every state enacted laws cracking down on juvenile offenders.

There was just one problem: Juvenile crime rates did the exact opposite of what the so-called experts predicted. They plummeted.

DiIulio repented. All of his predictions failed to materialize. “The superpredator idea was wrong,” he told the New York Times. “Once it was out there, there was no reeling it in.” He gave up social science and turned to religious faith. He also signed on to a friend of the court document in 2012 in a Supreme Court case that banned mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder.

5. The Marriage Crunch

In 1986, Newsweek magazine ran a cover story titled “The Marriage Crunch” that struck fear in many a white, single, college-educated, heterosexual woman. Based on a study from Harvard and Yale, it graphically (literally, there was a graph on the cover) told women that their chance of getting married after the age of 35 or 40 was so slim they were more likely to be killed by terrorists. From the age of 25-35, this demographic’s chances of snagging a husband was one precipitous plummet. The message was clear: young women, go snag a husband, any husband, and be eternally grateful you got one; your value on the marriage meat market is in decline.

Stunned, young, educated (marriage-minded) white women got together and cried their eyes out, or got furious, or in some cases got skeptical, while young (heterosexual), educated men gloated with the knowledge that the power and odds were strongly in their favor. They had their pick, and women had to settle, and perhaps curtail their educations, careers and dreams lest they end up old maids.

Some saw it for what it was: an attempt to put ambitious young women in their place, and scare them into a more submissive role. (Followup reporting on the women featured in the piece has pretty much debunked the study’s findings.) "How gleefully they warn that an uppity woman may be overqualified for the marriage market. Reach too high, young lady, and you'll end up in the stratosphere of slim pickings," Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman wrote.

All these years later, the picture has changed, and it is unlikely those scare tactics would work on a generation of millennials who assume they will delay marriage, if marriage is in the cards at all. No one seems terribly worked up about the issue.

6. Recovered Memory Syndrome

In the 1980s and ‘90s, recovered memory syndrome wreaked a fair amount of havoc in numerous American families. A therapist would work with a patient to “uncover” deeply buried memories of childhood trauma, most often involving childhood sexual abuse at the hands of male relatives (and sometimes mothers and grandmothers). Once “recovered,” the memories fueled confrontations in families that quite often resulted in permanent and often heartbreaking estrangement.

Though childhood sexual abuse within families is certainly a real problem, some experts and just regular folks began to seriously question whether memories “recovered” under suggestive and sometimes manipulative therapeutic circumstances were trustworthy. The pendulum began to swing the other way. Instead of blindly believing anyone who leveled accusations against a family member based on memories recovered in therapy, people began to be skeptical.

Accused parents started the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, citing the psychologist Elizabeth Loftus who proved in her work just how easy it is to implant false memories in certain vulnerable people. (Loftus has also done important work with the unreliability of eyewitness testimony in criminal trials.) Recovered memory syndrome was relegated to the realm of pseudoscience along with the notion that vaccines cause autism. But like the vaccine-autism theory, there are still some who believe in recovered memories. The media has largely lost interest in the story, but the damage to many families lives on.

7. Crack Babies

The crack epidemic gave rise to all sorts of bad laws, disproportionate, racist penalties and misplaced hysteria, including trumped-up concern about so-called crack babies. Images of these poor, trembling, underweight creatures, said to be born doomed because of their mother’s crack addiction, inspired both pity and fear. The fear was that the babies would never be able to live anything resembling a normal life, would themselves be addicted to crack, have brain damage, cost a great deal of money, have no conscience, and likely grow up into a dreaded “superpredator” if they grew up at all. What most people didn't know was that the crack baby scare was based on one very small study of 23 babies in 1985. Yet it was enough to cause a media frenzy.

Every major network and newspaper sounded the alarm, airing the results of the tiny study with alarmist rhetoric. "A cohort of babies is now being born whose future is closed to them from day one,” Charles Krauthammer pontificated in the Washington Post in 1989. “Theirs will be a life of certain suffering, of probable deviance, of permanent inferiority. At best, a menial life of severe deprivation."

Subsequent studies indicated that the fears about crack babies were overblown, and some of the babies even grew up to have productive lives. Cocaine use by pregnant women, while not good, turns out to be far less damaging than excessive alcohol use. But the crack baby panic did have a lasting effect on the criminal justice system, and has aided and abetted the criminalization of poor women with drug problems.

8. Various Disease Pandemics

Remember Mad Cow Disease? For a fleeting moment in 2002, our news media assured us daily that it would almost certainly kill us all. Most of us miraculously escaped with our lives, and the threat went away as quickly as it appeared.

It’s a pattern that’s become all too familiar. Fear — and ratings — won’t stoke themselves, so our news media endlessly reports on disease “pandemics” that often pose little to no threat to most Americans. (These diseases may wreak havoc in other, often developing, nations, but as a country, we don’t really care about that.) One 2014 poll found that the more Ebola news coverage people consumed, the more misinformed they were about the disease and its actual threat. What’s more, people are less likely to be killed by Ebola than by a TV falling on them, choking on food, or being attacked by a cow. West Nile Virus, SARS, bird flu, H1N1, and MERS have all gotten the hysteria treatment.

9. Heavy Metal, Dungeons & Dragons, Satanism and Suicide

The 1980s Satanic panic manifested not only in allegations of Satanic ritual abuse, but in hysteria about heavy metal songs and fantasy games with 12-sided dice. Suburban parents, trying to make sense of huge leaps in the teen suicide rate, decided heavy metal and D&D’s “occult” imagery contained secretly encoded messages telling kids to try satanism and suicide. Patricia Pulling, the bereaved mother of a boy who killed himself, started Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons (BADD) in 1983.

Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne were sued by the families of teenagers who said their music had directly and insidiously led these young people to take their own lives. Neither case was successful. (A documentary about the Judas Priest trial is worth watching, particularly for a scene in which Rob Halford points out that the supposedly suggestive lyrics also sound like a request for a basket of peppermints.) News programs including “20/20” covered heavy metal and its connection to “ghoulish images, violent theatrics and even" (dramatic pause) "suicide.” By the mid-’90s, no one had proved that backmasking—recording words backward onto a track that is played forward—had any effect at all, much less convincing kids to kill themselves. For all their trouble, Tipper Gore and the PMRC only succeeded in getting parental advisory labels put on records, which just helped sell even more explicit albums.

By Janet Allon

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By Kali Holloway

Kali Holloway is the senior director of Make It Right, a project of the Independent Media Institute. She co-curated the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s MetLiveArts 2017 summer performance and film series, “Theater of the Resist.” She previously worked on the HBO documentary Southern Rites, PBS documentary The New Public and Emmy-nominated film Brooklyn Castle, and Outreach Consultant on the award-winning documentary The New Black. Her writing has appeared in AlterNet, Salon, the Guardian, TIME, the Huffington Post, the National Memo, and numerous other outlets.

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