Just like an individual’s fears can boil over into panic, the subconscious dreads and anxieties of entire communities can reach critical mass and create a state of self-perpetuating panic. It’s happened a thousand times in as many places, and it’s going to happen again. The occasional mass panic is a part of every society, so I had plenty to choose from. As you may recall from my article about presidential paranormal encounters, I’m a skeptic, so I’ll also break down the fears that led to the mass panic to bring you the truth behind the terror.
The War of the Worlds Broadcast
On October 30, 1938, future filmmaker and belligerent pea spokesperson Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre repertory dramatized H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds as a Halloween treat. His approach — framing the action of the novel as simulated news reports — was extremely innovative. It was also quite alarming, as many listeners tuned in without registering that the emergency broadcast was part of the show. Popular accounts have terrified citizens rioting in the streets, barricading their families inside their homes, and even committing suicide, all to avoid vaporization at the spongy hands of Martian invaders.
In fact, later studies indicate that the show drew a relatively small audience, and only a fraction did not grasp the nature of the broadcast. Those that did panic still didn’t believe that Martians were assaulting New York; they heard a broadcast about an invasion force and immediately assumed it was the Germans. Since Germany was legitimately about to invade the, uh, world, concerned citizens flooded the newspapers and police stations with calls about the broadcast, but aside from isolated incidents, no one really lost it. Except, of course, for the reporters and police who descended on Welles to castigate him for the mass panic that they assumed had to be gripping the public.
The Ripper wasn’t the only Jack stalking the gaslit streets of Victorian London. A blue-skinned, fire-breathing rogue known as Spring-Heeled Jack was said to appear from the shadows, assault young women, then leap over rooftops to escape. He was witnessed and reported on countless times in the London press, and most terrifyingly, his attacks continued intermittently for over sixty years; the first attack occurred in 1837, the last in 1904. How are we to explain a functionally immortal demonic sex fiend who could leap over buildings as if his heels housed springs?
As it turns out, SHJ was the bread and butter of a class of journeyman journalists called penny-a-liners. Back before newspapers had staff writers, freelancers would gin up outlandish takes to fill page space when Parliament wasn’t in session. Most crucially, this fraternity of hungry writers often shared stories and resubmitted them in different times and places, making it seem to subsequent generations that Jack had been marauding for decades. Originally, Jack was likely nothing more than another in a long tradition of urban legends about London’s street ghosts, dating back to the Hammersmith Ghost of 1804.
The Mad Gasser of Mattoon
Despite the name, this phenomenon didn’t start in the bustling metropolis of Mattoon, Illinois. The first reports of strange odors and physical symptoms came from Virginia in the 1930s, but things really took off in the 1940s Midwest. It would always begin the same way: someone would detect a mysteriously sweet odor in their home, then develop nausea. Often it would stop there, but some victims would further develop headaches, fatigue, and weakness. A few folks even reported paralysis and swelling of the throat. Clearly, there was only one explanation: some guy was running around town, pumping poisonous gas into people’s houses through open windows, AND YOUR OPEN WINDOW COULD BE NEXT. Nearly thirty separate attacks or sightings were reported, albeit with no fatalities or serious injuries.
Pro tip: if you want to create a mass panic in your municipality, you could do worse than to emulate Mattoon’s county health commissioner. This genius called a press conference to say — and I’m quoting — “There is no doubt that a gas maniac exists,” but that he wasn’t a particularly dangerous gas maniac. He said this, despite an utter lack of physical evidence, despite most of the symptoms reported being plausibly psychosomatic, and despite zero consistency among eyewitness descriptions of the gasser. According to the terrified Mattoonians, the attacks were the work of between one and four people, traveling on foot or in a car, and definitely a man or maybe a woman in drag. Also, Mattoon was downwind from a chemical plant which manufactured several chemicals which could have plausibly induced symptoms. But whatever, definitely the gas maniac.
The Beast of Gévaudan
Unlike every other example of mass panic on this list, there absolutely was something unusual happening in the summer of 1764; something started killing people in the French province of Gévaudan, and it didn’t stop for three years. Shepherd children started dying, killed by unusually aggressive wolves. As the casualties mounted, the people of the Gévaudan began to believe that a single, gigantic wolf was responsible for all the attacks, and he became more demonic with each sighting. He gained blazing red eyes and a hyena-like gait, and then his hide started to deflect musket shot. The nascent French news media began to cover the story, and soon the crown was forced to sponsor a series of wolf hunts to halt what was supposedly a supernatural, lycanthropic rampage.
Ultimately, the royal huntsmen killed a large wolf that that claimed was The Beast, and the killings stopped. So, what was The Beast? In all likelihood, it was wolves. Not superwolves, not werewolves, just wolves. The mountainous, inhospitable climate of Gévaudan drove the local wolf packs to turn to humans as prey. No wonder he survived so many gunshot wounds and changed his look so often; only by slowly whittling down the wolf population as a whole could The Beast be slain.
Fear of this nocturnal creature caused mass panic on the Tanzanian island of Pemba back in 1995. Popobawa is an evil spirit that often takes the form of a gigantic black bat and invades homes at night. It stinks of sulfur and causes standard-issue poltergeist havoc, but that’s not the worst part. Popobawa, you see, also wants to have sex with your butt. After he finishes his dirty business, he warns you that if you don’t immediately tell your friends and family about his backdoor conquest, he will return the next night.
In reality, Popobawa seems linked to political unrest in Tanzania. The people of Pemba have noticed the connection, but their explanation is that Popobawa is a demon summoned by the nation’s ruling political party to break the spirits of dissenters. A more prosaic interpretation might be that Popobawa represents a localized type of sleep paralysis, exacerbated by the stresses of impotence in an oppressive regime. After all, an extensive survey of Pemba’s hospitals, conducted by Benjamin Radford of MonsterTalk, confirmed that no doctors have treated any Popobawa wounds.
Satanic Ritual Abuse
In 1980, Canadian psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder published Michelle Remembers, an account of his recovered memory work with his patient and future wife, Michelle Smith (NOTHING WEIRD THERE). After years and years of hypnosis, Smith recalled that she had been abused as a child by devil-worshipping cultists in her hometown. The book became a bestseller, and the idea spread like wildfire. In California, over 300 children told investigators that their preschool was home to black masses, bestiality, and human sacrifice. Dozens of reputations and livelihoods were destroyed before the real story became clear.
The Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) scare was an especially virulent strain of the larger Satanic Panic which gripped the United States in the second half of the 20th century. Pop cultural fascination with satanic powers interacted with subconscious guilt felt by many Americans over generally declining religiosity. They were therefore primed to believe when parents and social workers came forward with horror stories, despite the fact that the kids were being asked very leading questions. As the dust settled, actual experts came forward to confirm that there were no underground tunnels, a hot air balloon isn’t an ideal spot for a black mass, and Pre-K students literally can’t survive the kind of abuse that panicked adults imagined for them.