America has a long, rich history of freaking out over non-existent or barely existent threats. Thanks to fearmongering and propaganda, mass hysteria and panicking over nothing has endured for centuries. While most of this panic seems laughable now, it’s worth remembering that we still invent nonsense fears. We believe anecdotes and myths over facts. But we already have plenty of things to be scared of without creating new fears.
Witches: If at First You Don’t Succeed, Keep Torturing Until You Do
New England, famed for its history and quaint landscapes, also played host to two “witch scares.” The first was in Hartford, Connecticut, and the second, and the more famous one was in Salem, Massachusetts. Both waves of panic resulted from a fear of the devil infiltrating and corrupting the colonies by way of witchcraft, e.g., the “devil’s magic.” The Connecticut episode saw about 40 people accused of witchcraft, with 11 of the accused hanged.
The fear was far more extensive in Massachusetts, with over 200 people accused of being witches and 20 people executed. It has since been theorized that what may have “afflicted” the “bewitched” is the fungus ergot, which can cause vomiting, delusions, and muscle spasms.
Vampires: Digging Up the Dead
A couple of hundred years after freaking out about “witches,” New Englanders apparently grew restless and needed a new supernatural foe. Due to a dangerous, and seriously fatal outbreak of Tuberculosis, residents of Rhode Island, AKA “The Vampire Capital of America, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Connecticut, became convinced that what was affecting their fellow citizens was a rash of vampire attacks.
The concerned townsfolk did the only sensible thing and exhumed multiple bodies, getting their hands all over the corpses (and likely contacting TB) to determine if the deceased was a vampire. If so, they would cut up the body. For good measure, the bodies were often decapitated. And in the case of George Brown, the man ate his wife’s heart after the organ was burned. This led to him dying of TB as well.
Comet Panic- When Scary Things Happen In the Sky
When people are packing into churches, crucifying themselves on crosses, and rushing out to buy gas masks, it’s fair to say panic is in the air— the type of panic that can arise when people overreact to a small icy body in the sky. In 1910, Halley’s Comet stepped up to be that icy body.
What caused the panic?
Camille Flammarion, a scientist, speculated that Halley’s comet would trail cyanogen gas and, maybe, kill everyone on earth. And while buying a gas mask could make sense, why people thought they could protect themselves with anti-comet pills or an anti-comet umbrella is not as clear. However, among the suicides, people selling off their property, and drinking themselves senseless, some people saw the humor in the hysteria. For example, some bars adopted comet themes, including, making “cyanogen cocktails” and making comet jokes. It should be noted that this panic was shared throughout parts of the world.
Communism: AKA the Red Scare(s)
Several centuries after Americans put aside fears of the supernatural, they turned to a new fear: dangerous political ideology. The “Scares” were largely a reaction to a fear of the communist way of life seeping into America. The scares have also been connected to a fear of immigrants. The first Red Scare lasted from about 1917 to 1920, following WWI.
However, the more commonly known Red Scare is the one that lasted from the 1940s and into the 1950s. It was instigated by senator Joseph McCarthy. Many would lose their jobs or reputations based on zero evidence on McCarthy’s part. Further, Ronald Reagan, the future president and, at the time, the president of the Screen Actors Guild, helped kick off the red scare in Hollywood with his 1947 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Reagan’s testimony would set the stage for thousands of people being blacklisted (what being canceled actually looks like). During this period, the country lived in fear, afraid that communists were hiding everywhere, just waiting to poison the nation with its frightening political doctrine that stated property should be shared collectively. It wasn’t until McCarthy went after the army that his reign of terror ended.
Satanic Panic: AKA the Daycare Sex Abuse Hysteria
In the 1980s, America lost its mind, thanks to the book Michelle Remembers. The book led many to believe that satanic cults were running rampant across America. Many also feared that the Satanists had taken over daycare centers. Almost 200 people would be charged with crimes related to this panic. Most people were released from jail or had their charges dropped, while others spent years incarcerated. If this sounds eerily familiar, it’s because QAnon also promotes a similar idea that children are routinely being tortured and used in satanic rituals. In fact, Eddie Munson’s character in season four of Stranger Things was also used to reference the Satanic Panic.