The reasons that thus lead mankind to believe the marvellously false, and to disbelieve the marvellously true, may be easily gathered. Of all the offspring of Time, Error is the most ancient, and is so old and familiar an acquaintance, that Truth, when discovered, comes upon most of us like an intruder, and meets the intruder’s welcome.

That’s wonderfully phrased, but why do some madnesses take root and others disappear unknown?

Charles MacKay, in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, writes:

The reasons that thus lead mankind to believe the marvellously false, and to disbelieve the marvellously true, may be easily gathered. Of all the offspring of Time, Error is the most ancient, and is so old and familiar an acquaintance, that Truth, when discovered, comes upon most of us like an intruder, and meets the intruder’s welcome.

That’s wonderfully phrased, but why do some madnesses take root and others disappear unknown? In the small town of Mattoon, IL, on September 1, 1944, a woman made a report to the police that she had been overcome by sickly sweet, paralyzing gas in her apartment. The local newspaper, the Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette reported the story under the headline "Anesthetic Prowler on Loose", and Mattoon was off to the races. Over the next two weeks, mass panic hit Mattoon, as reports filed into the police station, the FBI were summoned, and armed vigilantes began patrolling the streets. Reports of attacks stopped on September 12th (or 13th, depending on the source), but the case was made famous through a seminal (and probably deeply flawed, as the author chose to frame his explanation in terms of hysterical women, ignoring reports that had come from men) paper on mass hysteria published in 1945. In Mattoon, nobody was lynched, shot, or accused of a crime, making it a harmless panic compared to the Salem witch trials or even the outbreak of ritual child abuse panic that, fueled by shock journalism, swept across America and England in the 1980s.

To understand why panics break out, I think we should look at a related phenomenon, the urban legend. There are a number of excellent urban legends resources on the web (notably the alt.folklore.urban FAQ and the indispensible snopes.com). I’m not aware of any serious attempts to track the origins and mutations of urban legends, although there’s a nifty site called Forwardgarden, where people can show off the things that clutter their inboxes. Why do some urban legends stick and get repeated decades later, or last despite high-powered attempts to squash them? The wonderful folklorist and scholar Jan Harold Brunvand has suggested that the longest-lived stories have some sort of annealing social context, that they serve to reinforce widely held community beliefs. A cursory reading of a few of the legends collected (and usually debunked) at Snopes will reveal that this is certainly true for many.

Are we hysterical? Reading Edward Abbey books (via Lia) can get you tossed off a plane and Northwest Airlines is no longer providing NutraSweet on their flights because people are mistaking what comes out of those little blue packets for deadly (scary but treatable) anthrax. But has it reached the level of mass hysteria yet? Maybe, maybe not.

For hysterial outbreaks, I think you have to look at what the fear represents. It’d be easy to dismiss the Mattoon Gasser as wartime hysteria — the same sorts of things that led people to report seeing Japanese subs off Santa Barbara — if it weren’t for the Botetourt Gasser, who caused an uproar in Botetourt and Roanoak Counties, Virginia, in 1933 and 1934. Phantom gassers were just part of the collective unconcious then, I suppose, perhaps as a reaction to the still relatively fresh horrors of mustard gas being used during the First World War.

Sometimes the cause of the hysteria is less directly obvious. Prostitution was in many ways (some tacit, other explicit) accepted in the nineteenth century, but things had begun to change by midcentury and were thoroughly altered by century’s end. The time was ripe for journalist W. T. Snead to write his series about child prostitution and white slavery, "The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon". His story beget yet a more individual scandal — Snead was accused and convicted of kidnapping one of the young prostitutes he wrote about — but it was a story with legs; as one essay on "The Maiden Tribute" puts it:

Despite its imperfections, the scandal was a masterstroke of Victorian journalism. Stead shamelessly terrorised the middle-class imagination by presenting the impoverished street urchins who were the real victims of criminal vice, as the innocent, "goldilocked" daughters of London’s respectable elite. He dressed middle-class daughters in working-class clothes and shocked a hitherto unsympathetic public into utter panic over child prostitution. To say that the "Maiden Tribute" was a distortion of fact, based on suspect evidence and an ill-conceived experiment, is really rather missing the point.

So there’s the fear: "Our daughters will be taken away from us and defiled!" It’s a pretty good societal fear, as fears go. The Mann Act, the early twentieth century American response to worries about white slavery, seems to have had different fears at its root, resulting from "swelling uneasiness about the bad effects of big cities, immigration, and female independence on supposedly traditional American virtues." (I’ve read of outbreaks of white slavery hysteria in France that accused certain Jewish-owned businesses were fronts for oversees slavery rings.)

What do anthrax scares say? That we’re scared of terrorism, obviously, but I think you could trace similarities to a number of mini-panics over the last twenty years — the immense overreaction to reports that Alar was carcinogenic, fears about toxic mold, and the like, even the success of The Hot Zone. I think one of the stories that really resonates in America is the failure to control our environment; I don’t think this is a left or right issue, or one that’s either pro- or anti-environmentalist. I just think that’s one of the large fears that a whole host of smaller ones bounce off of. Maybe I should go watch Todd Haynes’ Safe again, as I think that’s the artistic work I can think of that’s most clearly similar to my idea. Is this a vein of the American psyche that’s been largely untapped?