The concept of moral panic denotes an interesting sociological phenomenon. The term is used to describe episodes of mass panic caused by not very serious factors. The moral panic is usually created and triggered by the mass media. Jeffrey Victor in his article “Satanic Cult Rumors as Contemporary Legend” and Debbie Nathan with Michael Snedeker in their book Satan's Silence analyze the phenomenon and provide examples of it. This paper argues that moral panics are to certain extent “enterprises” and provides evidence to defend this point of view.
Jeffrey Victor and Debbie Nathan with Michael Snedeker in their works provide definitions of the term “moral panic”. According to them, this social phenomenon is characterized by the spread of mass hysteria. It is usually connected with something that is believed to provide a threat to the people’s safety, well-being, and/or social moral norms. It might be some ideology, social tendency, a person, or a group of people. The main characteristic feature of the moral panic is a considerable gap between the real future danger and a potential danger, the probability of which is usually rather small. As a rule, moral panic causes episodes of mass fear and disturbance. Nathan and Snedeker shrewdly mentioned that “Among contemporary specialists in the discipline, the older term "mass hysteria" has been replaced with "hysterical contagion" or "mass sociogenic illness”” (116). According to them, the phenomenon can be understood only with the help of social psychology, since the contrast between the lack of evidence and the level of panic and fear in some societies is striking. According to Nathan and Snedeker, as well as Victor, mass media and government often play important roles in the formation and spreading of the moral panic. They can create a new social problem promptly and dramatically. Nathan and Snedeker state that “By the mid-1980s, belief in ritual abuse had been institutionalized by professional societies, journals, the mass media, and a federal government that energetically promoted its champions' claims” (136). This fact proves that very often moral panic is created purposely to promote some politicians or to turn the attention of people to the imaginary social problems. Usually, those who are affected by moral panic are absolutely sure that a social group which is the “main character” of the panic has a very negative influence on the society. Victor in his article “Satanic Cult Rumors as Contemporary Legend” described an episode that happened his hometown. People there experienced moral panic and believed that a satanic cult existed in their town. The citizens were sure that the representatives of the cult were going to murder someone and that they were constantly causing some damage to the town. According to Victor, their beliefs were so strong that they were seeing things, for example, the wrongdoings committed by the Satanists, which in fact never took place. Victor states that panic and rumors went hand-in-hand during the episodes of moral panic, and rumors were becoming more and more unrealistic. People were frightened and thus they were ready to lynch someone in order to destroy the source of the social danger. Remarkably, the ordinary citizens were, in fact, committing actions which were hardly moral and even contradicted the law. For example, they sent death threats to Victor’s son and other young people and took weapons with them when they believed that they were going to where the Satanists gathered.
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Jeffrey Victor as well as Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker describe some episodes, which show that moral panic could be an “enterprise”. As it has been already mentioned, there are some people who might benefit from it. For example, Victor mentioned that the Proctor and Gamble Company had serious commercial problems because people believed that its logo used satanic symbols. Indeed, someone was spreading such rumors about the company to spoil its reputation and prevent others from buying its products. Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker’s book also covered similar episodes. The passage “The Ritual-Abuse Industry” described how the National Center for Child Abuse and Neglect and many other similar organizations “earned” huge amounts of money. People were eager to donate money believing that they would help children. The government also spent relatively big sums on solving such exaggerated social problem as child abuse. This is a striking example of how a moral panic can create a whole industry that helps people earn money.
Summing up, moral panic is a social phenomenon used to describe episodes of mass fear connected with some social group, ideology, or a person. The characteristic feature of moral panic is a striking contrast between the existing evidence and the imaginary threat. Moral panic should be analyzed with the help of social psychology, because its nature is similar to that of psychological disorders. Moral panic can also be called “an enterprise”, because very often there are people who benefit from it. It can be the government, mass media, or a businessman. Very often they create moral panic and contribute to its spread for various purposes, such as financial gain. Victor, Nathan and Snedeker in their works described the cases when moral panic helped people/organizations earn. Nathan and Snedeker even wrote about the birth of the whole industry formed by the moral panic connected with child abuse.