Lecture 2: Crime and Moral Panics

Crime and Moral Panics: Lecture Overview

This week, I’m inviting you to think critically about the whole idea of crime. Rather than accept the idea of crime as an obvious phenomenon that is forever fixed in its definition, I’d like you to consider the ways in which the definition of crime can change over place and time. Many of the standards we personally consider absolute are not simply not absolute on an inter-personal (that is, a social, basis). As societies change over time, so standards of appropriate behavior change, and can be a contested process characterized by moral entrepreneurs, moral enforcers, and even from time to time moral panics. Such panics can affect the way that we think about crime and therefore the way that we treat people inside and outside the criminal justice system.

Before you start to review this lecture, be sure to read the second-week assignments laid out for you in our course syllabus:

  1. Read Linnemann, Travis. 2012. “Mad Men, Meth Moms, Moral Panic: Gendering Meth Crimes in the Midwest.Critical Criminology 18: 95-110.
  2. Read Best, Joel. 2012. “Halloween Sadism: The Evidence.” Accessible online at http://www.udel.edu/soc/faculty/best/site/halloween.html.
  3. Read Victor, Jeffrey. 1993. “Satanic Cults’ Ritual Abuse of Children: Horror Or Hoax?” USA Today 122: 2582. Accessible by searching for title in Academic Search Complete database at UMA Library Databases web page.
  4. Read Chick, Jack. 1987. “The Poor Little Witch.” Accessible online at http://www.chick.com/reading/tracts/0064/0064_01.asp.

The third reading assignment, authored by Corning sociologist Jeffrey Victor, differs from the others in an important way. As I noted in the syllabus and in last week’s lecture, there are certain readings that you can only access from the library databases at UMA. These databases are conveniently accessible if you enter your University of Maine system username and password. I suggest you try to access the Jeffrey Victor article early in the week; that way, if you have trouble you can let me know and I’ll have time to walk you through the process.

Our lecture subjects this week are:

Course Logistics: Starting Well

Apart from reading lectures, the single best way for you to keep track of the expectations facing you in this class is to read and follow the instructions in the course syllabus. The syllabus contains a week-by-week schedule; follow that schedule of assignments to succeed.

We covered this issue last week, but it’s so important I’ll say it again: there are exams in this class, they’re closed-book exams, and they therefore must be taken with a proctor (supervisor) to ensure academic integrity. This requires you to travel to an ITV site, University Center or another location near you to take the exams. There are dozens of these sites peppered across the state of Maine, so if you live in Maine there should be a location convenient to you.

If you haven’t already, you need to visit the website http://www.learn2.maine.edu/exam by the end of this week and choose a location at which to take your exams (look for “SOC/JUS 316” as the appropriate listed course on that page). Then, when the time for each exam is coming up, you should contact the location to arrange a specific day and time during the specified exam week which is practical for both you and the site staff. If you need help contacting the site to arrange a specific day for your exams, please let me know by e-mail and I’ll be glad to help.

If and only if you are living outside the state of Maine, you must also find a professional exam proctor for your exams at the start of the semester. There are many of these across the country at public universities and public libraries; if you have trouble finding a proctor where you live please let me know during the first two weeks of the semester by e-mail (james.m.cook@maine.edu) and I’ll be glad to lend you a hand. After you’ve found a proctor, visit the website https://sites.google.com/a/maine.edu/testing-location-registration/home/university-college-out-of-state-testing and fill out the web form you find there so that the folks at UMA can get a copy of my exam to your proctor.


Finally, don’t forget that by the end of this week you have two activities that you need to complete: agreement to course terms and the completion of a course survey. Information about both of these activities is included in the course syllabus.

Reading Questions for Week 2

This week’s readings are certainly provocative. What questions did they provoke in your mind? Ask away by double-clicking in the “padlet” area you see below. I’ll periodically respond to questions during the week in which this lecture should be read. Remember that this is a public website, so if you have privacy concerns, please feel free to use a pseudonym in the padlet.

Mala in What? Variation in Conceptions of Crime

In the first chapter of our Introduction to Criminology textbook, which you read last week, Frank Hagan described a series of acts as mala in se crime because (according to him) they are are known for their “universality,” with “wide-scale consensus” and a “lack of societal conflict” on their criminal seriousness.

Outside the textbook, significant variability in the identification of mala in se crime exists. In a large, systematic study, sociologist Peter H. Rossi and his colleagues found significant variation in people’s tendency to define crimes as serious. Residents of Baltimore, Maryland randomly sampled from the city population in 1972 (Rossi et al 1974) were asked to describe the “seriousness” of a large number of crimes. Handed a stack of cards with the names of crimes on them, residents were asked to put the cards into various slots from 1 (least serious) to 9 (most serious) based on how serious they felt the crimes were. A researcher read them this statement:

“Criminal law covers a very large number of different kinds of crimes. Some are considered to be very serious acts and others are not so serious. We are interested in your opinions about how serious you think different crimes are. We have made up descriptions of different kinds of crimes. Here is one of the descriptions of crimes. (Interviewer hands card to respondent.) Please put the card in the slot labelled number 9 if you think that this crime is among the most serious crimes. Put the card in slot number 1 if you think that the crime described on the card is among the least serious. If the crime described on the card fits somewhere in between the most serious and the least serious, put it in a slot in between 9 and 1 depending on how serious the crime is in your opinion.”

The following are the results of the study. In the table below, the 140 crimes named in the study are ranked from most to least in seriousness. The mean (numerical average) of the 1-9 “seriousness” response is listed next to each crime’s name.

This is a big table; don’t be overwhelmed by it. You don’t need to memorize or master the entire table; just look at it for a moment and then continue reading below, where we’ll talk about what the table means.


Table 1. Average Seriousness Ratings Given to 140 offenses in Baltimore Survey
Rank Act Mean Standard Deviation 95% lower limit 95% upper limit 68% lower limit 68% upper limit
1 Planned killing of a policeman 8.474 1.414920492 5.64416 9 7.05908 9
2 Planned killing of a person for a fee 8.406 1.658010856 5.08998 9 6.74799 9
3 Selling heroin 8.293 1.630337388 5.03233 9 6.66266 9
4 Forcible rape after breaking into a home 8.241 1.505323885 5.23035 9 6.73568 9
5 Impulsive killing of a policeman 8.214 1.754137965 4.70572 9 6.45986 9
6 Planned killing of a spouse 8.113 1.809972375 4.49306 9 6.30303 9
7 Planned killing of an acquaintance 8.093 1.809143444 4.47471 9 6.28386 9
8 Hijacking an airplane 8.072 1.666133248 4.73973 9 6.40587 9
9 Armed robbery of a bank 8.021 2.831960452 2.35708 9 5.18904 9
10 Selling LSD 7.949 1.745852227 4.4573 9 6.20315 9
11 Assault with a gun on a policeman 7.938 1.7958285 4.34634 9 6.14217 9
12 Kidnapping for ransom 7.93 1.960612149 4.00878 9 5.96939 9
13 Forcible rape of a stranger in a park 7.909 1.933132173 4.04274 9 5.97587 9
14 Killing someone after an argument over a business transaction 7.898 1.880425484 4.13715 9 6.01757 9
15 Assassination of a public official 7.888 2.323790008 3.24042 9 5.56421 9
16 Killing someone during a serious argument 7.867 1.913896549 4.03921 9 5.9531 9
17 Making sexual advances to young children 7.861 1.934166487 3.99267 9 5.92683 9
18 Assault with a gun on a stranger 7.847 1.473770674 4.89946 9 6.37323 9
19 Impulsive killing of a spouse 7.835 1.987963782 3.85907 9 5.84704 9
20 Impulsive killing of a stranger 7.821 1.851755923 4.11749 9 5.96924 9
21 Forcible rape of a neighbor 7.778 1.930284953 3.91743 9 5.84772 9
22 Impulsive killing of an acquaintance 7.717 2.050609665 3.61578 9 5.66639 9
23 Deliberately starting a fire which results in a death 7.707 2.046704668 3.61359 9 5.6603 9
24 Assault with a gun on a stranger 7.662 1.725108692 4.21178 9 5.93689 9
25 Manufacturing and selling drugs known to be harmful to users 7.653 1.811077028 4.03085 9 5.84192 9
26 Knowingly selling contaminated food which results in a death 7.596 2.280789337 3.03442 9 5.31521 9
27 Armed robbery of a company payroll 7.577 1.754992877 4.06701 9 5.82201 9
28 Using heroin 7.52 2.207034209 3.10593 9 5.31297 9
29 Assault with a gun on an acquaintance 7.505 1.86601179 3.77298 9 5.63899 9
30 Armed holdup of a taxi driver 7.505 1.826472009 3.85206 9 5.67853 9
31 Beating up a child 7.49 1.959591794 3.57082 9 5.53041 9
32 Armed robbery of a neighborhood druggist 7.487 1.794714462 3.89757 9 5.69229 9
33 Causing auto accident death while driving when drunk 7.455 1.975854246 3.50329 9 5.47915 9
34 Selling secret documents to a foreign government 7.423 2.392070233 2.63886 9 5.03093 9
35 Armed street holdup stealing $200 cash 7.414 1.906043022 3.60191 9 5.50796 9
36 Killing someone in a bar room free-for-all 7.392 2.153369453 3.08526 9 5.23863 9
37 Deliberately starting a fire in an occupied building 7.347 2.275302178 2.7964 9 5.0717 9
38 Assault with a gun on a spouse 7.323 2.156385865 3.01023 9 5.16661 9
39 Armed robbery of a supermarket 7.313 1.977624838 3.35775 9 5.33538 9
40 Assault with a gun in the course of a riot 7.245 1.79387848 3.65724 9 5.45112 9
41 Armed hijacking of a truck 7.198 1.966214637 3.26557 9 5.23179 9
42 Deserting to the enemy in time of war 7.194 2.161712284 2.87058 9 5.03229 9
43 Armed street holdup stealing $25 in cash 7.165 2.104994062 2.95501 9 5.06001 9
44 Armed robbery of an armored truck 7.163 2.282542442 2.59792 9 4.88046 9
45 Spying for a foreign government 7.135 2.650283004 1.83443 9 4.48472 9
46 Killing a pedestrian while exceeding the speed limit 7.122 1.990979658 3.14004 9 5.13102 9
47 Seduction of a minor 7.021 2.393532954 2.23393 9 4.62747 9
48 Beating up a policeman 7.02 2.394577207 2.23085 9 4.62542 9
49 Selling marijuana 6.969 2.686261342 1.59648 9 4.28274 9
50 Father-daughter incest 6.959 2.666833328 1.62533 9 4.29217 9
51 Causing the death of an employee by neglecting to repair machinery 6.918 2.134478859 2.64904 9 4.78352 9
52 Breaking and entering a bank 6.908 2.15429803 2.5994 9 4.7537 9
53 Mugging and stealing $25 in cash 6.873 2.303258561 2.26648 9 4.56974 9
54 Selling pep pills 6.867 2.38390436 2.09919 9 4.4831 9
55 Cashing stolen payroll checks 6.827 2.187235698 2.45253 9 4.63976 9
56 Mugging and stealing $200 cash 6.796 2.248332716 2.29933 9 4.54767 9
57 Causing the death of a tenant by neglecting to repair heating plant 6.704 2.512767399 1.67847 9 4.19123 9
58 Killing spouse’s lover after catching them together 6.691 2.773986301 1.14303 9 3.91701 9
59 Blackmail 6.667 2.263183598 2.14063 9 4.40382 8.93018
60 Advocating overthrow of the government 6.663 2.777588882 1.10782 9 3.88541 9
61 Neglecting to care for own children 6.66 2.641401143 1.3772 9 4.0186 9
62 Forcible rape of a former spouse 6.653 2.528635996 1.59573 9 4.12436 9
63 Manufacturing and selling autos known to be dangerously defective 6.604 2.442949038 1.7181 9 4.16105 9
64 Beating up a stranger 6.604 2.319267126 1.96547 9 4.28473 8.92327
65 Using LSD 6.557 2.734776042 1.08745 9 3.82222 9
66 Driving while drunk 6.545 2.450714182 1.64357 9 4.09429 8.99571
67 Practicing medicine without a license 6.5 2.62830744 1.24339 9 3.87169 9
68 Burglary of a home stealing a color TV set 6.44 2.246775467 1.94645 9 4.19322 8.68678
69 Knowingly passing counterfeit money 6.392 2.284731932 1.82254 9 4.10727 8.67673
70 Beating up someone in a riot 6.368 2.405826261 1.55635 9 3.96217 8.77383
71 Performing illegal abortions 6.33 2.392279248 1.54544 9 3.93772 8.72228
72 Passing worthless checks for more than $500 6.309 2.262520718 1.78396 9 4.04648 8.57152
73 A public official accepting bribes in return for favors 6.24 2.543029689 1.15394 9 3.69697 8.78303
74 Employee embezzling company funds 6.207 2.242766149 1.72147 9 3.96423 8.44977
75 Knowingly selling stolen stocks and bonds 6.138 2.227105745 1.68379 9 3.91089 8.36511
76 Refusing to obey lawful order of a policeman 6.118 2.409564276 1.29887 9 3.70844 8.52756
77 Burglary of a home stealing a portable transistor radio 6.115 2.423014651 1.26897 9 3.69199 8.53801
78 Theft of a car for the purpose of resale 6.093 2.254994457 1.58301 9 3.83801 8.34799
79 Knowingly selling defective used cars as completely safe 6.093 2.241205033 1.61059 9 3.85179 8.33421
80 Burglary of an appliance store stealing several TV sets 6.062 2.317541801 1.42692 9 3.74446 8.37954
81 Looting goods in a riot 6.043 2.247665456 1.54767 9 3.79533 8.29067
82 Knowingly selling stolen goods 6.021 2.112581359 1.79584 9 3.90842 8.13358
83 Leaving the scene of an accident 5.949 2.572936066 0.80313 9 3.37606 8.52194
84 Printing counterfeit $10 bills 5.948 2.611512971 0.72497 9 3.33649 8.55951
85 Shoplifting a diamond ring from a jewelry store 5.939 2.337947818 1.2631 9 3.60105 8.27695
86 Mother-son incest 5.907 3.031336339 0 9 2.87566 8.93834
87 Theft of a car for joy-riding 5.876 2.459064863 0.95787 9 3.41694 8.33506
88 Intimidating a witness in a court case 5.853 2.202271555 1.44846 9 3.65073 8.05527
89 Brother-sister incest 5.825 2.951101489 0 9 2.8739 8.7761
90 Knowingly selling worthless stocks as valuable investments 5.821 2.2407588 1.33948 9 3.58024 8.06176
91 Beating up a spouse 5.796 2.655371914 0.48526 9 3.14063 8.45137
92 Selling liquor to minors 5.789 2.751726731 0.28555 9 3.03727 8.54073
93 Burglary of a factory stealing machine tools 5.789 2.305862095 1.17728 9 3.48314 8.09486
94 Using stolen credit cards 5.75 2.414953416 0.92009 9 3.33505 8.16495
95 Using pep pills 5.656 3.084153044 0 9 2.57185 8.74015
96 Joining a riot 5.656 2.598076211 0.45985 9 3.05792 8.25408
97 Lending money at illegal interest rates 5.653 2.403122968 0.84675 9 3.24988 8.05612
98 Knowingly buying stolen goods 5.596 2.407072911 0.78185 9 3.18893 8.00307
99 Refusal to serve when drafted in peace time 5.535 2.977079105 0 9 2.55792 8.51208
100 Resisting arrest 5.449 2.504196478 0.44061 9 2.9448 7.9532
101 Impersonating a policeman 5.449 2.721212965 0.00657 9 2.72779 8.17021
102 Using false identification to obtain goods from a store 5.438 2.574490241 0.28902 9 2.86351 8.01249
103 Bribing a public official to obtain favors 5.394 2.489578278 0.41484 9 2.90442 7.88358
104 Passing worthless checks involving less than $100 5.339 2.433310502 0.47238 9 2.90569 7.77231
105 Desertion from military service in peace time 5.323 2.743355609 0 9 2.57964 8.06636
106 Under-reporting income on income tax return 5.305 2.514159899 0.27668 9 2.79084 7.81916
107 Willfully neglecting to file income tax returns 5.157 2.543619468 0.06976 9 2.61338 7.70062
108 Soliciting for prostitution 5.144 2.772543958 0 9 2.37146 7.91654
109 Proposing homosexual practices to an adult 5.14 3.059575134 0 9 2.08042 8.19958
110 Overcharging on repairs to automobiles 5.135 2.540669203 0.05366 9 2.59433 7.67567
111 Shoplifting a dress from a department store 5.07 2.511573212 0.04685 9 2.55843 7.58157
112 Beating up an acquaintance 5.032 2.37571042 0.28058 9 2.65629 7.40771
113 Driving while license is suspended 5.031 2.826305008 0 9 2.20469 7.85731
114 Pouring paint over someone’s car 4.938 2.729285621 0 9 2.20871 7.66729
115 Shoplifting a pair of shoes from a shoe store 4.99 2.60403533 0 9 2.38596 7.59404
116 Overcharging for credit in selling goods 4.97 2.492589015 0 9 2.47741 7.46259
117 Shoplifting a carton of cigarettes from a supermarket 4.969 2.606338428 0 9 2.36266 7.57534
118 Smuggling goods to avoid paying import duties 4.918 2.370232056 0.17754 9 2.54777 7.28823
119 Killing a suspected burglar in home 4.868 2.988310559 0 9 1.87969 7.85631
120 False claims of dependents on income tax return 4.832 2.607872696 0 9 2.22413 7.43987
121 Knowingly using inaccurate scales in weighing meat for sale 4.786 2.429403219 0 9 2.3566 7.2154
122 Refusal to make essential repairs to rental property 4.781 2.584182656 0 9 2.19682 7.36518
123 Engaging in male homosexual acts with consenting adults 4.736 3.065289546 0 9 1.67071 7.80129
124 Engaging in female homosexual acts with consenting adults 4.729 3.006991852 0 9 1.72201 7.73599
125 Breaking a plate glass window in a shop 4.653 2.587856256 0 9 2.06514 7.24086
126 Fixing prices of a consumer product like gasoline 4.629 2.463534047 0 9 2.16547 7.09253
127 Fixing prices of machines sold to businesses 4.619 2.493591787 0 9 2.12541 7.11259
128 Selling pornographic magazines 4.526 2.797498883 0 9 1.7285 7.3235
129 Shoplifting a book in a bookstore 4.424 2.559492137 0 9 1.86451 6.98349
130 Repeated refusal to obey parents 4.411 3.012308085 0 9 1.39869 7.42331
131 Joining a prohibited demonstration 4.323 2.546762651 0 9 1.77624 6.86976
132 False advertising of headache remedy 4.083 2.823473039 0 9 1.25953 6.90647
133 Refusal to pay alimony 4.063 2.582634314 0 9 1.48037 6.64563
134 Refusal to pay parking fines 3.583 2.54460213 0 8.6722 1.0384 6.1276
135 Disturbing the peace 3.779 2.678432377 0 9 1.10057 6.45743
136 Repeated truancy 3.573 2.767309162 0 9 0.80569 6.34031
137 Repeated running away from home 3.571 2.518332782 0 8.60767 1.05267 6.08933
138 Loitering in public places 3.375 2.847981742 0 9 0.52702 6.22298
139 Refusal to answer census taker 3.105 2.707212589 0 8.51943 0.39779 5.81221
140 Being drunk in public places 2.849 2.453772606 0 7.75655 0.39523 5.30277

As you might expect, some crimes were ranked as quite serious on average (“planned killing of a policeman,” mean seriousness 8.474) while other crimes were ranked as not very serious (“being drunk in public places,” mean seriousness 2.849). Some of the crimes that our textbook considers to be universal mala in se crimes were ranked by Baltimore residents as only moderately serious. Assault, which Frank Hagan places within the core of mala in se crimes, is ranked at a mediocre level of seriousness by residents of Baltimore (“Beating up an acquaintance,” mean seriousness 5.032, ranked 112th most serious out of 140). Domestic assault is ranked somewhat higher, but still well within the bottom half of crimes (“Beating up a spouse,” mean seriousness 5.796, ranked 91st most serious out of 140).

There’s more to Rossi’s table than just rankings and mean (average) scores. What comes next is a little bit complicated, but the result is worth it, so please bear with me here. To the right of the “mean” column you can see another column of numbers called “standard deviations.” As those of you who’ve taken a statistics or research methods class will know, a standard deviation is important because it tells the reader how far away people’s responses tend to stray from the mean. It turns out that 68% of all people’s responses will occur within +1 or -1 standard deviation of the mean. It also turns out that 95% of all responses will occur within +2 or -2 standard deviations of the mean. The standard deviation and the mean for each crime are used to calculate an upper number and lower number. If those two numbers are +1 and -1 standard deviations away from the mean, 68% of responses fit between them. If those two numbers are +2 and -2 standard deviations away from the mean, 95% of responses fit between them.

Let’s look at the upper and lower limits between which 95% of responses fit. About 95% of responses would represent a really large consensus — something pretty near “universal,” you might say. Are there are any crimes for which there’s a universal consensus of seriousness? There are just four crimes for which 95% of people ranked them between 5 (a moderate-serious ranking) and 9 (the most serious ranking): “Planned killing of a policeman,” “Planned killing of a person for a fee,” “Selling heroin,” and “Forcible rape after breaking into a home.” All other 136 crimes — including various supposedly mala in se thefts, killings, rapes and assaults — exhibit a wider variation than that.

Rossi et al 1974: Number of Crimes classified by 95% of respondents as moderately to very serious

The standard of “universality” isn’t met for many crimes. Even “armed robbery of a bank” contains wide variation, with 95% of responses fitting somewhere between 9 and 2.35. It’s possible to find a larger number of crimes thought of as consensually “serious” if we relax our standard to include crimes that only 68% of study participants thought was serious. Even then, less than a third of the 140 crimes are identified as moderately to very serious by at least 68% of respondents:

Rossi et al 1974: Number of Crimes Classified by 68% of Respondents as moderately to very serious

At the point we’ve lowered our standard to 68% agreement, we’ve left out nearly a third of our participants — the results are no longer close to the “universal” standard your textbook identifies.  Results at the 68% standard don’t demonstrate social consensus — they represent at best a majority opinion.

Work following in the tradition of Rossi’s research shows that harsh judgment against a supposed mala in se crime like assault is far from the “universal” Hagan proposes. In a recent study, sociologists Richard Felson and Scott Feld (Felson and Feld 2009) asked survey respondents to respond to various versions of a story in which “a young man, John, gets very angry at an acquaintance, Beth, for no good reason. John swears at Beth in front of a group of Beth’s friends, and hits her hard enough to bruise her arm.” In some versions of the story a man hits a woman; in other versions of the story a man hits a man, or a woman hits a woman, or a woman hits a man. Although this act qualifies as assault, only 55.7% of the respondents to the survey concluded that the act was a “serious incident.” A recent survey of men in the Goma region of the Democratic Republic of Congo found that a large share of men there rejected the supposedly “universal” notion that rape and violence against women are serious crimes:

October 2012 survey of men in Goma, DRC

In a 1977 survey of college undergraduate men, nearly one-third of respondents agreed with the statement that it “would do some women some good to get raped” (Barnett and Felid 1977). All of these results indicate a less-than-universal understanding of these crimes. You may believe that the acts described above are serious crimes, and the figures listed above are not meant to dissuade you from that belief. Rather, they’re only meant to point out that such a belief is far from universal, far from a mala in se standard.

If understandings of the seriousness of crime are not universal, then they are relative. The acts that may be despicable in one time, place, or context may be judged as heroic in another time, place or context. According to classical sociologist Emile Durkheim (1895), changing conceptions of crime serve a purpose (or “function”) for society. As standards of morality change in a society, changing definitions of crime mark the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable. Criminal acts can be seen as social experiments — as the individual asks, “can I get away with this?,” sometimes the answer becomes “yes” and the moral code for a society changes, bringing the former criminal into the fold as a member of mainstream, “productive” society.

Moral Panics Regarding Crime

According to Stuart Hall (1978), changing definitions of crime are not always so positive a force as Durkheim suggested. Hall identified a “moral panic” in Great Britain during 1972-1973 in which “muggers” were identified as a source of social mayhem. The passage of various laws to restrict mugging were not targeted broadly, but specifically at low-income, usually Black neighborhoods at a time when the Black Power movement was active and low-income Black workers in Great Britain struggled with the strain of an economic downturn. According to Hall, this “moral panic” was a means to an end: social control over a sub-population in Britain that the ruling class considered to be a menace. Hall’s theory of a mugging moral panic extended the realization that definitions of crime vary, asserting that the variation in our understanding of crime reflects ongoing conflict between different groups over power and control.

What is a moral panic? Here is an introductory video considering that question:

According to Stanley Cohen (1972), a moral panic may be sudden, but it is not random. A moral panic is typically a reaction against a particular kind of person or a particular kind behavior that is morally objectionable to a group, and yet sharply out of proportion to any actual danger. Individuals participating in a moral panic target “folk devils” or “scapegoats,” individuals who occupy a social status or are engaged in an activity that threatens the current moral order. When a status or activity is identified as the scapegoat of a moral panic, the scapegoat serves a function by helping to define the standards of acceptable behavior for a community that feels threatened. One whimsical account of a moral panic against pool halls is depicted in the 20th Century musical The Music Man:

Another whimsical if less musical account of a moral panic can be found in this scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

These scenes appear merely comic, but as in all good comedy contain some reference to underlying patterns in reality. Harold Hill in the Music Man doesn’t simply attack the pool hall in a small town, but ties their activities to gambling, liquor and “Scarlet women!” — a generational loosening of social standards tied to the big cities, those places that a small town must stand against. Historians have tied witch hunts of the middle ages to the restriction of women acting independently as healers and midwives (Ben-Yehuda 1980; Ehrenreich and English 2010).

If a moral panic is successful, then the “folk devils” or “scapegoats” in the targeted class will be subjected to punishment by authorities, changing the moral boundaries of acceptable behavior and also reiterating that the targeted class of individuals are outside, not inside, the bounds of acceptability in a society. One key variety of punishment by authorities is criminal sanction.

One key to a moral panic, according to Goode and Ben-Yehuda (1994), is the involvement of a moral entrepreneur who seeks to change a norm. By fanning the flames of a moral panic, the moral entrepreneur seeks to change social norm, making a previously acceptable form of social behavior unacceptable, even criminal. These moral entrepreneurs may be more interested in that end than normal means, changing the standard for judging a scapegoat group as necessary in order to make restriction of their behavior possible.

In this week’s readings, you learned about three moral panics — about satanic cults, Halloween crime and meth addiction — regarding waves of crime supposedly sweeping the nation and threatening the basis of our social order. Let’s think about them a bit more.

Satanic Cult Crimes as Moral Panic

Satanic Cultists
Credit: Petronilo G. Dangoy Jr., Shutterstock

One of these crime panics, beginning in the 1980s and stretching into the early 1990s, involved the supposed existence of a nationwide network of Satanic cults reported to engage in secret ritual sexual abuse of children while breeding secret babies for ritual sacrifice. A Satanic murder and sexual abuse ring was alleged in the famous 1980s McMartin preschool case of California, described by Margaret Talbot in the New York Times:

“When you once believed something that now strikes you as absurd, even unhinged, it can be almost impossible to summon that feeling of credulity again. Maybe that is why it is easier for most of us to forget, rather than to try and explain, the Satanic-abuse scare that gripped this country in the early 80’s — the myth that Devil-worshipers had set up shop in our day-care centers, where their clever adepts were raping and sodomizing children, practicing ritual sacrifice, shedding their clothes, drinking blood and eating feces, all unnoticed by parents, neighbors and the authorities.

“Of course, if you were one of the dozens of people prosecuted in these cases, one of those who spent years in jails and prisons on wildly implausible charges, one of those separated from your own children, forgetting would not be an option. You would spend the rest of your life wondering what hit you, what cleaved your life into the before and the after, the daylight and the nightmare. And this would be your constant preoccupation even if you were eventually exonerated — perhaps especially then. For if most people no longer believed in your diabolical guilt, why had they once believed in it, and so fervently?”

As Talbot and deYoung (1997) report, this particular part of the Satanic scare was initiated by a mother who was eventually diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. A combination of heavily suggestive questions, social influence and reinforcement techniques carried out questioning of other pre-schoolers at the center were later found to produce false accusations of crime by 58% of children in a controlled experiment (Garven et al 1998). All accusations against the McMartin preschool were eventually dropped, but national law enforcement conventions teaching the interrogation technique led to waves of false Satanic cult accusation by preschoolers around the country (deYoung 1997). When the interrogation procedure was discontinued, Satanic cult accusations ceased.

Nevertheless, the Satanic preschool panic led to a broader moral panic regarding the presence of a ring of secret Satanic cults around the nation. At its height, Geraldo Rivera hosted one daytime show on satanic cults on November 19, 1987 (Victor 1993) and another nighttime 90-minute special on the same subject on October 25, 1988. The 90-minute special was watched in 19.8 million homes. Even if only one person per home watched the special, that would account for 7.3% of the national population at the time. You may watch a ten-minute segment of that special here:

Notable in this segment of the Geraldo Rivera special is the appearance of McMartin preschool children and their parents. In another segment of the special, a woman billing herself as “Lauren Stratford” describes how she was forced to breed babies for ritual Satanic sacrifice. Investigation by a concerned Christian organization discovered that her name and her story had been fabricated. “Stratford” went on to change her name and initiate a new false claim to obtain Holocaust survivor benefits.

Bracketed by time of these TV specials, sociologist Jeffrey Victor (1993) documented the emergence of a rumor regarding the imminent abduction of a “blond, blue-eyed virgin” from a high school in Jamestown, New York for Satanic sacrifice. This rumor emerged as a circuit speaker spoke to local groups about the threat of rebellious youth participating in Satanic cult activity, accompanied by a second speaker who shared an account of her survival of a Satanic cult ordeal. The pair brought with them the tract about Satanic cult dangers you read for this week, The Poor Little Witch.

No blond-eyed virgin murders were ever documented in Jamestown that year, and neither were there any missing babies. But parents kept their children home from school to keep them safe — and there were actually crimes committed. Acting on a rumor that teenagers at a youth hangout and music spot called “The Warehouse” were participants in the supposed Satanic cult, an anti-Satanic group trashed “The Warehouse” and destroyed musical equipment there; death threats against the teens ensued (Victor 1989).

Halloween Crimes as Moral Panic
The second of these crime panics is ongoing. In the past decade, the Honolulu Police Department released this “safety video” to warn parents of the dangers of trick-or-treating on Halloween:

California State University also offers “safety tips” for checking Halloween candy:

Wait until children are home to sort and check treats. Though tampering is rare, a responsible adult should closely examine all treats and throw away any of the following candies that have:

  • An unusual appearance or discoloration
  • Tiny pinholes or tears in wrappers
  • Spoiled or unwrapped items
  • Homemade items or baked goods should be discarded unless you personally know who gave them.
  • When in doubt, throw it out
  • Tell children not to accept — and, especially, not to eat–anything that isn’t commercially wrapped.

The danger of pinholes and the standard of commercial wrapping provide an aura of professionalism, as if experts in lab coats have determined through forensic examination that syringes and homemade recipes are the usual way young trick-or-treaters get poisoned each year. Gracie Bonds Staples of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution repeats this theme in a newspaper article that warns: “Remind your child not to eat any treats before you’ve had a chance to examine them thoroughly for holes and punctures. Throw away all treats that are homemade or unwrapped.

If you’ve finished the readings for this week, you know the problem with these warnings: sociologist Joel Best of the University of Delaware has been collecting Halloween candy panic stories for years, searching exhaustively for any corroborating evidence. Best has found without fail that these stories of criminal Halloween candy assaults are not based in fact. As Best puts it on his Halloween candy web page last updated in 2013, “I have been unable to find a substantiated report of a child being killed or seriously injured by a contaminated treat picked up in the course of trick-or-treating.” Despite the availability of information showing that Halloween candy poisoning is an essentially non-existent threat, major institutions continue to spread that story, and “trunk-or-treat” events are held in church parking lots “to keep Halloween safe.”

Halloween Postscript: Do Sex Offenders go on a Halloween Rampage?
Recent research suggests that the moral panic mixing themes of Satanic sex abuse has not altogether gone away, but rather been redirected into a related concern about sex offenders attacking children on Halloween, connecting the Satanic panic and the Halloween panic. Mark Chaffin and his associates (Chaffin et al 2009) have noted the emergence of new official laws and unofficial policies in the past five years dedicated to stopping a wave of sex offenders supposedly targeting trick-or-treating children using the lure of candy and decorations on Halloween night. They report:

  • In Florida, Illinois, Maryland, New York and Ohio, sex offenders on probation are being required to meet with authorities on Halloween night to keep them busy and away from children.
  • In New Jersey, New York, Virginia, Wisconsin, California, South Carolina, and North Carolina, special curfews for Halloween night prohibit registered sex offenders from going out or opening their doors.
  • In New Jersey, convicted sex offenders who give out candy face 3 years in jail.
  • In Florida, Idaho, Maryland, Tennessee, Texas, convicted sex offenders are prohibited from even hanging out Halloween decorations, lest children be attracted to the pretty Jack-O-Lanterns.

These policies are based on anecdotes, but Chaffin and his colleagues note that “the existence of this risk has not been empirically established.” Is sex predation on Halloween a real problem or a moral panic? They use the relatively new, more detailed crime statistics generated by the National Incident-Based Reporting System to find out. The NIBRS includes more detailed sex crime reports than the Uniform Crime Reports, allowing Chaffin et al to review 67,045 non-familial sex crimes against children from 1997 through 2005 to see whether or not such crimes occur more often on Halloween, October 31.

As the Figure 3 from their published research article shows, October 31 (identified by a prominent vertical line) features a frequency of non-familial sex crime that is typical for late October and early November. The real peak for non-familial sex crimes against children doesn’t appear to be Halloween, but rather the summer months when children and sexual predators are out of doors:

Chaffin et al Figure 3: October 31 is a typical day for sex crimes against children


The darkest line of Figure 4 from their research paper also shows that the rate of NIBRS-reported non-familial sex crimes against children on Halloween (Day 0 in the middle of the figure) is roughly the same as the rate of such crimes on the days surrounding Halloween:

Chaffin et al Figure 4: Halloween child sex crimes appear to happen at the same rate on October 31 as on other days surrounding Halloween.

Chaffin and his colleagues demonstrate that despite the charge to insulate children from the special supposed danger of Halloween sex crimes, there is no such special danger. If evidence-based policies are to be passed to prevent sex crimes again children, the authors suggest, such policies should be directed at the major source of sex crimes: not strangers on the street, but close ones at home: “more than 90% of sexually abused children are victimized by someone known to them, often a relative or close acquaintance.” (Chaffin et al 2009: 369)

Drug Crimes as Moral Panic

Have you seen an issue of Breaking Bad?  The fictional television series reflects recent preoccupation with meth labs and the methamphetamine trade as a source of criminal activity in the United States. Writing in a 2009 issue of Critical Criminology, Travis Linneman expresses doubt that recent panic over a “Meth epidemic” is warranted:

Though the harmful effects of the drug are undeniable, recent research suggests that its plague-like grip on America is overstated. One report by The Sentencing Project finds that meth is not only among the least-used drugs, but also use rates among the general public are stable since 1999 and are declining among youth.

Is the country in the plague-like grip of methamphetaminesThe University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future project provides more recently-updated statistics that cast doubt on the notion that methamphetamines are the dominant drug threat in America or are being much more commonly used in recent years. The last Monitoring the Future figure regarding methamphetamines can be found for 2015…

Methamphetamine Use: % Who Used in Last 12 Months, through 2015

The Drug Enforcement Agency (here and here) also provides timely data, which also shows that meth-related activity has not featured a spike in recent years:

Clandestine Meth Lab Seizures by U.S. DEA, 2004 to 2014


Domestic Drug Seizures, 1986-2014 Source: US Drug Enforcement Agency

Much more marijuana was seized during the period — although interestingly, 2014 saw a record low in seizures, a result of the decriminalization of marijuana across the country, reflecting a mala prohibita process of change in crime and crime-fighting activity as a result of social and political movement. (Data from 2015 are unfortunately not yet available from the DEA. What about 2016? We’ll have to wait: the year isn’t finished yet.)

Results from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health have just been updated with new data from 2014, which show that only 0.5% of the American population (1 in 200 people) used meth once in 2014, and only 0.2% of the population (1 in 500 people) used meth in a one-month period during that year. That’s not the scale of a plague. (Again, data from 2015 are still pending.)

If meth use in recent years shows no exceptional acceleration, there is a different kind of pattern to discussion of meth use in America. Linneman tracked the different ways that coverage of a “Meth epidemic” “betrays broader race, class and gender-based inequalities” and found a stark difference between the ways that male and female meth users were depicted. Female users were described in media reports in terms of their appearance, their sexuality, their cleaning skills and their parenting capabilities. Male users, on the other hand, were described in terms of their innovative techniques, their business plans and their marketing strategies. The way we talk about these drug crimes shows our areas of concern, where we think that the “core of American social life” is being threatened. We expect men to be business-minded but note that entrepreneurship has grown out of control, prioritizing the pursuit of the dollar over the needs of communities. We expect women to be concerned with their body image and sexuality, but according to Linneman we worry at signs that this self-interested concern lurches out of control and threatens to destabilize the integrity of the family, the safety of children and the cleanliness of the home. To the extent that meth use is the subject of a current moral panic, we worry about it not strictly in terms of simple harm, but rather that it prevents men from doing what men ought to do and prevents women from doing what women ought to do. If Linneman is correct then the overarching worry, expressed in criminal terms, is that traditional gender roles for men and women are being threatened; the subject of meth is possibly just a carrier for those gender concerns.


Not only is the definition of crime relative to time and place, but it is also susceptible at times to overinflation. As we study the very real phenomenon of crime, it is especially important for us to remember that crime is also a social concept subject to distortion and even panic. For that reason, the veracity of crime reports is worthy of special examination and even suspicion. As we’ll see in this course’s next lecture, the challenge of accurately representing the extent of crime is a central focus for criminology today.


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