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Everybody Panic: 5 Strange and Sinister Cases of Crime and Mass Hysteria

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The first time I cared about mass hysteria was Grovers Mill, New Jersey.

Technically, I first learned of the concept through the Salem Witch Trials, when nineteen were executed on suspicion of witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts. But the Trials were merely a historical footnote to my assigned junior high reading—The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter—and it was easy to look down my 20th century nose at those primitive and superstitious Puritans. Witches? Seriously? 

But Grovers Mill had aliens

The New Jersey town was ground zero for the infamous October 30, 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast. Led by a young Orson Welles, the show eschewed a traditional presentation of H.G. Wells’s 1897 science fiction novel in favor of a dynamic, dramatized bulletin with all the hallmarks of a real emergency broadcast. Those who tuned in late from another program missed the initial announcement that the broadcast was literally “fake news” and listened for a terrifying 40-minute stretch that gave no indication the invasion wasn’t genuine. 

The results were, in a word, hysterical. 

The next day, the New York Times wrote: “In Newark, in a single block…more than twenty families rushed out of their homes with wet handkerchiefs and towels over their faces to flee from what they believed was to be a gas raid…. Throughout New York families left their homes, some to flee to near-by parks. Thousands of persons called the police, newspapers, and radio stations here and in other cities of the United States and Canada seeking advice…” 

Mass hysteria encompasses unusual behaviors, illnesses, or health symptoms among a group of people, but it is the sweeping panic that fascinates me to this day. However, the things that go bump in the night and set off waves of frenzy are typically more sinister than supernatural. Here are a few examples of crime-induced mass hysteria that influenced my new novel, The Guilty One, and the killer at its center: Old Town Jack.   

The London Monster

In London, between 1788 and 1790, a man attacked women through piquerism—pricking or stabbing someone with a needle, pin, or knife. There were more than 50 reported victims, with most stabbed in the buttocks. The press called him “The Monster,” and predictably, Londoners freaked out. Vigilantes prowled the city, women wore copper pots over their petticoats, and men wore “No Monster” lapel pins to demonstrate that they were not, in fact, the Monster. (Note: If I ever commit a crime, I will simply wear a pin that declares I did not commit that crime. “Hey! Did you steal those donuts?” I will wipe the powdered sugar from my mouth, point to my “No Donut Thief” pin, and sashay away scot-free.) Eighteenth century pickpockets had a similar scam; when caught, they pointed and screamed “It’s the Monster!” then vanished in the melee. 

Spring-heeled Jack

The first sightings of Spring-heeled Jack in London were around 1837. Unlike the Monster, Spring-heeled Jack’s legend quickly tilted toward the supernatural—penny dreadfuls depicted him with a demon’s head and a scalloped cloak, giving him the appearance of a devilish bat—but his origins were the same as the London Monster: assault. There was an account of a strange man leaping from an alley to attack a woman, then another of a man leaping in front of a carriage, causing it to lose control, then leaping away and cackling madly. Sightings spread like wildfire. Cases differed in description—Jack had claws or pale features or burning eyes, resembling a ghost or a devil—and the papers reported all of it, with accounts of “women being deprived of their senses.” Despite Spring-heeled Jack’s incredible leaps, fifty years later, a more legendary—and lethal—Jack emerged.

Jack the Ripper

Jack the Ripper’s grisly slayings occurred in the fall of 1888, in the Whitechapel district of London’s impoverished East End. The victims, mostly prostitutes, were progressively mutilated. On multiple occasions, someone purporting to be the killer sent correspondence to the press and the civilian “vigilance committee.” In late September, the Central News Agency received a letter signed “Jack the Ripper,” the first time the legendary name appeared, that pledged to keep “ripping” prostitutes. Worse, the president of the vigilance committee received a gruesome package containing half a human kidney with a note that began with “From Hell” and claimed the author had fried and eaten the other half. Most of the many notes were later debunked, written by the very news agencies that printed them to boost their papers’ circulation. But the letters’ authenticity hardly mattered—the horse was already out of the barn, hysteria-wise. Headlines screamed of Ghastly Murder and Dreadful Mutilation. Mobs chased people through Whitechapel. Police, convinced the killer was “mad,” rounded up mentally ill residents and committed them to asylums. The murders received international media coverage, a first. And with no official killer identified, more than one hundred and thirty years later, Jack the Ripper remains the reigning champion of boogeymen. 

Son of Sam

Nearly a century later and across the pond, a serial killer murdered six people and wounded at least seven others in New York City. Some victims had long, dark hair, prompting women throughout the city to cut and bleach their hair. Blonde wigs sold out. Since the shootings took place at night, discos and popular clubs stood empty. The killer left a note at one of his crime scenes identifying himself as the “Son of Sam” and wrote subsequent letters to the tabloids, who were only too happy to publish them to increase sales. By July 13, 1977, after a year of terrifying attacks, sensational articles, a financial crisis, and a brutal heatwave, all the Big Apple needed was a spark to set its many anxieties ablaze. That night, in what ConEd called an “act of God,” multiple lightning strikes hit powers lines and crippled substations in a matter of minutes. At approximately 9:30 pm, New York City plunged into darkness and what Time Magazine later dubbed the “Night of Terror.” Widespread looting and vandalism plagued the city. Nearly 4000 arrests were made, the largest mass arrest in the city’s history. NYFD fought over 1000 fires. After 25 hours, power was restored, and the following month, David Berkowitz was finally arrested.       

A More Modern Example 

Mass hysteria is not consigned to irrational ancestors, vexed by invading Martians or bouncing Englishmen. Under the right circumstances, anyone can abandon their senses. All it takes is a desperate environment and the right trigger, which history shows is often killers, criminals, and conmen. And there is a far more recent—and pressing—example of powerful people willfully feeding propaganda, aided and abetted by a complicit media, to an anxious public. And there’s clear and overwhelming footage to prove it. I am of course referring to the notorious 1988 summer when everyone lost their minds and poured sugar all over each other. The perpetrators, English rock band Def Leppard, even telegraphed their despicable intentions: “Pour Some Sugar on Me” was featured on the band’s 1987 album Hysteria. Despite this obvious smoking gun, no charges were filed against the group and that hot, sticky sweet fever eventually broke. 



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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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