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Critical Thinking: Conspiracy Theories, Urban Legends, and Moral Panics

If you’re teaching critical thinking and looking for timely and engaging material, why not try a conspiracy theory?

What's a moral panic?

It depends on who you ask. The term was coined by Stanley Cohen in his 1973 book Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. Others refer to it as mass hysteria.

In the introduction to the 3rd edition (pp. viii-xxi), Cohen lists 7 archetypal moral panic subjects. Although he was writing in the United Kingdom of the early 2000s, the list is equally applicable to the current U.S.  with very few modifications (parenthetical comments are mine).

  1. Young, working class, violent males
  2. School violence: bullying and shoot-outs
  3. Wrong drugs: Used by the wrong people at wrong places
  4. Child abuse, Satanic rituals, and pedophile registers
  5. Sex, violence, and blaming the media
  6. Welfare cheats and single mothers (absent fathers).
  7. Refugees and asylum seekers (immigrants): Flooding our country, swamping our services

Classic American moral panics include the Salem witch trials, the Red Scare of the 1950s, and the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Children, new technology, Satan, drugs, and race/immigration are all frequent components in American moral panics.

The term "moral panic" has changed since Cohen coined it and is now more loosely used to describe a particular kind of social phenomenon in which something has (or has not) happened and the reaction to it is disproportionate to the (supposed) event. There's an inherent value judgment made when applying either moral panic or mass hysteria to a situation and some scholars have begun to question the usefulness of the terms.

Moral panics, urban legends, and conspiracy theories can overlap and any or all of them can be fake news. How to distinguish among them and which term  applies to any given movement would make excellent paper topics.

Anatomy of a Moral Panic

Anatomy of a Moral Panic: The "Free Speech Crisis" is the first in a video series by Michael Hobbes, formerly of the You're Wrong About podcast, currently co-hosting Maintenance Phase, and frequent writer about moral panics and junk journalism.

Satanic Panic

The term "Satanic Panic" most often refers to the false allegations of Satanic ritual abuse at day care centers in the 1980s, but can be more broadly applied to the panic over song lyrics, backmasking, corporate logos, and games in the same era. Thanks to QAnon and the conspiracy theory that led to PizzaGate, there is renewed interest in the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Below are links to a selection of podcast episodes, videos, and articles about that sadly-not-unique episode of American history:


You're Wrong About: Satanic Panic.5/2/18. Co-host Sarah Marshall is currently writing a book about the Satanic Panic.

American Hysteria: Satanic Panic Emergency Re-release. 3/30/21.

CBC Uncover: Satanic Panic. 2/4/20. Seven episode podcast about a Canadian prairie town that experienced the same panic that swept the U.S.

Behind the Bastards. Part One: The Satanic Panic: America's First QAnon.10/27/20.Two part discussion. With footnotes!


CBC News. What was the Satanic Panic? 2/26/20. Blame Canada.(7:56)

Magdalen Rose: The Satanic Panic of the 1980s. 10/31/19. (11:32)

Rossen, Jake & McCarthy, Erin. Throwback: Satanic Panic & The Dangers of Cultural Hysteria. Mental Floss. 1/29/21 (13:23)


Romano, Aja. Why Satanic panic never really ended. Vox.3/31/21

Yuhas, Alan. It's Time to Revisit the Satanic Panic New York Times. 3/31/21.If you're a student, faculty, or staff at SCSU, you can get behind the paywall by searching the title in our The New York Times database.

Wikipedia: Satanic ritual abuse.

Crocker, Sarah. The Crazy Real-Life Story Of The Satanic Panic. Grunge. 10/19/20.

Eddy, Cheryl. A Brief History of "Satanic Panic" in the 1980s. Gizmodo. 1/20/15.