Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

Monsters and Moral Panics

When human beings begin to respond en masse their reactions are inclined to become more impulsive and less reasonable. Fear, and its projection onto others is a particularly contagious emotion and easily drives out more considered, rational responses. The following account, set in middle America during the tense years of the Second World War, is another classic example from the field of irrational collective behaviour.

The Mad Gasser

In September 1944, life in Matton, Illinois was disrupted by a strange series of attacks on its citizens. The first victim was a Mrs. Corbin. Whilst lying in her bed reading, in the early evening, she became vaguely aware of a heavy fragrance, a scent that she at first assumed was drifting in from a neighbour’s garden. After a while, however, the scent seemed to grow stronger and less agreeable, becoming unpleasantly sickly-sweet and positively heady. Eventually she put her book to one side and tried to figure out just what this scent was, and where it was coming from. She thought to call out to her sister; and it was only then, when she tried to change her position, that her legs and lower body appeared not to respond. This sudden onset of paralysis left her distraught and gripped by panic. She screamed out for sister, who immediately rushed upstairs, to find her in a completely hysterical condition. The sister also noticed the sweet, pervasive and somewhat sinister odour and called in a neighbour. While the sisters were comforting each other the neighbour called in the police.

The police arrived soon enough, took notes and searched around, but found no evidence of an intruder. Somehow though, the incident attracted the attention of the local press. A reporter visited the sisters, who gave a full account of their experience, and of their suspicions. His report appeared the following day under the sensational heading ‘Anaesthetic prowler on the loose’.

In the following days several more incidents were reported to the police from various parts of the city. In each case the attacks bore a striking similarity to the assault on the Corbin sisters – the offender entered the houses at night, sprayed some kind of poisonous gas into the victims bedrooms, and left them suffering from one or other of a range of ill-effects, before vanishing into the night. The symptoms were of varying intensity, but included partial paralysis, swollen and sometimes bleeding lips. Many were simply nauseated or left with severe headaches as a result of the unwelcome visit. Most were shaken by the experience.

Naturally, these subsequent incidents were also reported to the local press – who realised that they had a running story. It wasn’t long before there were further attacks, which were duly reported and written up. As the incidents multiplied there were calls for action from the authorities. It was suggested that regular nightly patrols be made, and both the police and volunteer groups responded. The patrols began nightly rounds of Matton’s streets, but met with little success. As the affair ran into its second week the Mad Gasser (as he had become known) was still at large, and still causing havoc. In fact, he had advanced his technique.

There were now rumours that he had taken to using an odourless compound. Citizens would awake in the middle of the night choking and gasping for breath, only getting relief when they had run out of doors. In one typical incident a young girl named Gloria Newton was woken by a suspicious noise; she immediately alerted her family, who rushed out onto the street to investigate. Pretty soon a whole bunch of neighbours appeared, many armed with shotguns; but, as they explained later, the atmosphere became so loaded with paralysing fumes that several were overcome. Some finished up with burning sensations in their throats and swollen lips; others felt weak at the knees, or were left feeling nauseous. But there was no sign of the perpetrator; once again he had vanished without trace.

Soon after this, six squads of State Troopers were drafted in to supplement the night-time patrols. But even these measures did not deter the nocturnal assailant; more and more cases were being reported. Worse still, it was noted that some of these incidents occurred around the same time in widely separate parts of the city. What was going on? Was it possible that this was, in fact, a group conspiracy? The town began to feel that it was in a state of siege. It became positively dangerous to go out at night, so many jumpy patrols and vigilantes would be rushing hither and thither that there was the constant danger of their misapprehending and firing on one another.

By this time the big Chicago newspapers had gotten wind of the story and had sent their teams of reporters down to cover events - and soon after that the FBI had been drawn into the affair. The incidents continued, but there was an embarrassing lack of any firm leads on the culprit, let alone any arrests. There were regular sightings of suspicious characters, the more promising of which related to a tall, thin man of ‘European’ appearance, sometimes described as wearing dark clothes and, somewhat incongruously, a skullcap. But there were other reports that did not seem to tally with this description at all. Various theories were advanced concerning the motives and psychological make-up of the ‘Gasser’. One such profile indicated a ‘brilliant, but disturbed mind’, whoso deviancy was clearly driven by some underlying sexual motive.

The Gasser was certainly cunning. Although fresh reports of his activities continued to be reported to the police, it was obvious to all that they were getting nowhere. They were, though, getting increasingly irritated, both by being given the run-around by the Gasser and by the continual complaints about their ineffectiveness by concerned citizens. Some of them, including the Police Chief himself, were beginning to suspect an element of hysteria in many of the complaints that they were called to investigate. Feelings on all sides were running pretty high by now. A public meeting was called, at which there were many demands for immediate action, and assurances that the police were not attempting to conceal their incompetence behind claims that mass-hysteria was involved. Surely the evidence of serious criminal offences was clear enough? Their demands were reasonable; they simply wanted this man, and his accomplices (if any), taken off the streets. The State Attorney responded by replacing the Chief.

The new Police Chief was given wide powers and a mandate to clear this case forthwith. He gave the matter his full attention; he interviewed al his men, read all their reports – and came to the same conclusion as his predecessor, namely, that the whole affair was some sort of communal fantasy. Having come to this decision he acted decisively - not by stepping up the hunt for the Gasser, but by dampening down over-heated imaginations. Henceforth, any reported incidents would be acted upon promptly; the ‘victims’ would be brought to the police station where they would be detained overnight. They would be given a through medical examination and, if necessary, vaccinated against possible infections. It was made clear that anyone who reported incidents that were later found to have no basis would be prosecuted for wasting police time.

These drastic measures had an almost immediate effect; the ‘gas attacks’ simply stopped happening. To everyone’s relief, the nightmare had ended. It soon became possible to wind down the nightly patrols and disband the volunteer squads. Although the citizens of Matton were still mystified by the events that had terrorised their town, it was becoming clear to more objective observers that they had been engaged in some strange manifestation of collective hysteria, or rather of collective auto-suggestion.

As ever, to understand this whole affair, it has to be placed in context. The background mood in the U.S. at this time was one of considerable, but unspoken, anxiety about the wars raging away in Europe and Asia. There was a general unease, and a sense of the fragility of the normal American way of life. The war was real enough, but it was remote. There was a serious threat to civilised existence, but it was one that the individual was powerless to influence. During less strained times, Mrs Corbin’s hysterical reaction would scarcely have generated much interest beyond her immediate contacts. But the inflated account of the incident, at this place and time, provided the trigger for a psychodrama which, like some out-of-control fantasy, rapidly developed a momentum of its own.

Other Imagined Monsters

The Case of the Mad Gasser is one of the better-known ‘monster panics’, largely as a result of the attention it received from American social psychologists; but there have been many similar scares.

The Taiwanese capital Taipei, in the 1950ies, was the setting for a similar hysteria; in this extended drama the scare centred on a ‘phantom slasher’. The episode was of a rather longer duration than the Matton affair, and there was a build-up of rumours for some two to three months before specific instances began to be reported to the police. Gradually, as more and more incidents were reported, a picture emerged of a madman who, for some crazed reason of his own, was surreptitiously attacking children with a razor blade. Stories soon spread through the town, heightening the general level of apprehension.

As fears increased, so did the level of suggestibility; a child gashing its shin whilst attempting to board a bus, for instance, was immediately believed to be a victim of the slasher – and an increasing number of cuts, injuries and torn clothes were presumed to be his work. Various theories circulated as to the perpetrator’s motives – that he was a sadistic psychopath; or that he was engaged in some arcane blood ritual. Rumour was the primary source for many of the reported incidents but, inevitably, the local newspapers picked up the story, and their accounts gave the rumours a measure of confirmation. As a result, the panic was spread way beyond the city itself, even to Chinese communities abroad.

When investigated, the police found that many of the cases were due to simple accidents and innocent misrepresentation. Hoaxes, as usual, were also implicated. But the image of a ‘phantom slasher’ abroad in the city, bent on injuring innocent children, proved to be extraordinarily persistent. At one stage the Police Commissioner, in an attempt to dampen down the fears, warned the population against believing the now proliferating rumours, and hinted at the possibility of their being part of a conspiracy, possibly from communist sources. Naturally, this intervention did little to allay fears

In fact, the Taipei ‘slasher’ panic went through a well-charted pattern, which, if laid out on a graph, describes a curve of incidents that apply to all manner of fears, crazes and sudden enthusiasms. Most begin with a rapid and regular build-up of reported incidents (characterised by a growing sense of collective unease and an increasing susceptibility to suggestion). This may be followed by a ‘plateau’ of relative calm and reconsideration of the subject. Then there may be a dramatic surge of re-involvement, during which the affair reaches its peak. Finally, interest in the whole business drops away as sharply as the contagion took hold in the first place. In Taipei, the incidents tapered off dramatically after the most active phase, which lasted about two-week - and the slasher soon disappeared from the public consciousness. Strangely, there had been a striking similar precedent of this whole saga. In 1938, the citizens of Halifax, Yorkshire were subjected to a mysterious series of night-time attacks by a razor-blade wielding maniac; both men and women were among the victims. The phantom slasher was never caught despite a massive police presence. As the panic progressed, the population lost faith in their own police; the outcry became so great that a group of detectives from Scotland Yard were called in from London. As a result of their more rigorous investigation into the wave of assaults it was established that many of the ‘victims’ had invented the stories of their being attacked, and some had even faked their injuries. The team concluded that the whole business was a rather odd collective delusion.

What is particularly interesting about these two ‘slasher’ panics is that they originated in entirely different cultural contexts; is this coincidence, or does it point to some obscure, universal subconscious dread? It is clear that this is not always the case; some collective fantasies are undoubtedly culture-bound, i.e. influenced by specific cultural factors. The Delhi ‘monkey-man’, whose menacing presence emptied streets in the capital during the spring of 2001, is a case in point. This was a specifically Indian hysteria, and could only have appeared among a population nurtured on the Hindu epics (with their stories of Hanuman, the monkey-king). Many ‘reliable’ witnesses apparently testified to seeing a giant ape, which could apparently jump 40 feet into the air and fly through windows. Others reported seeing an enormous monkey with the ability to transform itself into a cat. One unfortunate pregnant woman died after falling down a staircase in a desperate attempt to flee the creature. Mischief-making hoaxers were suspected of instigating some of the incidents, and as with the Taipei panic, newspaper reports played their part, by exacerbating existing rumours. But while it lasted, the fear was genuine enough.

In common with every other manifestation of collective movements, fear-based contagions can break out with or without genuine justification. Of the panics so far considered, none were founded on any real danger; sober analyses after such events almost always uncover a complex pattern of delusion, fakery, hoaxing – but often enough there is some basis to the fears, it is just that the contagion of panic that it triggers is entirely disproportionate.