American Studies 402


Myths and Moral Panics:

Dangerous Outsiders in America Past and Present.


Spring 1992


Philip Jenkins 

Class meets Tues/Thurs  8am-9.15am 

Office hours: Tues/Thurs 11am-12.15am


The course

In the last decade, the media have reported extensively on the alleged threat posed by a number of alien groups preying on American society, including child abusers, serial killers, drug kingpins and even Satanists. Such groups do exist; but it is the contention of this course that all these problems have been vastly exaggerated for a number of motives - political, bureaucratic, religious and psychological. This course will examine the relationship between myth and reality in a number of recent "crime-waves". In so doing, the course seeks to use the history of moral panics:

-to illuminate aspects of American social history;

-to understand the current manifestations of what Richard Hofstadter described as "the paranoid style" in American life;

-to trace the influence of the mass media and bureaucratic agencies in creating and defining public fears;

-to observe the construction of social problems;

-and to observe the continuing influence of fundamentalist religion in a supposedly secularized age.

The course is intended to develop a critical appreciation of the way in which society forms its images and stereotypes of social problems Although chiefly directed to issues of crime and justice, the conclusions would be relevant to many other topics of media concern - for instance, the reporting of stories about health, science, politics and so on.



The grade will be based on four components, including two essay examinations, each worth 25% of the total points; and a paper worth 40%. In addition, class attendance and participation count for another 10% of the grade. Exams will take place on March 3 and April 30.


 Students will be expected to write a major paper describing and analyzing one of the recent cases, and the media and legislative response to it. This should be based on primary sources, with close critical attention being paid to the use of language and rhetoric by journalists, officials or politicians involved. Apart from lectures and discussions, this class will make considerable use of media sources that exemplify the "panics" at work - for example, recent television programs on issues like drug abuse, teenage suicide, Satanism and serial murder.


The paper is due in final form on May 5. There will be no extensions on this. You should have the vast majority of the work here done long beforehand, so there will be no problem even if a real emergency blows up the week before the due date. I will be happy to look at drafts of your papers, and will of course expect you to ask for help or guidance at any stage of the projects.



Deadlines matter, and I intend to enforce them strictly. If you miss a deadline without getting an extension in advance, you get a non-negotiable grade of F on that particular exam, paper or project. Do not try getting in touch with me after the fact to explain why you missed an exam, unless you produce a proper medical note. Excuses must always be supported by documentation. Valid reasons include medical problems and the like. I am aware that ROTC sometimes makes strange demands on its members, and these reasons would be valid: but note that ROTC also provides documentation for these absences, which must be produced if you want to claim this as a reason for an extension. Ditto for the Athletic departments.


The following are not valid reasons for an extension, so please don't ask:

"I have other exams that day" (so ask the other professors for the extension)

"I'm leaving early for break" (not if you want the grade, you're not)

"I overslept" (Always a danger in an early class. Buy an alarm clock)


Texts - all required

1. Richardson, Best and Bromley, The Satanism Scare, New York: Aldine de Gruyter 1991, ISBN: 0-202-30379-9

2. Bennett, The Party of Fear, University of North Carolina/ Vintage, 1988, ISBN: 0-679-72861-9

3. Katz, Gay American History, New York: Avon 1984, ISBN: 0-380-40550-4

4. Kahaner, Cults That Kill, New York: Warner 1989, ISBN: 0-446-35637-9

5. Reader available from HUB Copy Center

Do note that all the books are or should be in paperback.


Note on texts


One goal of this course is the critical use and evaluation of texts and arguments, whether these are found in books, newspapers, or whatever. This means that just because something occurs in a textbook, required or otherwise, it does not mean that you should automatically believe it, still less that it is beyond criticism. I am deliberately setting texts that are controversial, to provide the opportunity for you to exercise your critical judgment. In other words: read, but do not necessarily believe without further evidence


In addition, there are quite a few books available in cheap ($4 or so) paperback editions that would make useful supplementary reading for the class. I will not provide a full list here, but recent examples include Judith Spencer, Suffer the Child;  or Maury Terry's The Ultimate Evil. Some are valuable, others are sensationalistic junk.  However, even the junk is informative for what it reveals about public attitudes and prejudices. The comments about exercising scepticism apply doubly here. Take a trip out to B. Dalton's bookstore at the Mall, or University Books on College Avenue - browse the True Crime and Social Science sections, and see what treasures(!) you find.


The Term Paper


The term paper comprises a substantial 40 percent of the grade, and I want you to have a clear idea of what I want. The project is not a conventional paper like a book report or a biography, and it must involve work on primary sources. In most cases, this will involve newspapers and magazines.


For a topic, you can choose anything within the general area of Dangerous Outsiders. It should normally illustrate the construction of a myth, a moral panic, or a social problem. It might be an example of something we have covered in the course (eg child abuse, drugs, Satanism, teenage suicide, drunk driving and so on), but there are many other possibilities. You might trace the development of a particular campaign or movement. I emphasize that you should study a particular case or example, and not (for example) give an account of witch-hunts over the centuries, or contemporary myths about child abuse. I would certainly be open to other suggestions - for instance, a legal analysis of measures passed in response to a specific panic.


I want to know what topic you have chosen by the tenth class of the course, on February 13. I don't want a draft then - just a title. I will then be happy to assist with a bibliography. (If you have any doubts about a topic, please check with me).


Find a topic, which can be either current or historical. Unless you have something startlingly new to say, avoid well-trodden incidents like the Salem witch-trials, the McMartin playschool or the Tawana Brawley affair. Describe how and why the "panic" developed; who the main actors were; how they got their views across; how the media responded. How were language and rhetoric used to create and disseminate perceptions of the problem? How were statistics used? If wildly inaccurate figures were cited, were they criticized by the media? Did the affair have an outcome in terms of new law enforcement measures, or in legislation? Overall, what can we learn from the incident in question? How does this specific affair relate to the wider scholarly literature on the topic? Does it confirm or contradict the theories normally used in the area? Obviously, these questions will not apply to every project, they are only intended to give a general guide to the sort of issues you might consider.


One useful tip is to concentrate on something local, either in the immediate area of central Pennsylvania, or in your home area; but this is up to you. If this is possible, then it would obviously be nice to interview participants in the events depicted; but this will only apply to some cases. Within Pennsylvania, some historical incidents that come to mind immediately are the Temperance movement; the Ku Klux Klan and other nativist movements; and the McCarthyite purges of the 1950s. All had a big  impact within Centre County, as well as throughout the state as a whole. Were there panics about drugs in a college town like this back in the 1930s or 1950s?  From more recent years, there are obvious topics like abortion, pornography and drunk driving. What about the campaign to ban films like The Last Temptation of Christ, or controversial rock and rap music? Some communities in the state have also reported classic examples of myths and legends about Satanic cults and sacrifices, and these stories are a goldmine for projects like this. 


Once you have determined on a topic, there are a number of ways of finding materials. Sources of general use include the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature; the Television News Index and Abstracts; the annual indexes of the New York Times; and the invaluable computerized search facilities offered by the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Reference Room and the Microfilm Room of Pattee will give you a great deal of what you need here. In addition, Pattee library has some excellent computer facilities that allow you to do a rapid and thorough search of the leading newspapers of several major cities across the United States - at present, mainly for the 1980s. Go to the microfilm room and ask about them. If a story is of local or state interest, you may find valuable material by contacting the local newspaper or television station in the area concerned, and perhaps the journalists and editors involved.


Interviews of this sort can be very informative, but you have to be careful in approaching them. Ask politely, as these people are doing you a big favor in giving up their time to be interviewed. You will also get a great deal more out of these encounters if you are well-informed about the topic beforehand. Also, you have to let the subjects know exactly how you will be using the information gained - form the start, establish ground rules about confidentiality. Interviewing law enforcement officials involves a whole different set of issues, and I would be happy to advise you beforehand if this situation arose.


Finally: if a "panic" reached the attention of Congress - and many of them did - then the records will be available in the Documents Room of Pattee. They will be well indexed, but you may have to ask for assistance in finding your way around the system.




1.  January 14. Why study the topic? Theories and concepts. Myths, stereotypes, panics and scapegoats

Read: Bennett, Party of Fear, entire book


2. January 16. The remarkable continuity of charges against out-groups, from the Classical world to Stalinism in the USSR in the 1930s. The scapegoats and stereotypes of particular ethnic and social groups.


3. January 21. Conspiracy and paranoid traditions in American history. McCarthyism and the Rightist conspiracy tradition. Illuminati and Communists.

Read: Reader 14-22


4. January 23. The Ku Klux Klan through history. Nativism, anti-Catholicism and the symbolic crusade.


5. January 28. Foreign demons: enduring stereotypes of Arabs and Jews.

Read: Reader 135-143


6. January 30. The 1960s and 1970s as a golden age of conspiracy theory. The assassination theorists.


7. February 4. Changing perceptions of ethnicity in American organized crime. Crime and racial politics.

Read: Reader 1-13 - introduction to witchcraft


8. February 6. Views of Salem and the witches, 1692-1992.

Read: Reader 35-46 - From Salem to Jordan


9. February 11. Satanism.

Read: Satanism Scare, 3-15 (introduction) and 49-72 (Bromley chapter)


10. February 13. Satanism, continued. "America's Best Kept Secret".

Read: Reader 76-79 - newscuttings; Satanism Scare, 41-48, Russell chapter.

**I need to know your choice of term paper topics today**.


11. February 18. Satanism, continued.

Read: Satanism Scare, 75-94 (Nathan chapter)


12. February 20. Jordan and McMartin. The invention of ritual abuse.

Read: Reader 80-107 - "And a child shall mislead them"


13. February 25. Endangered children: the concept of child abuse. Molesters and  paedophiles.

Read: Satanism Scare, 95-122, chapters by Best and Martin-Fine. Also see the attached handout.


14. February 27. Endangered children, continued. The interlinked panics of the 1980s. the legislative politics of missing children. Arlen Specter, John Walsh, Paula Hawkins, Kenneth Wooden

Read: Reader 23-34, "Protecting the Victims"; also Reader 108-128, Best article on missing children.


15. March 3. EXAM ONE

Read: Reader 129-134  - Halloween legends


16. March 5. Endangered children, continued.  Child pornographers. and the myth of the snuff film.

Read the whole of Cults That Kill  over Spring break.


17. March 17. Rock lyrics and teen suicide. Halloween and changing concepts of childhood and adolescence.

Read: Satanism Scare, 205-220  - chapter by Richardson


18. March 19. "Cults That Kill". Discussion of Kahaner book; issues of methodology.

Read: Reader 52-59  - introduction to serial murder


19. March 24. "Four thousand victims" - Serial murder as myth and reality. The construction of the NCAVC.

Read: Reader 60-74  - reality of serial murder


20. March 26. Serial murder, continued


21. March 31. Serial murder, continued

Read: Satanism Scare, 175-204, chapters on police and Satanic crime


22. April 2. The political and social uses of panics. Ethnic and religious agendas.

Read: Satanism Scare, 127-171 - chapters on psychotherapy


23.  April 7. Homosexuality as the focus of panics. Medicine and science as the tools of ideology.

Read: Satanism Scare, 279-310, chapters by Ellis and Bainbridge on how Satanists construct themselves.


24.  April 9. Drug legislation as a model of stereotyping and power group politics. From dope fiends and speed freaks to crack users

Read: Satanism Scare, 237-248 - chapter by Green on the Matamoros case


25.  April 14. "Ethnic Notions".

Read: Satanism Scare, 221-237 and 249-262 - chapters by Victor, and by  Balch and Gilliam


26.  April 16. Failed panics: Tawana Brawley, Jim Garrison. Rumor and urban legend.

Read: Satanism Scare, 263-278  - chapter by Rowe and Cavender


27.  April 21. The media role. Cinema and popular fiction. Thomas Harris, Jonathan Kellerman, Stephen King.


28.  April 23. Comparative and international view: the British experience


29.  April 28. The politics of a local panic. Conclusion and overview: explaining the paranoid tradition in American life and politics


30.  April 30. EXAM TWO


Reserve reading list


I have asked for the following books to be put on reserve at Pattee Library. Obviously I do not expect you to read them all - just use them as seems appropriate in your papers and background reading.


Howard Becker,            Outsiders,      HV5825.B4 1963

Norman Cohn,                         Europe's Inner Demons,       BF1584.E9C63

Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, Holy Terror, BR115.P7C64

John Demos,                Entertaining Satan, BF1576.D42

Paul and Shirley Eberle, The Politics of Child Abuse,          HV6626.5.E24 1986

Kai Erikson,                 Wayward Puritans,   BX9355.E7

John Gerassi,                The Boys of Boise,    HQ76.G38

Joseph Gusfield,            Symbolic Crusade,   HV5292.G8

Joseph Gusfield,            The Culture of Public Problems,    HE5620.D7G87

Charles Higham,           American Swastika, E743.5.H5 1985

John Higham,               Strangers in the Land,         E184.A1H5 1988

Richard Hofstadter,      The Paranoid Style in American Politics, E743.H632.

R. Po-chia Hsia,           The Myth of Ritual Murder,            BR309.G37 1988

George Johnson,           Architects of Fear,    E183.J68 1983

Larry Kahaner,                        Cults that Kill,          HV6529.K34 1988

Carol Karlsen               The Devil in the Shape of a Woman,          BF1576.K37 1987

Seymour M. Lipset and Earl Raab, The Politics of Unreason,           E183.L56 1978

David Musto,               The American Disease,        HV5825.M84 1987

Joel Norris,                  Serial Killers,           HV6529.N67 1988

Diana Russell,               Sexual Exploitation,             HV6565.C2R87 1984

Joseph Schneider and John Kitsuse, Studies in the Sociology of Social Problems,             HN51.S929 1984.

Dwight C Smith,           The Mafia Mystique,             HV6446.S54

Susan Sontag                AIDS and its Metaphors       RA644.A25S66 1989

Malcolm Spector and John Kitsuse, Constructing Social Problems             HN28.S7 1987

Mike Taibbi and Anna Sims-Phillips, Unholy Alliances: Working the Tawana Brawley Story, HV8079.R35T35 1989