Popular Culture

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I have written on a variety of popular cultural beliefs as they relate to folklore and paranormal/supernatural.  I refer to these episodes as "living folklore."  These include collective sightings of UFOs, ghosts, the Virgin Mary, and creatures whose existence science has yet to validate, such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness 'Monster.'  I view sighting flaps of these popular motifs as forms of social delusion whereby with the prompting of local traditions, the news media and word of mouth, psychologically normal, healthy people begin to redefine ambiguous, predominately nocturnal stimuli in their environment as reflecting social and cultural expectations.  As a result, many people see what they expect to see.  Major drivers of these outbreaks are human perceptual fallibility and memory reconstruction.  For instance, most laypeople are unaware of the extent that eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable and subject to error.  A common example of this process would be a tourist who travels to Lake Champlain in hopes of seeing the Champlain Monster, redefining a wave or log at a distance as the monster.

Examples:

The South African Monoplane Sighting Flap of 1914

Bartholomew, Robert E. (1989). "The South African Monoplane Hysteria:  An Evaluation of the Usefulness of Smeler's Theory of Hysterical Beliefs."  The Sociological Quarterly 59(3):287-300.

Summary: An outbreak of monoplane sightings within British South Africa during 1914, is examined as a case of mass hysteria. The vast majority of reports where a specific time and sky location is mentioned, correspond closely to known astronomical bodies, especially Venus.  The episode coincided with the advent of World War I.  As a result, the sky became a Rorschach Ink Blot, reflecting popular fears. 

 

The Phantom Gasser of Virginia in 1933-34

Bartholomew, Robert E. and Wessely, Simon (1999). "Epidemic Hysteria in Virginia: The Case of the Phantom Gasser of 1933-34." Southern Medical Journal 92(8):762-769.

Summary:  We studied an example of epidemic hysteria involving the fear of being "gassed" in the rural United States during a time of heightened press and radio coverage on the perils of chemical weapons which had been used during World War I.  The description presented is that of a previously unrecorded case of epidemic hysteria in Botetourt and Roanoke counties in the state of Virginia, as locals were thrust into national media prominence after a series of alarming reports that a nefarious gasser was prowling the region and spraying citizens in their homes at night. In reality, residents were redefining ever-present odors, especially from their chimneys, as gasser-related.  Data were gathered from contemporary newspaper accounts. The case of the Virginia "gasser" is one in a long series of epidemic hysteria incidents during the 20th century, coinciding with heightened awareness of pollutants and triggered by imaginary or exaggerated contamination threats. A recommendation is provided on how physicians should approach episodes.