Panic Attacks by Robert E Bartholomew & Hillary Evans (2004)
No surprise that Orson Welles and The War of the Worlds graces the cover of this book given that the 1938 broadcast must rate as the greatest panic attack in history, though as this book details, it was not the only one by far, and indeed there are some truly surprising and amazing stories to be found within these pages. What must be said is that they are not all by any stretch of the imagination panic attacks. Some in fact did little or no harm and more than anything provided considerable entertainment to those caught up in the moment. As such, this book would probably have gone more accurately by the title Mass Delusions, though one has to concede it does not have quite the emotive ring as Panic Attacks.
Naturally then the 1938 broadcast takes pride of place in discussion, but what really elevates this book to a new level are the other little known moments in history when reality went a little off the rails. To me, the most fascinating has to be the Great Moon Hoax. As previously indicated, not all these misadventures in misinformation caused death and destruction and this is a great example of a story that simply got out of control but which did little more harm than embarrass a few worthy folk. Basically the story was that in 1835, one of the earliest tabloid newspapers in the United States broke an extraordinary story, that the great astronomer John Herschel (1792-1871) had embarked on a scientific expedition to South Africa, there to set up a new observatory. The story as written was brilliantly conceived. Hershel had gone to South Africa but from this basis of fact was spun a tale of utter lunacy (pardon the pun) that totally captured the imagination of the public. Herschel it was said, had erected a telescope of such power and magnification that he was able to discern life on the moon, and not any old life, but trees and planets and animals, and as a final spectacular cherry on the cake, angelic human-like figures. People swallowed the story hook, line and sinker and sales of the paper soared.
A great story, but there others, such as the comet that it was believed would gas all life on earth, and a modern day panic spread by and centred on the use of Mobile Phones.
The book tends to run out of steam toward the end, since one suspects the authors were running out of genuine "panics" as I would define them, but this is a minor quibble. The book is undoubtedly a timely examination of the whole concept of panics and delusions, and especially the role of the media, though it does get a bit preachy about the dangers. There is also less in the way of interpretation and analysis than one might expect, but sometimes that can be a good thing. It makes for a fast paced and enjoyable read. The authors have clearly dug deep into the archives and unearthed some real gems, and for that they are to be congratulated. In conclusion, a really well written, exciting and intelligent book. Not a bad combination at all.
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