AWSM Note: This review first appeared in the NZ SKEPTICS newsletter.

A Colourful History of Popular Delusions
By Robert Bartholomew and Peter Hassall

Reviewed by Jonathon Harper

Although this was published six years ago, I think it is a classic reference book that will endure. It is available in some local libraries, including the Auckland public library.

The previous survey, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” was published a long time ago now. It is a great companion reference for Lynley Hood’s analysis “A City Possessed” on the Moral Panic in Christchurch surrounding the Peter Ellis case.

I learnt several things of great interest to skeptics. For example:

The moon hoax used pseudo-scientific terms and quoted a defunct journal. It gave a big boost in circulation to newspapers that published it.

There was a case of anxiety hysteria in Auckland in 1973 about a smell coming from leaking drums in the Parnell wharf. Many people became ill until it was shown the substance in the drums was not poisonous.

Medics (as in a Canadan case in 2004) can suffer from anxiety hysteria. You’d think their training might make them immune!

Exorcism and religion can make things worse in cases of hysteria, due to excessive fear of bad spirits – as it strengthens belief in the imaginary causes of these delusions.

Sometimes harsh conditions can trigger hysteria, and so a ‘spirit’ can speak out or ‘cause’ absenteeism from horrible institutions or work-places due to hysterical symptoms.Sometimes conditions improve as a result; whereas the victims in these institutions may not have been successful had they just protested.

Self-mutilation can be an extreme way to gain attention, and can involve false accusations.

False confessions are common during public moral panics.

Sometimes, as with the Peron family case, psychiatric conditions are falsely reinterpreted as paranormal phenomena.

Finally, skeptics have in some cases managed to help defuse panics by effectively debunking false beliefs.