Divers alarums

I often toss the nouns scare and panic around. One of my articles is titled 'The air panic of 1935', another is subtitled 'airmindedness and the Australian mystery aeroplane scare of 1918'. Sometimes I use them to mean the same thing: in the former article, about the press agitation for RAF expansion in response to the aerial rearmament of Germany, I even refer to 'a panic or scare'.1 I'm not alone in this: for example, an article by Matthew Seligmann is entitled 'Intelligence information and the 1909 naval scare: the secret foundations of a public panic', and uses the phrases '1909 scare' and '1909 panic' twice each.2

Despite this, I do tend to think of scare and panic as having slightly, and usefully, different meanings. Both are about fear, obviously, but the difference lies in the intensity of the fear and hence the response to it. A scare seems less intense than a panic: a scare is closer to being startled; panic is more akin to terror. And we can speak of a panic attack or a panic reaction: a surge of adrenalin, the impulse to flee, losing control of mind and body. But a startle reflex is more like just jumping out of your skin when being surprised by something unexpected. After a moment you are back to normal; there are no significant or longterm effects.

And the dictionary does support this distinction. The most relevant definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary to the sense I use them in are, for scare:

An act of scaring or a state of being scared; a sudden fright or alarm; esp. a state of general or public alarm occasioned by baseless or exaggerated rumours; occas. in generalized use, panic.

And for panic:

A sudden feeling of alarm or fear of sufficient intensity or uncontrollableness as to lead to extravagant or wildly unthinking behaviour, such as that which may spread through a crowd of people; the state of experiencing such a feeling. Also: an instance or episode of such feeling; a scare.

So, while there is clearly overlap, the OED does support a panic being more intense and more consequential than a scare. And perhaps a scare can lead to a panic.

But it's actually surprisingly hard to find any discussion of the difference in historical and sociological texts; the two terms are used more or less interchangeably, as noted above. Sometimes, there are tantalising hints of a distinction, but no actual conclusion. This is from a standard sociological textbook on moral panics, by Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda:

Who exactly has to be scared to qualify a scare as a panic? Is it the whole society, or simply part of it? How scared do they have to be? What do they get scared about? And just what is it that they do when they're expressing that panic? Does the general public have to be scared, or can the 'scare' be confined to expressions of fear in the mass media, or to a small collectivity within the society at large?3

Goode and Ben-Yahuda do in fact discuss and defend the use of panic in moral panic by reference to the reactions it elicits, but without mentioning scare:

Quarantelli (2001) believes that sociologists ought to stop studying and referring to the 'panic.' However, his notion of the panic is that it entails headlong, pell-mell flight from an imaginary threat, such as occurs, some observers believe, in a disaster. This is not our meaning of a moral panic at all, and hence, we are forced to disregard Quarantelli's injection. The moral panic is an analogy or metaphor borrowed from the disaster panic. Even if panic or irrational, headlong flight during disasters is exceedingly rare, it shares a common denominator with the moral panic: both are emotionally charged social phenomena entailing fright and anxiety. In the moral panic, people fear, avoid, and condemn the folk devil and and his spawn -- this, not flight and stampedes, are what occur.4

This is useful, though, because in the sorts of panics that I am talking about -- what I call, in my book, defence panics -- the panic responses are (generally) not flight and stampedes but demands for the government or society at large to do something about it. So I can speak of the 1913 phantom airship scare, for example, in which people thought they saw German airships over Britain, which may have been alarming, but they otherwise display little evidence of any sort of panic reaction: they tell others what they've seen but don't head for the hills, or even particularly seem to demand that something be done about the threat. It's the press, along with various interested experts and organisations, which do that, just as in a moral panic, and so I can also speak of the 1913 airship panic (which was launched or at least enabled by the phantom airship scare).


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  1. Brett Holman, 'The air panic of 1935: British press opinion between disarmament and rearmament', Journal of Contemporary History 46 (2011), 305. []
  2. Matthew Seligmann, 'Intelligence information and the 1909 naval scare: the secret foundations of a public panic', War in History 17 (2010), 37-59. []
  3. Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda, Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance, 2nd edition (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 2; emphasis in original. []
  4. Ibid., 3; emphases in original. []

3 thoughts on “Divers alarums

  1. My intuition remains that this is "fear" in the same sense as the fear we enjoy watching horror movies. It's just not articulated that way because the fear doesn't make sense if it isn't Very Serious Thought about Very Serious Issues.

  2. Post author


    Well, perhaps, but that sort of distinction is allowed for by these definitions; though I would say a better comparison is with certain types of urban legends, or true crime stories -- these are things which are supposedly actually happening in the real world, not an explicitly made up story. That adds to the frisson of excitement, of course, but it's also more concerning than pure fiction.



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