Raves as Moral Panics

Jessica Hocking


This essay aims to look at the moral panic that erupted surrounding raves and ecstasy culture in the UK from 1987 onwards.  It will begin by looking at the original concept of moral panic as defined by Stanley Cohen in 1972 and go on to examine the rise of rave and ecstasy culture in the UK and the reaction of the British mass media and agents of social control to this subculture.  Finally, it will consider whether Cohen’s definition is still applicable or outdated in today’s multi-mediated world.


The first published reference to ‘moral panic’ was by the British sociologist Jock Young, in 1971, he was investigating the escalating public concern over the apparently alarming increase of drug abuse.  He observed that “the moral panic over drug-taking results in the setting-up of drug squads’ by police departments, which produces an increase in drug-related arrests” (Young, 1971 cited in Thompson, 1998, p7).


However, it was Stanley Cohen who fully introduced the concept by using it to characterize the reaction of the media, the public and agents of social control (e.g. the police and the government) to the youth disturbances – the seaside fights between the Mods and Rockers in 1960s Britain.  The following quote by Cohen (1972) outlines the main factors that constitute a moral panic.


“Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic.  A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible.  Sometimes the subject of the panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly appears in the limelight.  Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten, except in folklore and collective memory; at other times it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal or social policy or even in the way society conceives itself” (p9).


Cohen says that “one of the most recurrent types of moral panic in Britain since the war has been associated with the emergence of various forms of youth culture whose behaviour is deviant or delinquent” (p9).  This essay will examine the emergence of rave culture and the social deviants who created it and were part of it. 


The reason it is called a moral panic is because the perceived threat is believed to be a threat to social order or to something that is held sacred by or fundamental to the society (Thompson, 1998, pp8).  More often than not the perceived threat is a threat to the dominant ideology and the media are used to inform society that the person or persons involved are deviant and are behaving in a way that is wrong, as compared to the dominant society’s values.


It is important to note how people or groups of people are labelled as deviant, as without these deviant persons and behaviour there would be nothing to panic about.  Cohen cites Becker (1963) “...deviance is created by society… social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes deviance and by applying those rules to particular persons and labelling them as outsiders.  From this point of view, deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an ‘offender’” (pp 12-13).  Persons are labelled as deviant if they are behaving in a way that is not acceptable to the dominant societal group, whether it be violence, drug-taking, the way they choose to dress or the music that they listen to.  If those in the dominant societal group do not approve or understand, those who behave in such a fashion will be labelled as deviant.  However, amongst their own social group, or subculture, these people will be accepted and are the norm and those in the dominant societal group will appear to them as deviant as they do not accept or understand their ways of living.  Therefore it really depends from which point of view you are looking from as to whom is the deviant.


However, it is those who have control over the media, in Cohen’s time the dominant group and the government, who have the ability to amplify deviance and thus create a moral panic.  Amplification (or exaggeration and distortion) is essential to the creation of a moral panic.  This amplification of deviance is done by the media by ‘over reporting’ (Cohen, 1972, p31).  There are many ways in which the media may over report an incident, mainly by exaggerating the numbers involved or the amount of damage caused and specifically by using exaggerated language.  Cohen highlights the type of language used in the reporting of the clashes between the Mods and Rockers on Brighton beach in 1964, “The regular use of phrases such as ‘riot’, ‘orgy of destruction’, ‘battle’, ‘attack’, ‘siege’, ‘beat up the town’ and ‘screaming mob’ left an image of a besieged town from which innocent holiday makers were fleeing to escape a marauding mob” (p31).  He goes on to say that by reading the rest of the newspaper or actually being at the scene one would note that the weather was bad causing the beaches to be deserted and the holiday makers that were there were actually watching the Mods and Rockers who broke a window or two.  This kind of sensationalism is common place in newspaper reporting as it is what people want to read and helps to support action taken by agent of social control, as noted by Becker (1963) “The problem must be exaggerated to heighten concern, so the public can support the agenda of “moral entrepreneurs” (cited in Mitchell, 2001).  As Knopf (cited in Cohen) notes, with regard to the frequency of newspaper scandalization, “The continued media use of the term contributes to an emotionally charged climate in which the public tends to view every event as an ‘incident’, every incident as a ‘disturbance’ and every disturbance as a ‘riot’” (p32).  I will look at the over reporting of the rave scene later on in this essay.


It is now necessary to give a brief history of rave culture and then examine why and how a moral panic was created and the resulting actions taken by the government in response to the moral panic.


Acid House, as it was then called, started off in the UK in 1987/1988 when some now famous DJs returned from a hedonistic summer in Ibiza where they were introduced to a new way of clubbing and a new drug named ecstasy.


They returned to a bored and depressed Britain in its third consecutive term of conservative rule where Thatcher’s golden age was turning sour.  As Matthew Collin put it in his book “Altered State” (1997),


“Thatcher’s “economic miracle”, a consumer boom fuelled by wild spending on credit and a mood of uninhibited individualism, was entering its final phase before the shuddering stock market crash of “Black Monday” heralded a plunge back into recession.  London clubland mirrored this monetarist climax; elitism was a virtue, acceptance had to be bought, and those who couldn’t afford the price were turned away, their voices denied expression” (pp54-55).


New clubs appeared, mainly in London, and others grew with the introduction of the drug ‘Ecstasy’.  Ecstasy made you able to dance all night and turned complete strangers into your best friend.  Without Ecstasy, the rave scene probably would never have happened, Ecstasy was the catalyst that triggered off probably the largest subculture in Britain’s history a massive moral panic ensued resulting in government legislation to try and stop it.


At first the press reaction was rather favourable with The Sun selling ‘smiley’ t-shirts in their issue of 12th October 1988, and describing Acid House as “groovy and cool”.  However, a week later The Sun changed their attitude and ran the following article,


 “The Sun medical correspondent Vernon Coleman warned: “You will hallucinate.  For example, if you don’t like spiders you’ll start seeing giant ones… Hallucinations can last up to 12 hours…There’s a good chance you’ll end up in a mental hospital for life…If you’re young enough there’s a good chance you’ll be sexually assaulted while under the influence.  You may not even know it until a few days or weeks later” (Collin, 1997, p77). 


The hysteria had started.  Top Shop banned the ‘smiley’ logo from appearing on any of their clothes and Top of the Pops prohibited any records containing the word “acid”.  This, however, was just the beginning.



The clubs became more and more popular and as the licensing laws of the time would not allow clubs to open after 2am there was nowhere for the clubbers to go when they just wanted to keep dancing. 


People started to organize pay parties outside of London the locations were anything from hired equestrian centres to disused warehouses.  The majority of the time the location of the party was not released until the last minute so that the venue could be filled before the police arrived, once there were a few thousand people partying the police were pretty powerless to stop them.  The main man behind these parties was called Tony Colston-Hayter, and on 24th June, 1989, a party run by him under the name of Sunrise’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, in Berkshire, finally brought raves into the headlines.


Amongst the 11,000 ticket holders, in the huge disused aircraft hanger, were a couple of reporters from The Sun, which resulted in the front page headline of “Ecstasy Airport” followed by a story about “spaced-out young girls, some as young as twelve, rubbing shoulders with sinister drug dealers while drug-crazed youths writhed to alien rhythms” (Collin, 1997, p97).  The language used is typical of a newspaper moral panic, especially the use of the word “alien”, used to imply these people are wrong and deviant.  The story continues inside where The Sun offers us a fantastic piece of creative writing, “…beheaded pigeons littered the floor of the hanger after Sunday’s party.  Youngsters were so high on ecstasy and cannabis they ripped the birds’ heads off.  Their bodies lay among thousands of empty soft drink cans and pieces of foil which had contained the drugs” (The Sun, 1989).  Collin (1997) highlights this story in his book and after speaking to people that were actually there notes, “in fact, the “wrappers” were bits of silver foil from the ceiling decorations and the decapitated birds were nowhere to be seen” (p97).  This is what Cohen (1972) described as ‘over reporting’ and it is only by speaking to those who were actually there that one would get a true account of the rave.


Once the story had hit the headlines the police had to start trying to prevent these parties and Chief Superintendent Ken Tappenden formed the Pay Party Unit.  They compiled data about organisers and kept them under surveillance, monitoring radio broadcasts and telephone calls and sending out helicopters to follow organisers who were trying to find venues.  All of the media attention made it more difficult for organisers to get people to agree to use their property even though these parties were not against the law if classed as a private party (Bidder, 2001).  The police were powerless if the land owner was happy for the party to go ahead, Tappenden says, “The law as it stood, the legislation, was totally ineffective.  It came from time immemorial, that a person’s land was his castle … they came armed with their lawyers.  So they know more about the law, or as much about the law, as we did.  We knew it was ineffective, they definitely knew it was ineffective … what you’ve got to realize is that if you’re making thirty thousand pound in your back pocket on a function, to pay a thousand pound [in fines] was nothing” (Bidder, 2001, p142).  The amount of money being made from these parties was huge without including the money made from selling drugs at the events.  From a police and governmental point of view something had to be done.


In July 1990 the government passed Graham Bright’s Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Bill, which raised the maximum fines for unlicensed parties to £20,000 and six months’ imprisonment (Bidder, 2001).  The introduction of this act meant that it was not worth the risk of putting on pay parties and the rave scene moved back to licensed venues.  However, this was not the end of the rave scene but in fact the beginning of something else.  The main ethos of rave culture is not really about making money it’s really about having a good time and the freedom to party and if the government were not going to allow pay parties then a group of people, who named themselves “Spiral Tribe”, were going to do it for free.


Mark Harrison of Spiral Tribe is quoted in Bidder (2001) as saying,


“Any social space where you go and meet people, you have to pay.  There’s not just the entrance but there’s also the tax; it’s all very controlled.  Why charge, you know?  You’re just feeding into that system.  If it’s free, everyone is on an equal basis… we’re all in this together and it’s each individual that [is] actually making it happen.  It’s a natural thing that human beings come together in free space.  And if it’s not available for them, they will make it.  That’s how Spiral Tribe started.  What’s very important is that people are outside the autonomous zone, [outside] the constraints of normal society.  Once that’s allowed to happen then all sorts of very interesting ideas can be bounced around” (pp 196-197).


As was seen with the rise of pay parties, once social life has moved beyond the constraints of what is seen as normal society, they become difficult to control, that is exactly what happened with the rave scene.


Influenced by Spiral Tribe’s free parties, many other organisers started to set up sound systems and throw free parties, if no one was charging any money for them the law was, once again, ineffective.  Party organisers collaborated with travellers and free parties were happening all over the country, culminating in what was probably the biggest free party ever, Castlemorton.


A five mile convoy of thousands of travellers and sound systems rolled onto Castlemorton Common in May 1992 and within a few hours there was “a temporary autonomous zone in the English countryside with its own power, lighting, accommodation, catering and leisure facilities” (Collin, 1998, p213).  Local residents went on national television to complain about the festival and inadvertently advertised it to the youth of Great Britain and soon thousands of urban ravers were pouring into the site for a weekend long party.



The scene continued to grow and in 1993 the government proposed the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill.  Clause 63 of the bill is designed specifically to stop raves,

“This section applies to a gathering on land in the open air of 100 or more persons (whether or not trespassers) at which amplified music is played during the night (with or without intermissions) and is such as, by reason of its loudness and duration and the time at which it is played, is likely to cause serious distress to the inhabitants of the locality; and for this purpose: 

(a) such a gathering continues during intermissions in the music and, where the gathering extends over several days, throughout the period during which amplified music is played at night (with or without intermissions); and

 (b) "music" includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats.


A constable in uniform who reasonably suspects that a person is committing an offence under this section may arrest him without a warrant.”

(The British Government, 1994).


The bill was passed in 1994 and “although other youth movements had inspired new legislation, never before, over years of post-war moral panics about the activities of Teddy Boys, Mods, Hippies and Punks, had a government considered young people’s music so subversive as to prohibit it” (Collin, 1998, p223).


This is a fine example of a moral panic as defined by Cohen (1972) resulting in criminal legislation.  However, it is not really surprising that the agents of social control got a bit worried about thousands of young people throwing massive parties in the English countryside.  However, the panic has now passed and scene they tried to ban is now an integral part of youth today, dance music is played on everything from “Eastenders” to television adverts.  Massive licensed festivals such as “Creamfields” are now common place and recreational drug taking is becoming the norm for many.  Free parties still happen in fields and woods, although on a smaller scale, and generally the police turn a blind eye.


So, why did such a huge moral panic erupt surrounding this subculture which today is seen as mainstream culture?  Hill (2002) wanted to examine why and argues that "the subculture is conceived as presenting a disruptive presence to Thatcherism as a hegemonic project”.  There were so many different ways in which Acid House opposed Thatcher’s view of Britain.  The fact that raves were held in the countryside was deviation from the norm, Chambers (1986, cited in Hill, 2002) states “it is in the city that contemporary popular culture . . . has its home”, so the fact that the main venues for Acid House parties were in the conservative core of Thatcher’s Britain, the Home Counties, was bound to cause some reactions.  The transgression of urban disorder and youth to the respectable, ordered rural areas destroyed the idyllic view of rural life, especially as the parties were held at night when rural areas are most quiet.  The level of noise created by Acid House parties was immense and was the main reason behind the majority of complaints.  Tappenden says “the music was deafening… it was that bad that you knew you were going to have numerous complaints and it was that bad that quite frankly it contravened all the Noise Pollution Acts that could ever be drawn up for this land” (Bidder, 2001, pp139-140).  Hill (2002) examines the work of Attali who “points to the way in which under totalitarian regimes it has been ‘necessary to ban subversive noise because it betokens demands for cultural autonomy, support for differences or marginality’”, this view does seem to fit with the Thatcherite response to Acid House as there are parts of The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, 1994, that are designed to combat this noise. 


Hill ultimately believes that the high level of opposition to Acid House was not due to the direct challenges to law and order - blatant drug use and the flouting of licensing laws and heath and safety regulations – but due to the fact that it was inherently against authoritarian Thatcherist values and the government were probably more worried about the threat to Thatcherism than the threat to law and order.


It is interesting to examine whether this scale of moral panic would have happened in today’s world, where mainstream newspapers are no longer the only form of media that the public consumes.  Information is so much more freely available due to the increase in magazine and newspaper publication, the internet and advances in communication.  Something that is deviant to one social group and condemned in their media is the norm to another group and celebrated in their media.  McRobbie et al (1995) note that “moral panics have become the way in which daily events are brought to the attention of the public” and now are even used as a form of promotion.  If young people are advised that something is wrong they are more likely to want to try it or listen to it.  Youth want to be deviant, when you are young you want to rebel against authority, “youth are inclined not to lament a safe and stable past but to have overwhelming nostalgia for the days when youth culture was genuinely transgressive” (McRobbie et al, 1995).  Youth cultures have always been condemned by the mass media and expect it “disapproving mass media coverage legitimizes and authenticates youth culture to the degree that it is hard to imaging a British youth ‘movement’ without it” (McRobbie et al, 1995).


McRobbie et al believe that Cohen’s model of moral panic is outdated due to the high level of different media that is available and the fact that moral panics are now a part of everyday newspaper reporting.  However, I think that parts of the model are still applicable if applied purely to mass media, folk devils are named and their deviant behavior is amplified leading to condemnation by the public and agents of social control.  However, the proportion of the public who believe fully everything that they are told by the mass media has become smaller and therefore does not have so much influence which lessens the impact of a moral panic.  Youth enjoy shocking older generations and will continue to do so.  The increasing level of information freely available has made the majority of the public more open minded to different social and cultural behaviors and today’s consumers of mass media are more likely to be a part of yesterday’s moral panic.


This essay has shown how moral panics develop and how they are now an integral part of the way that we have the news reported to us.  The majority of the public are aware of the way news is scandalized and it is now the norm to do so.  If the rave scene happened all over again in today’s society, it would probably create the same level of moral panic in the mass media, but would disappear and become an accepted part of society quicker than it did originally as another panic would take hold a few days or weeks later.  The folk devils involved would be able to have their say in the subversive media and those who wanted to obtain a more accurate account of the situation will be able to, much more easily, through the various different forms of media now available to us.




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