Raving Mad: The Acid House Witch Hunt

How did the police and media execute a ‘moral panic’ around the 90’s rave community? This academic-styled investigation (uh oh…) looks at theories of criminology and sociology in relation to the darkening of the vibrant rave scene back in the days of whistles on strings. Featuring: festivals, fake news and folk devils…


“COPS BATTLE WITH ACID PARTY YOBS” blurted the headline of a UK newspaper during the height of the ’80s/’90s acid house scene. These were the “yobs” who were in fact hugging each other, discussing creativity, universal peace and transcendence of the self. The culture of raves has been perpetually presented as a moral panic in which the youth culture associated with the parties and events is labelled as immoral and deviant from the norms set by the dominant social group. Shown as an example of a wider issue in society, moral panics like those linked to the rave scene are formed to scare/fix society into the order of the hegemony.

Cartoon from The Sun, (02/11/88) – Acid House as a “folk devil”.

Stanley Cohen writes in Folk Devils and Moral Panics: “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” (9). Youth subcultures such as Punks, Mods and ravers have all been depicted as “folk devils” which need to be straightened out by the ‘right thinking’ hegemonic leaders of society. Cohen uses the term “folk devil” to describe how the media rallied the public against the group associated with the moral panic by a creating sense of them being threatened. They were ordered to push the crazy ravers out of society. Laws such as the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill 1994 were put in place to stop people gathering in groups over the size of 100 in order to reduce the possibilities of such parties happening, and to give an excuse for the authorities to suppress subversiveness of the youth.

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A clause in the Bill asserts that the police may shut down events in which the music played “includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” – clearly targeting and generalising the people attending raves simply based on their taste in music. Can you arrest a sound? In Matthew Collin’s book Altered States he writes “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.” (223). This brief clip shows Paul Gorman speaking to Joe Papworth about the subculture being “threatened” by the Bill: https://www.sutori.com/item/how-threatened-they-were

It was over-reported continually that “drug-crazed youths writhed to alien rhythms” (Collin, 97). The media created the moral panic by regularly exaggerating and labelling. Also, Cohen refers to “readily identifiable symbols” (163) of the subculture’s style which are seized and generalised to make sweeping statements of judgement. For example, the ‘smiley’ symbol became an icon representative of the rave scene, which consequentially became indicative of the drug ‘ecstasy’ given its prevalence within the subculture. All references to the smiley logo were banned by the BBC and Top of the Pops as well as being banned by Top Shop from being printed on their clothes. News circulated stating that the symbol directly represented the party drug and many parents were made to fear their children associating with the yellow smiley face. Ironically, the Sun started selling smiley T-shirts in their 12th October 1988 issue, (commodifying the subculture), but a week later, Vernon Coleman (The Sun’s medical correspondent), stated that “you’ll end up in a mental hospital for life,” and “be sexually assaulted while under the influence” of ecstasy. This flippancy surely suggests some inaccuracy in the facts…

“Groovy & Cool” vs “Evil LSD” – The Sun (12.10.88)

Such moral panics can actually have the reverse effect on the public and the subculture. They can become a form of promotion. It seems that even bad press is good press, especially with Angela McRobbie arguing that “moral panics have become the way in which daily events are brought to the attention of the public” (560). For example, Castlemorton Common’s 1992 weekend party attracted a huge amount of revellers, but when local residents complained on TV about the festival, even more music fans flooded through the event’s gates. Perhaps the youth will always be inclined to deviate from standard culture and escape from the strict norms imposed by their elders. That must be why we call them “youth movements”, because they actively change their direction and move away from what is ordered of them. Oh, and because of the dance moves.

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One Eye on the Road by Alan Lodge

Written by: James Wijesinghe

Cohen, Stanley. Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The creation of the Mods and Rockers. Abingdon: Routledge, 2011.

Collin, Matthew. Altered State: The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House. London: Serpent’s Tail, 2010.

McRobbie, Angela, and Sarah L. Thornton. “Rethinking ‘Moral Panic’ for Multi-Mediated Social Worlds.” The British Journal of Sociology, vol. 46, no. 4, 1995, pp. 559–574.

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