What were people paranoid about before modern technology?
March 1, 2014 11:21 PM   Subscribe

Due to some personal motivations, I've been reading a lot about paranoia lately and most of the delusions I hear about involve modern technology, ie. wire taps, hidden cameras, etc. What are some examples of paranoid delusions before that technology existed?
posted by shesdeadimalive to Health & Fitness (34 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Religious/supernatural-themed delusions - demonic possession, witches, etc. - are incredibly common throughout history.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:33 PM on March 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

Not quite a recommendation, since I just started it myself, but The United States of Paranoia is a history of (wait for it) conspiracy theories in US history, going back to the colonial period. I don't know much about the subject matter, but it's pretty interesting so far.

(Short answer to your question, based on what I've read so far: people being afraid someone was poisoning the food/water.)
posted by jameaterblues at 11:35 PM on March 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

-subset - minority groups/'others'
Anything new at the time
posted by edgeways at 12:01 AM on March 2, 2014

Mod note: One comment deleted. Not the place to get into a discussion of actual eavesdropping / interceptions, etc. For the purposes of the question, please assume delusions as a result of clinical paranoia. Thanks.
posted by taz (staff) at 12:29 AM on March 2, 2014

posted by brujita at 12:33 AM on March 2, 2014

In the middle ages, the weather.
posted by mani at 12:49 AM on March 2, 2014

posted by Sebmojo at 1:08 AM on March 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

A classic pre-19thc case is James Tilly Matthews, who believed he was being controlled by magnetic or similar rays from a machine he called the Air Loom.
posted by AFII at 1:28 AM on March 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

People who were 'different' were feared because they might be possessed by evil spirits. Body abnormalities, red hair, lefthandedness - all these traits were suspicious because they could not be explained, so they were assumed to be evil, or punishment for some kind of sin.
posted by Cranberry at 1:38 AM on March 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thinking back to Carlo Ginzburg's The Night Battles, anxiety about crops led to a lot of folklore, including fear of witches and elaborate anti-witch countermeasures. Robert Darnton, if I remember correctly, has an article (maybe in The Great Cat Massacre) where he talks about how much food and having enough to eat figures in folk tales, so that's another source of fear (fairy tales also hint that remarriage and the threat of disinheritance was on people's minds).
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:41 AM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

My dim recollection from intro psych is that delusions match the culture and technology of the sufferer. So when radio was central to culture, the radio talked to people. Gods and demons and saints have spoken to people for a long time. People have thought others were plotting against them since forever.
posted by gingerest at 3:03 AM on March 2, 2014

Fluoride in water supplies.
posted by spitbull at 3:08 AM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Alien abduction.

Fillings in your teeth being used to transmit or receive information.

Angels, demons, religious judgment of all kinds.

Vampires, werewolves, skinwalkers, witches, ghosts, any number of things that go bump in the night.
posted by erst at 3:18 AM on March 2, 2014

My mother would tell tales of nights her parents would make her and her sisters sleep in locked closets because they heard through the grapevine that gypsies were in town. And, I guess, gypsies were "known" for sneaking into homes and stealing young girls.

Hand to my heart, that's a true story.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:51 AM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

In Europe I think a lot of paranoia resulted in anti-Semitism - examples being blood libel, Protocols of Zion etc.
posted by Dorothea_in_Rome at 4:03 AM on March 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

People have been paranoid about vaccines since at least the 1790's.
posted by lharmon at 4:06 AM on March 2, 2014

Yeah, I was going to say antisemitism (the blood libel, but also the whole Jews-control-the-banks-and-the-media thing), and also anti-Catholicism in Protestant communities. In the US, a lot of people believed that the Pope told Catholics how to vote, while at the same time Jesuits were using convent schools to subvert American democracy by corrupting the virtue of future mothers of voters. Conspiracy theories about the Masons were also a big thing.

I think that paranoid conspiracy theories are often a way of processing baffling change, so I wouldn't be surprised if they have often focused on technology.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:26 AM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sorry: I just want to point out, regarding taz's mod post, that people who believed antisemitism, anti-Catholic and anti-Masonic stuff were overwhelmingly not clinically delusional. Those were cultural phenomena, not manifestations of mental illness.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:33 AM on March 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

People may have thought that their mail was being intercepted. Controlling beams through tv and radio (maybe it's not just one way). Gossiping people who might occasionally make eye contact. Neighbours speaking loudly and appearing to stop when you appear. There's all manner of things to get freaked out about if you're in the wrong state of mind.
posted by h00py at 5:05 AM on March 2, 2014

Newsletters or periodicals from groups that a paranoid person belongs to contain articles and letters that can be interpreted by them as being very pointed.
posted by h00py at 5:07 AM on March 2, 2014

posted by Flood at 5:07 AM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Spirits, demons, devils, Catholics, Masons...
posted by synecdoche at 5:43 AM on March 2, 2014

In Soviet Russia, TV watches YOU!
posted by JimBJ9 at 5:47 AM on March 2, 2014

Being poisoned.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:46 AM on March 2, 2014

Being Buried alive. There were whole industries for built in tomb alarms and escape levers. Poe wrote a story or two about it.
posted by Think_Long at 6:58 AM on March 2, 2014

Best answer: You'll probably find this article interesting... it covers the history of paranoia from James Tilly Matthews in 1810 through to the "Truman Show Delusion" in modern times.

In 1919, he published a paper on a phenomenon he called ‘the influencing machine’. Tausk had noticed that it was common for patients with the recently coined diagnosis of schizophrenia to be convinced that their minds and bodies were being controlled by advanced technologies invisible to everyone but them. These ‘influencing machines’ were often elaborately conceived and predicated on the new devices that were transforming modern life. Patients reported that they were receiving messages transmitted by hidden batteries, coils and electrical apparatus; voices in their heads were relayed by advanced forms of telephone or phonograph, and visual hallucinations by the covert operation of ‘a magic lantern or cinematograph’. Tausk’s most detailed case study was of a patient named ‘Natalija A’, who believed that her thoughts were being controlled and her body manipulated by an electrical apparatus secretly operated by doctors in Berlin. The device was shaped like her own body, its stomach a velvet-lined lid that could be opened to reveal batteries corresponding to her internal organs.
posted by Gortuk at 7:06 AM on March 2, 2014 [6 favorites]

I remember from reading the Professor and the Madman that W.C. Minor was paranoid that Irish people were trying to kill him.
posted by interplanetjanet at 8:07 AM on March 2, 2014

Best answer: What Gortuk just said. Influencing machines seem to have been a common delusion from well before modern technology. See the Air Loom, a loom that controls your thoughts, circa 1800.

There seems to be something very fundamentally human about the fear of external forces controlling and reading your thoughts, and those delusions can become attached to whatever's around. Here's a self-published book from the 30s about a man whose life is controlled by an evil ventriloquist.

And, of course, there are always supernatural phenomenon--ghosts and demons and witchcraft--that weren't always the sole domain of the mentally ill.
posted by ernielundquist at 8:43 AM on March 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

When I was younger everyone seemed to be worried that heavy metal and ouija boards led to satanic possession. Where I grew up, we seriously had school emergencies where an entire wednesday afternoon was blocked out to have speakers and workshops about this. This was in the 1980s... o_O

Another big worry was UFOs and alien abductions. From age 12-16 I kept myself awake half the night worried about this.

Child abduction by occult ritual abusers was another big fear. This one seems semi-universal. My sister spends a lot of time in Guatemala and rural Mexico where there's little technology but a number of scare stories about babies being snatched up by visiting foreigners, and pretty much every northern european culture has folk tales about children being stolen by witches.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 9:12 AM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I originally misread this question, but I think that the OP is asking specifically about the paranoid delusions of people with mental illness, not about more-widely-held beliefs that would seem paranoid to an outside observer. So, for instance, these days people with paranoid delusions might think that the government was using the internet to listen in on their thoughts, and thirty years ago the same people might have thought that the government was using radio waves to listen in on their thoughts via the fillings in their teeth. So what did people 200 years ago think, given that similar technology didn't exist?
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:19 AM on March 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I originally misread this question, but I think that the OP is asking specifically about the paranoid delusions of people with mental illness, not about more-widely-held beliefs that would seem paranoid to an outside observer.

Well, except I think that common cultural anxieties are often the starting points for more personal delusions of individuals with metal illness. So misogyny, a sadly common cultural view, feeds into the cultural idea of a witch, which may figure in an individual's paranoid feelings of persecution. While many witchcraft accusations in the American Colonies were the product of social tensions and personal animosities, others have definite hints of mental illness (Carol Karlson's The Devil in the Shape of a Woman talks about this at length). Similarly, a person suffering from auditory hallucination of voices will, I think, interpret them in a way that makes cultural sense, whether this is gods, demons, government radio broadcasts, or whatever. The way that alien abductions have "converged" toward a similar narrative has more to do with the prevalence of a single "alien encounter narrative" in the West rather than abductees being more or less mentally ill (or, at least, suffering from poorly-understood neurological processes).

While elaborations on standard cultural narratives exist in personal experiences of mental illness, I don't think mental illness invents the personal narrative out of whole cloth.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:07 AM on March 2, 2014 [6 favorites]

The Masons have already been mentioned, but to add a little more background: Paranoia about the Masons was not limited to David Icke style fringe paranoia; in the United States it was widespread enough to spawn the first "third party" in American politics, The Anti-Masonic Party. The anti-Masonic movement was big enough to do some real damage to the fraternity; many members left and many lodges folded forever.
posted by usonian at 12:48 PM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

You can find a lot of interesting material in the 1841 book Extraordinary Popular Delusions an the Madness of Crowds.
posted by debagel at 1:02 PM on March 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

Between the 15th-17th centuries, the glass delusion was fairly common (as far as delusions go). Princess Alexandra of Bavaria believed she had swallowed a glass piano.
posted by joan cusack the second at 3:11 PM on March 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

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