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What is Paranoia?

Sarah, Intern

Daniel and Jason Freeman have written a groundbreaking new book defining paranoia’s impact upon not only the mentally ill but the population at large. Paranoia: The 21st Century Fear describe how exaggerated anxieties regarding terrorism, crime, and illness distress one out of four individuals today. In this excerpt from Paranoia, the Freemans look at several social issues that have instilled paranoia in society throughout the century.

In the late 1980s the psychologists Jerry Mitchell and Arlyn Vierkant discovered a battered cardboard box in a store room of Rusk State hospital in east Texas. The cardboard box turned out to contain details of more than 500 people who had been admitted to the hospital in the 1930s. Around 150 of those 500 were suffering from severe mental illness.

Mitchell and Vierkant decided to compare the stories of those 150 patients from the 1930s with the stories of 150 patients with similar problems from the 1980s. In so doing, they were exploiting a rare and fascinating opportunity to compare paranoid thoughts across half a century.

What they found was that, to some degree at least, people’s paranoid fears reflected the times they lived in. So patients from the 1980s believed they were under threat from the Secret Service, the Mafia, the Soviets, or—a little bafflingly—from lesbians. Telephones and houses were bugged. Radar and computers were being used to control people from afar.

Clearly radar and computers weren’t going to feature in the accounts from the 1930s, but neither did the Secret Service, for example. These kinds of powerful organizations or groups were noticeably absent from the fears of 1930s’ patients, though God and other religious figures were often an element (east Texas has always been a heartland of fundamentalist Christianity). One possible explanation for this change is the advent of television, which brought a whole new world—and a whole new world of threats—to a generally poor, rural, and isolated population. Before television, the threats people perceived were likely to come from more personal, parochial sources.

This focus on the ‘fear figures’ of the day is reflected in an account written in 1911 by the celebrated Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler. (Bleuler was the man who coined the term ‘schizophrenia’ and who treated the legendary ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky when he fell ill with the condition.) Bleuler wrote: ‘The Freemasons, the Jesuits, the “black Jews”, their fellow-employees, mind-readers, “spiritualists”, enemies invented ad hoc, are constantly straining every effort to annihilate or at least torture and frighten the patients.’ In the early twentieth century it’s Freemasons, Jesuits, and ‘black Jews’—all groups then rumoured to be conspiring to bring down society. By the 1980s it’s the Mafia or the Russians. Today it’s MI5, the government, or Al-Qaeda.

(Some of our fears, on the other hand, have proved remarkably resilient. Witches, for example, were for many centuries prominent—and malevolent—figures in the popular imagination, as we can see in the quote from Robert Burton on page 21 above. And in the twenty-first century, witches still seem a force to be reckoned with. In one survey, 21 per cent of Americans said they believed in witches. The figure is lower for the UK and Canada, 13 per cent, though this is still higher than one might have guessed. Surprising though these findings might seem, they are as nothing when compared to the hold that ghosts apparently continue to exert over us. In the same survey, 40 per cent of Britons, 37 per cent of Americans, and 28 per cent of Canadians professed a belief in haunted houses.)

Both the Rusk State hospital study and Bleuler’s work focus on the paranoid delusions of people with serious mental illness. But most of us have paranoid thoughts from time to time. Who are we scared of?

If I walk past strangers in the street and they’re laughing, I always suspect they’re laughing at me. Paul, aged 21.

At work, if I’m restocking the shelves and other staff members are nearby, I sometimes think they’re joking and talking about me, but I know they aren’t really. Doreen, aged 58.

I once thought a housemate was trying to steal my possessions because I often caught her in the corridor near my room. I got really wound up about this and ended up locking some of my valuables in the garden shed. I began to have other thoughts—like she was trying to poison me because she was always asking me to eat food she’d cooked and giving me new foreign alcohol to try. Liz, aged 24.

If I’m sitting on the tube and I catch someone’s eye repeatedly, I wonder why they keep looking at me. Chris, aged 30.

These comments are taken from a survey we carried out on a randomly selected sample of the general public. People in the street, as you might say. It turns out that, when it comes to our own personal bogeymen, the range is as diverse as you could imagine. Strangers, workmates, housemates, friends, family—you name it, we’re afraid of them. And sometimes we don’t even have a particular person in mind; instead, we feel a general, non-specific sense of threat.

Incidentally, it might seem from this discussion that there is a clear distinction between the sorts of persecutors conjured by people with severe mental illness and those of us with ‘everyday’ paranoia. The former group tend to worry about external, remote, impersonal threats; the latter about people closer to us. Of course, like all generalizations the reality isn’t so neat. People with, say, schizophrenia are often fearful of family members or neighbours. And many people without mental illness distrust the government or other state agencies. What we can say for sure though is that paranoia will point the finger at anyone. Everyone is a potential threat.

Recent Comments

  1. Dentistry Beaumont

    This is a very interesting post and informative book. I agree that there are many people suffering from paranoia, but we do that they are scared to different people, even if they know them personally. I think it is an interesting insight about paranoia.

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