In the November of 1938, reports began to emerge of a razor blade wielding maniac roaming the streets of Halifax and mounting violent and terrifying slashing attacks on his mostly female victims. The fear of this attacker led to vigilante mobs roaming the streets, businesses staying closed and widespread fear and panic. The attacks escalated beyond police control and then, strangely, the horrible assaults spread across the country….
… Until Scotland Yard arrived in Halifax and began to re-interview the victims. One by one, the victims admitted they had slashed themselves and made up the story of the mystery attacker. It was a classic case of mass hysteria. Read the incredible full story in my book Weird Calderdale.
But could something similar be happening now?
There are numerous reports in the media this week of young women being physically spiked with a mystery drug in nightclubs. Typically, the victims might feel suddenly much more intoxicated than expected from the amount of drink they had consumed. They may also feel nauseous and dizzy and perhaps suffer from loss of balance, vomiting or unconsciousness. Some claim to have found what seems to be a scratch or pin prick about their body which is assumed to be the result of being maliciously injected with an unknown substance.
A widely reported example was that of Sarah Buckle, a Nottingham student. She became so sick on a night out that she spent 10 hours in hospital. She also had a bruise on her hand, about which a nurse speculated: ‘It seems as if you’ve been spiked possibly by a needle’.
According to Superintendent Kathryn Craner of the Nottinghamshire Police: ‘a small number of victims have said that they may have felt a scratching sensation as if someone may have spiked them physically… We do not believe that these are targeted incidents; they are distinctly different from anything we have seen previously as victims have disclosed a physical scratch type sensation before feeling very unwell…. This is subtly different from feelings of intoxication through alcohol according to some victims.’
But to me, this bears all the hallmarks of a Halifax Slasher type episode of mass hysteria. This isn’t to say that this kind of spiking is impossible, though surely it seems rather unlikely. After all, research suggests that the malevolent figure of the predatory male spiking innocent girls’ drinks with date rape drugs in night clubs in order to molest them is largely a myth. Actual evidence of this type of drink spiking is extremely rare.
An Australian study examined blood of 97 people who suspected the had had their drink spiked. Guess how many of that sample actually had any sedative or other drug (aside from narcotics knowingly taken) in their system? That’s right. None of them.
But if you’re worried that you’ve been spiked through your drink or intravenously, the Express helpfully gives us a checklist of symptoms to look out for:
- Feeling “drunker”
- Loss of balance
- Visual problems
- Lowered inhibitions
It may be noticed that these ‘symptoms’ are not dissimilar from being, well, pissed.
The prick marks the women have found upon themselves were often not noticed or barely felt at the time and could have been caused by innocent or accidental means. I suspect most people could find evidence of a ‘pin prick’ somewhere on their body if they tried. In the case of Sarah Buckle, it seems that the idea of being spiked with a needle was suggested by the nurse, not something the student had suspected.
There’s an understandable pressure to ‘believe the victim’, but the Halifax Slasher hysteria of 1938 (as well as other similar panics such as the London Monster in the late 18th century or the Mad Gasser of Mattoon in the 1940s) demonstrates that people do sometimes imagine things that didn’t happen or simply make stuff up. This may be especially true in times of anxiety. The Halifax Slasher hysteria occurred in the build up to World War Two, and against a background of tabloid fascination with razor wielding gangsters. Add to this the status, respect, sympathy and attention afforded to ‘victims’, and the stage is set for imagined and/or invented attacks.
And it’s safe to say that after living in a climate of fear for the last couple of years, today’s young people will have plenty to feel anxious about. Added to this is also the understandable concern generated by the horrific abduction and murder of Sarah Everard by a depraved policeman. The Halifax Slasher mass panic was spread by word of mouth in tight working-class communities, but also in the local and national press which encouraged more ‘victims’ to concoct or imagine slashing attacks. In the spiking cases, though, it seems clear to me that social media platforms have played an important role in the spreading of this modern myth.
I wonder if these stories of malicious ‘needle spikers’ jabbing young women in nightclubs operate as a kind of dark fairy tale warning with the nightclub standing in for the dangerous forest (don’t stray from the path, girls!) and the needle wielding maniac playing the role of the Big Bad Wolf. Perhaps these fears also reflect unconscious concerns about the Covid vaccines, or guilt about being out and having fun after 18 months of dour Covid Puritanism, but that’s just my speculation.
It’s with some of trepidation that I write this, as I wouldn’t want to be seen as ‘blaming the victim’ or downplaying real cases of sexual abuse. Perhaps I’m wrong, and there really are hordes of despicable needle spikers preying on young women. But as of yet no physical evidence of drugs in the allegedly spiked women has been found. And we need to look at these apparent spikings in the light of what we know about mass hysteria and how it operates. The strange case of the Halifax Slasher presents us with an important lesson in this regard.
But dialling down irrational fears benefits everyone, except, perhaps, sensation hungry news media and petty authoritarians. Going out and having fun is part of being young and portraying young women as helpless victims in need of protection is just Victorian sexism, pure and simple.
The bogeyman does not exist.
 Adam Burgess, Pamela Donovan and Sarah E. H. Moore (2009) ‘Embodying uncertainty? Understanding Heightened Risk Perception of Drink ‘Spiking ’’, British Journal of Criminology, 49, pp.848-862. doi:10.1093/bjc/azp049
 Paul Quigley et al (2009) ‘Prospective study of 101 patients with suspected drink spiking’, Emergency Medicine Australia, 21(3) pp.222-228 https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1742-6723.2009.01185.x