Needle-Spiking Hysteria ~ A Brief History

Imagine sinister predatory men armed with syringes dripping with date rape drugs stalking nightclubs and festivals hunting for unsuspecting young women. The hapless victims may know nothing of the attack when it happens. Or they might notice a slight pricking sensation somewhere about their body. Soon, they feel dizzy, nauseous or intoxicated. They may pass out and the rest of the night is a blur… They wake the next day with no memory of what happened to them, but there is often a tell-tale sign – a bruise or puncture wound on an arm or leg where they had been injected with a powerful but mysterious drug. This is needle spiking.

However, needle spiking is a myth born from anxiety related to covid, lockdowns, vaccination concerns and fear of contamination.[i] It’s an example of what used to be called mass hysteria, though we might nowadays prefer a less loaded term such as social panic. Whatever you want to call it, needle spiking is a delusion, and in this article I’ll explain why. I’ll also summarise the recent flap of spikings before an exploration of some weird historical precedents for this bizarre phenomenon which actually goes back more than a century.

Getting to the Point

The first reports of needle spiking incidents in recent years were in the UK in the autumn of 2021. This was a time when lockdown restrictions were easing, students were returning to campus and nightclubs were opening again. By October, news and social media were filled with shocking accounts of young people being drugged by sinister but elusive needle wielding maniacs. Police received 1,392 complaints of needle attacks between October 2021 and January 2022.[ii]

By Christmas 2021, there were multiple cases of similar attacks with syringes in Australia. By May, there had been 300 reports in France.[iii] In the Netherlands on 21 May 2022, six people at an outdoor party in Kaatsheuvel presented to the first aid post with symptoms of suspected needle-spiking.[iv] On the same day in Belgium, women at a football match started collapsing in the stands one after another. As emergency services rushed the victims away, more began to collapse. Fourteen people in total were suspected to have been targeted in a mass needle-spiking attack.[v]

Still in Belgium, on 25 May 2022, the Hasselt Festival was halted as 24 girls suffered from nausea, hyperventilation and headaches. Some of the victims had felt something prick them…[vi]

However, despite the sheer number of attacks no perpetrator has been caught or charged. Toxicological tests have typically found nothing. And consider this: it’s pretty much impossible to pull out a needle in a crowded place, inject someone through their clothes and hold the syringe in place long enough to inject the drug before removing and hiding the needle without the victim realising, all without being seen.

This is not to say that drink spiking never happens, nor that people who fear they have been spiked should not be taken seriously. It’s more that our reaction to – and uncritical acceptance of – these accounts will increase anxiety and create the conditions where more and more people interpret the symptoms of anxiety and alcohol intoxication as a needle-spiking attack, when in fact it isn’t. This is exactly what is happening across Europe at the moment – a mass panic.

Poison Needle Outrages

The phenomenon of needle spiking hysteria is actually nothing new. In the early twentieth century there were reports in the USA of ‘poisoned needle outrages’. In these attacks, a young woman (invariably described as ‘pretty’) would be approached by a sinister stranger and then surreptitiously jabbed with a hypodermic needle. It seems the plan was that as the victim fell under the spell of the narcotic, the stranger would pretend to be a friend or relative of the incapacitated woman and guide her to a waiting vehicle where she would be whisked away to a life of sex slavery in South America, or some other dismal fate.[vii]

Image by Mo Costandi, Wiki-commons

A typical example of one of these drug needle panics occurred over several weeks at the end of 1919 and early 1920 in London. Young women had been approached by an apparently benevolent old man with a friendly smile who won their trust before patting them on the shoulder in a seemingly friendly manner, though in fact he was injecting the victim with a hypodermic needle. He would then disappear as the drug took effect.[viii] In many of these reports, the victim is not named and the events described often have the whiff of urban legend about them.

This can also be seen in some nice examples widely reported in the press from the early 1930s.

In one story an unnamed girl was looking in a shop window in Holborn, London when she was approached by a well-dressed woman. The woman touched the girl’s arm and said that there was a pin sticking out of her coat. The woman then appeared to pull something off the girl’s sleeve and throw it away. The woman left, but then returned a short time later claiming that she felt unwell, and asked the girl if she would escort her to a nearby car. However, as something didn’t feel right, the girl made an excuse and hurried off to the office where she worked. No sooner had she arrived, than she collapsed and was unconscious for three and a half hours. The verdict of the doctor was that she had been drugged with a needle. Had she escorted the woman to the waiting car, she would no doubt have been bundled inside and taken who knows where. All the other young women in the office were given a stern warning about this menace to their safety and virtue.[ix]

In a similar example from 1932, a sinister old lady dressed in black approached a 16-year-old female student near Victoria Station, London and asked for help crossing a road. As the girl helped the mysterious lady to the other side, the woman suddenly hit the girl on the shoulder. The woman apologised as if it had been an accident and the girl ran and jumped on her bus home. She began to feel ill and when she got to her house she collapsed. On her swollen and bruised shoulder were three puncture marks from a hypodermic needle.[x]

And these evil needle druggers could strike anywhere. In 1935, many believed that women were being targeted in cinemas or other darkened places of entertainment. The fear was that the nefarious villain would take a seat next to or behind a (pretty, of course) young woman and inject her with a soporific drug before escorting her away, never to be heard of again. And it was claimed that just such a thing happened to many women, though in the newspaper reports the frequently anonymous woman just manages to evade kidnapping and the mysterious villain is frustrated.

The concern was such that managers of a major UK cinema chain were sent circulars warning them to beware of such attacks and to report them to police if they occurred. However, even then some were skeptical. One cinema manager in London’s West End, perhaps worried about the effect the drug needle panic was having on his business, said ‘I think it extremely unlikely that any woman could be injected with drugs from a hypodermic syringe without her knowing about it.[xi]

In fact, the panic over these mythical attackers was such that the media speculated that there was a sophisticated drugging gang consisting of both men and women working for a mysterious organisation, drugging and kidnapping pretty girls to nefarious ends.[xii]

Phantom Attacker Panics

What these stories from a century ago demonstrate is that needle-spiking panics are nothing new.

What we’re witnessing is a strange social phenomenon known as a Phantom Attacker Panic. There are many examples of these hysterical episodes where an imagined assailant attacks innocent victims seemingly from out of nowhere and always evades capture. The attacker can never be caught because he doesn’t exist. The victims may have imagined or made up the attack, or lurid urban legends may have been taken too literally.

A classic example of one of these phantom attacker panics is the Halifax Slasher. In the November of 1938, reports began to emerge of a razor blade wielding maniac roaming the streets of Halifax, Yorkshire 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. The Halifax Slasher of 1938 is, like the dastardly Phantom Needle Spiker of today, an imaginary bogey man.[xiii]

Of course, a bogey man serves as a warning and a threat – be good, or he’ll get you. The drug needle panics of the 20s and 30s perhaps reflect anxiety about women being independent and outside the home, or God forbid, having fun. This can be seen in the fact that the attacks were often reported as happening to women going to work, attending dances or visiting the cinema or other places of entertainment. This is what can happen to you, girls, if you go out and enjoy yourself… Next thing you know, you’ll be a drug-addled sex slave in a South American den of iniquity.

In the needle spiking hysteria of today we can also see a prudish morality tale. This is what happens to you if you go drinking, dancing and cavorting in a nightclub when there’s a pandemic going on.

There have been many other phantom attacker panics: Spring Heeled Jack scared the wits out of Victorian London with his supposedly supernatural leaps and fire-vomiting. The Mad Gasser of Mattoon was a sinister anaesthetist who released toxic gas into people’s homes in 1940s Illinois. The Phantom Sniper of Esher who took pot shots at passing motorists with an air rifle in 1950s Essex. The Delhi Monkey Man from 2001 was a hairy creature with red eyes, a helmet and sharp claws that attacked sleepers in their beds and could leap from building to building…

Police Sketch of the Delhi Monkey Man, 2001

All of these monsters turned out to be imaginary bogey men. It’s just a fact that we as humans are prone to these panics and it’s easy to be swept up in them.

Rather than warning young people about the imaginary danger of needle-spiking, we should be discussing the signs and symptoms of hysterical mass panics so that when they occur they can be recognised for what they are – delusions.

[i] Robert E. Bartholomew and Paul Weatherhead ‘The British Needle-Spiking Panic’, Psychology Today (2022)

[ii] House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, Spiking: Ninth Report of Sessions 2021-2022. Available at: 





[vii] Manchester Evening News 14 April 1914

[viii] Dundee Evening Telegraph 5 January 1920

[ix] Taunton Courier 23 December 1931

[x] News Chronicle 16 January 1932

[xi] Daily News 11 March 1935

[xii] The Daily Herald 25 January 1932

[xiii] Paul Weatherhead, Weird Calderdale: Strange and Horrible Local History, (Hebden Bridge: Tom Bell Publishing, 2021)

Published by Paul Weatherhead

Author of Weird Calderdale, musician and songwriter

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