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Expert considers the phenomenon to be a modern fairy tale

After suspected needle attacks on the Zurich Street Parade, fear is spreading. legitimate fear? The American medical sociologist Robert Bartholomew has researched this phenomenon in detail. He thinks it’s a modern fairy tale.

Is it still possible to party carefree? Many young people are asking themselves this after cases of “needle spiking” were also reported in Switzerland.

Michael Buholzer / Keystone

They are small punctures, but they unleash a wave of fear. We’re talking about “needle spiking”. Behind this is the fear of being pricked with a needle by strangers in clubs or at parties – and thus being administered drugs or knockout drops. The phenomenon has also arrived in Switzerland since last weekend at the latest. Eight people are said to have fallen victim to needle attacks during the Zurich Street Parade.

Panic is spreading on social media. Videos of those affected are circulating on Tiktok, and many young people write in the comments that they now want to stay at home out of fear.

Is this fear justified? Or is everything just made up? We asked the American medical sociologist Robert Bartholomew that. He teaches at Auckland University in New Zealand, is an expert in the field of social panic and has done extensive research on the phenomenon of “needle spiking”.

Mr. Bartholomew, when you hear about the incidents in Zurich: what goes through your head?

I want to state one thing first: All reported cases of needle attacks must be investigated. And if someone thinks they have been bitten, they should have a blood test done immediately. But if you look at all the facts of this phenomenon soberly, you have to be very skeptical.

Why?

It is very awkward, if not impossible, to give an injection to someone unnoticed. Let’s imagine a criminal in a dark club. He has to stick the needle through his victim’s clothes, inject the substance, which takes several seconds, then remove the needle and disappear into the crowd undetected – without the victim noticing. That’s really far fetched. And for the perpetrator it would be associated with great risks. In addition, around 2,000 cases of needle spiking have been reported in Europe. However, none of these cases resulted in a conviction. How is that possible? This question arises above all because there is video surveillance in many clubs.

The NZZ was able to speak to a woman who said she was the victim of “needle spiking” during the Street Parade. She suddenly couldn’t speak anymore and felt persecuted. The next day in the hospital, the doctors found no puncture wounds, but traces of cocaine and amphetamine in the blood. The woman said she does not use drugs and only drank a little wine that day. Do you think she made it all up?

It sounds to me like this woman had a panic attack. This often happens in large crowds. Especially when you get lost in the crowd and can’t find your friends.

They consider «needle spiking» to be an urban myth, a modern fairy tale. Isn’t that disparaging to the alleged victims?

Any person who has actually been pricked with a needle has been the victim of a horrible act. There’s only one thing worse: being falsely accused. What would be the motive of such a perpetrator anyway?

Robert Bartholomew is Honorary Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychological Medicine at Auckland University in New Zealand and the author of several books, including one on social panic.

Robert Bartholomew is Honorary Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychological Medicine at Auckland University in New Zealand and the author of several books, including one on social panic.

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He might drug the victim in order to rape or rob them.

Why would a perpetrator inject a woman who is going to a club with her friends – a group that looks after each other? Why would anyone attempt such a cumbersome and risky act when it would be easier to just put knockout drops in the victim’s drink?

To put it another way: Why should a woman tell her story in public when it is said that none of it happened at all?

I believe most alleged victims are honest and sincere. They don’t invent something like that, they firmly believe that it happened to them. Other explanations are much more plausible. Typical symptoms of “needle spiking” are severe headaches, nausea or loss of consciousness. These can be triggered by many things. Maybe the person was dehydrated, maybe they were taking medications that combined with alcohol made a dangerous mix. Or she took drugs and underestimated their effects. Studies have shown that we all have a tendency to underestimate how much alcohol we consume in a night.

Nevertheless: Around 2000 reported cases in Europe, and none should be real?

Horror stories often have a core of truth. And I don’t want to rule out the possibility that there are people out there who poke others with a needle. But such incidents are extremely rare. We are dealing with a classic case of social panic.

How does this phenomenon work?

Usually there is one person who gets the whole thing going. In the case of needle spiking, that was Sarah Buckle. The 19-year-old Briton woke up in hospital after visiting a club last fall. Doctors found a spot on her skin and concluded she had been pricked with a needle. This was followed by sensational media reports. Once the story is in the world, it takes on a life of its own. And she keeps growing.

How great is the risk of imitators? So about people who prick young women with needles for sadistic fun because they want to stir up fear?

There are certainly a handful of loners who want to attract attention with it. The majority of the reported cases, however, go back to people who felt unwell during a party and subsequently wrongly blamed a needle attack.

What are other examples of social panic?

In the 1980s there was the AIDS scare – a wave of panic that left many fearing being pricked and infected with an AIDS-contaminated syringe. Already in the period between the First World War and the 1930s there were many cases of women who said they had been pricked with a needle. Behind this was the fear of being drugged, falling into the hands of gangs and being forced into prostitution by them. This phenomenon is called “white slavery scare” in English.

Are there parallels between these stories?

Yes. The victims are mostly young women – and the perpetrators are nefarious outsiders who endanger the social order. Behind it is the fear of the other. Xenophobia plays a major role in social panic. In the case of the «white slavery scare», Jews and Africans were accused of being responsible for the alleged acts.

Why do stories like this keep coming up?

Behind this is a centuries-old fear for young women who go out into the big, bad world – into a world full of dangers. Such moral fairy tales tell of all the bad things that can happen to them. The bottom line is always the same: You have to be careful who you surround yourself with, who you talk to. These stories also always say something about the time in which they appear.

What does “needle spiking” say about our time?

The fear of the pandemic is still in our bones. It’s no coincidence that the first cases emerged at a time when clubs had reopened and there was still great uncertainty about moving around in large crowds. But the needle spiking bubble will soon burst.

What makes you so sure? The debate about this has only just arrived in Switzerland.

People will notice that the perpetrators are missing, the motives are strange and needle attacks are not very practical. There are more skeptical media reports about the phenomenon. Eventually, as the doubts grow, such narratives tend to collapse. Of course they can come back. But they will disappear again for the same reason. Social panics come and go.

How do social networks change the dynamics of such phenomena?

They amplify social panics. In the past, such narratives were passed by word of mouth. Later via newspapers and TV. Social networks, however, spread them much faster, much more widely – and in most cases unchecked. This is dangerous.

Fear unfolds most strongly in these networks. Many young people no longer dare to go to clubs for fear of being the victim of a needle attack. What is your advice?

I tell them: Get out. Go out with your friends and have fun. And don’t drink too much. The risk of being pricked with a needle is very, very small. The fear of it, on the other hand, is great. That has to be fought. Therefore: Go partying and don’t stay at home for fear of «needle spiking».

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