- The panic over bedbug infestations in France may not commensurate with the reality.
- Media reports and social media postings appear to be driving the panic across France.
- The nocebo effect and the symbolism may be major factors in the French bedbug scare.
“Bedbug.” Just hearing the word is enough to give many people the creeps and feeling itchy. Starting in late September 2023, reports of bedbug encounters suddenly spiked in Paris and across France on the heels of a surge in social media reports claiming that the tiny critters were everywhere. This was followed by a deluge in media reports. Suddenly, people started posting videos of bedbugs on cinema seats, in trains, on busses, and even in some of the country’s finest restaurants. According to estimates from the national association for pest control in France, the number of calls to exterminators has jumped about 10 percent over last year. This isn’t surprising as it corresponds with the spike in travel after the Covid pandemic (Porter 2023).
In recent months, much has been made about the surge in reports of bedbug infestations in France, yet a 10 percent increase in reports is hardly an invasion and is certainly nothing new. A government survey of French households between 2017 and 2022 found that 11 percent were infested with bedbugs (ANSES 2023). The French scare has also spread the fear of infestations to other European metropolitan areas. But bedbugs have long been a feature of these cities.
Michael Bernstein and Walter Brown have attributed the surge in bedbug encounters in France to alarmist media reports that have led to a heightened awareness and anxieties over the presence of the creepy critters. They hypothesize that many of the symptoms exhibited, may be psychogenic in nature. They also note the likely role of the nocebo effect whereby negative expectations can elicit self-fulfilling health outcomes, and they provide several examples where people have literally thought themselves sick (Bernstein and Brown, 2023). In addition to the power of expectation in eliciting an array of physiological reactions that include itching and rash, the French bedbug panic may also be fueled by a second factor working in tandem with the nocebo effect: The symbolic power of bedbugs.
In the 1878 comic opera H.M.S. Pinafore, British dramatist Sir William Gilbert wrote the enduring words: “Things are seldom what they seem; Skim milk masquerades as cream.” In psychology, events often harbor deeper underlying meanings that may not appear obvious at first glance. For instance, the popularity of stories such as Little Red Riding Hood are believed to function as cautionary tales that are just as relevant today as they were centuries ago in speaking to the vulnerability of young women and their need to exercise vigilance in a dangerous and unpredictable world. In a similar vein, the bedbug scare may reflect more than beds and bugs.
National scares often reflect prevailing anxieties. It may be no coincidence that the French scare has spread throughout the European Union during a period of heightened tension over what has been dubbed the migrant crisis. In sifting through news reports of cases, much has been made about their spread by travelers from developing countries, yet in places like France, they have been a longstanding problem. Bedbugs may be a metaphor for immigrants and a product of the ongoing moral panic over the dangers posed by migrants from developing countries. History is replete with historical instances where marginalized ethnic groups were dehumanized and stigmatized using insect metaphors. Anti-semitic propaganda in Nazi Germany commonly depicted Jews as insects (as well as rats and toadstools) that were infesting the planet. Similar parallels were made about Japanese-Americans during World War II, who were often portrayed in cartoons of the period as an infestation. More recently, migrant caravans from South America hoping to attain refugee status in the United States, have been equated to an insect horde or swarm.
If the French bedbug scare is a form of moral panic involving the fear of outsiders infesting their country, it would not be the first time that such episodes have involved insect metaphors, and it almost certainly won’t be the last.
Bed Bugs are a Financial Burden and Reduce Quality of Life for many people in France. ANSES (the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety), July 19, 2023.
Bernstein, Michael, and Brown, Walter (2023). “The Paris Bedbug Fiasco is an Age-Old Story. Psychology Today, November 2023
Porter, Catherine (2023). “The Problem With Pests May Be in Parisian Heads, Not Their Beds.” The New York Times, October 12.