Are we prone to mass hysteria in the Northwest?
Everyone went a little crazy. Police were called, road blocks set up.
It’s 1954, early spring, and tiny chips, pits and dings are popping up on car windshields throughout the Puget Sound region at an alarming rate. Suddenly, communities from Anacortes to Tacoma are in the grip of a textbook case of mass hysteria. (In fact, it is in the textbooks.)
The terror that gripped the Northwest came to be called the Windshield Pitting Incident.
“It was the sort of thing that everyone talked about,” said Don Duncan, who was a 28-year-old-reporter for the Tacoma News Tribune at the time. He wrote several stories about the mysterious dings on windshields.
Conspiracies and theories
“You’d go to visit someone and they would talk about it. Where in the world could this come from? What would cause it?”
Duncan says the theories abounded. And each more preposterous then the last…
“One was that the bubbles were forming inside the glass then popping out. Others, that they were sending some sort of waves, maybe the aliens were sending it down and this was causing the cracking. And of course we had the ongoing communist scare. Obviously, they were testing a chemical of some sort and sending it drifting over us and it came down in our rain.”
Remember, this was the height of the Cold War. It’s the beginning of McCarthyism. People are afraid of nuclear annihilation.
By mid-April, 3,000 windshield pitting cases are reported. So many that the Mayor of Seattle wired the Governor for help. The Governor thinks it’s enough of an emergency, he calls President Dwight D. Eisnehower.
Citizens in the Puget Sound are on high alert – on the lookout for space invaders, radioactivity… communists. But then a few weeks after it starts, it stops. It just kind of disappears. No more reports are filed.
So what happened?
Dr. Scott Lilienfeld, a professor at Emory University, wrote the book on Mass Hysteria, or at least one chapter of one Intro to Psychology book on it. And the Windshield Pitting Incident is an example of “how a lot of quite normal, quite intelligent, quite rational people got caught up believing something that was actually quite irrational.”
He says it’s a classic example of how strange and unusual social phenomena get spread by contagion. In this case, by word of mouth, newspaper and radio reports.
“We’re a social species,” Lilienfeld said. “We’re really influenced by fear. And that’s probably good evolutionarily because if someone else is scared then maybe we have good reason to be scared.”
What we think we see is different than what we actually see
Kathleen Cook, a psychology professor at Seattle University, says it makes perfect sense that people really believed they saw windshields pitted before their very eyes. The reason?
“You have the impression all the time that what you see right in front of you is what’s happening right before your eyes. What you actually see and what your brain puts together and makes you think you see are very different. Your brain fills in a lot of the missing pieces. If we’re looking at a scene and something changes in the scene that we don’t see that change if that’s not where our attention is garnered.”
That explains why people fail to notice huge changes in a particular scene.
Official scientific results
In the end, after months of testing, a group of scientists from the University of Washington determined that the pits had been there all along. Just, the normal wear and tear and driving.
The reason they seemed to appear so suddenly was that drivers went from looking through their windshield to looking at their windshield.
Simple as that, but could this sort of thing happen today? Seattle University’s Kathleen Cook, a psychologist, says she see cases of mass hysteria all the time.
Cook said she was chaperoning a group of teenage girls on an overnight trip, and …
“One of the girls discovered her first stretch marks and then the other girls discovered, Oh my God, I have the same things too. Now, I knew that they were stretch marks. They thought there must be something in the bed that had like, worms that had bitten them and left trails, which is just utterly crazy, right? But this is the crazy explanation that they came up with that there was something in the bed.”
Blame it on the sun
Don Duncan, the reporter who covered the windshield pitting cases said he thinks there’s something specific to people in the Puget Sound area and mass hysteria. He says when the sun comes out in the spring, we get a little weird.
“The ‘silly season’ – when we suddenly wake up in the Northwest, we’re no longer looking through a big curtain of rain, and we’re actually seeing the world as it truly exists.”
After all, if we can get caught up in spring fever, why not spring fever hysteria?
Top Five Casts of Mass Hysteria
Mass hysteria, is defined as "the spontaneous, rapid spread of false or exaggerated beliefs within a population at large, temporarily affecting a particular region, culture or country.