Extraordinary Mass Delusions


Our viewing of QUATERMASS AND THE PIT tied in nicely with my reading of Jon Ronson’s new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The author’s interest in the phenomenon of public shaming, which seems to have migrated from the medieval stocks to Twitter, leads him to explore ideas about deinviduation, and the behaviour of crowds. He traces many of our assumptions about mobs and riots to The Crowd, a book by Gustave Le Bon, who wrote at the time of Napoleon III and first propagated the idea that mobs have a kind of group madness, are in fact possessed by a force which does not dwell in any one of them but infects them all.

Unfortunately, Ronson discovers that Le Bon was a racist, a misogynist and a colossal snob, even by the standards of the times, and his beliefs did not really result from scientific research, so much as prejudice and a desire to ingratiate himself with the powerful. If the mob is motivated by a kind of mental illness, then any grievances they are protesting can be ignored as irrelevant.

Ronson never gets as far as a complete theory of what is happening in mob actions — he suspects that the London rioters never reached his house because he lives up a steep hill, and each riot participant made a sane and reasonable decision not to riot uphill. This is an interesting way to consider it, with interesting implications, but it’s too far off-topic in Ronson’s book for him to pursue much further.

It seems to me that a riot or a vicious public shaming creates a kind of anomie, where participants see others misbehaving and being popular for it, and their worst instincts are given a license to run riot. It seems that we mostly don’t live by a moral code, but by a sense of what we’re told is OK from moment to moment, and what we think we’ll get away with. In this sense, perhaps the Stanford Prison Experiment, which Ronson explores in detail (and complicates nicely), is less relevant here than Milgram’s obedience experiments.


QUATERMASS AND THE PIT climaxes with mob violence on the streets of London — author Nigel Kneale received some criticism for this at the time of the TV version, since the Notting Hill Race riots were of recent memory. Kneale’s vision of an ethnic purge was inspired by the attacks on black Londoners by racist gangs. His intentions were misunderstood, rather wilfully I think. But he has been seduced by Le Bon’s popular notion of riots as a manifestation of primitive impulse, a plague of savagery that sweeps through a population. Since the Martian madness of the series and film is tied to race memories buried in the human unconscious, it could easily be connected with the xenophobe’s view of the Notting Hill riots as an eruption of primitive instincts, a reversion to type.


I think the scene where a vaguely Jewish-looking man is stoned by the possessed mob shows clearly the kind of savagery Kneale is concerned with.

By the time of the final Quatermass TV series of 1979, Kneale is perhaps a little more conservative. As with his channelling of Le Bon’s ideas in Quatermass and the Pit, here he ties real sociological happenings to a science fiction explanation, connecting youth protest and his own, violent extrapolation of the hippy movement, to an alien force manipulating our minds. On the other hand, the young person’s perennial argument, that the old have got it wrong and made a mess of the world, is shown to be entirely justified. Kneale, like Quatermass, positions himself between the rebels and the authorities, a lone voice crying in the wilderness.


9 Responses to “Extraordinary Mass Delusions”

  1. Do you recommend So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed? I’m currently reading The Psychopath Test, which is my first encounter with Jon Ronson’s work.

  2. If you like that, you’ll like this. It’s more wide-ranging. It’s still funny, but also horrifying and tragic in places. A really good book of ideas.

  3. A double bill of Quatermass and the Pit and Absolute Beginners would make for provacative, nostalgic and possibly mind-bending viewing.

  4. henryholland666 Says:

    David, I watched a very good Jacques Tourneur movie from 1946 last night called “Canyon Passage”. Good cast lead by Dana Andrews and Brian Donlevy with Susan Hayward and the way too British sounding Patricia Roc as the love interests.

    There’s a couple of crowd scenes involving Donlevy’s character about to get a noose around his neck that are really well done, Tourneur does a fine job of framing them and keeping the shots changing without drawing attention to himself. He also gets some great shots of the Oregon wilderness, especially when Ward Bond’s bad guy is on the run from some Indians.

  5. Is that the one that begins in the pouring rain? I remember being struck by how a simple thing like that lifted it out of generic western territory.

  6. Fiona here – For the purposes of my upcoming piece on Neale’s Kavanagh QC episode, Ancient History, I’ve been reading up on Nazi Germany and yes, it would seem to be the case that given the opportunity (and government approval) to engage in vile, bestial acts against other members of humanity, we are capable of doing anything the mind can conceive, and conversely, pretending to ignore it completely so it can take place.

  7. henryholland666 Says:

    Yes, that’s the one. On the IMDb board for it, someone argues that it’s not a “western” but a “frontier picture”. OK…..

    Watched a really good movie called “Pushover” last night. Fred MacMurray is a bad cop who gets seduced by a sultry Kim Novak, in her first big role. Of note to me was the exteriors, I recognized a lot of them as Burbank. Nice twisty plot, a good ending, nice noir-ish direction by Richard Quine. The only false note was the idea that someone like Kim Novak would fall for then 46 year old MacMurray, his days as Walter Neff types was 10 years past.

  8. I hadn’t heard good things about that one, but as a Quine fan I would have gotten around to it anyway, especially for the Novak connection. I feel spurred on, now.

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