How can history accommodate the aberrational—not the irrational or the accidental, which often figure in historical studies, but the odd elements that refuse to be assimilated into coherent pictures of the past? Aberrations do not fit into available schemes of things—story lines that lead through familiar channels to anticipated outcomes such as election victories, wars, depressions, the fall of empires, or the rise of the bourgeoisie. They bring us up short and make us rethink things.
Some things, as Claude Lévi-Strauss insisted, are “good to think with” (“bonnes à penser“). As examples, he cited physical objects such as totem poles and the arrangement of dwellings in villages, which convey meaning through their structural relations. But aberrations have no structure. They seem to come from nowhere and to disappear without warning, leaving confusion in their wake.
The finest historical study of this sort of phenomenon is The Great Fear of 1789: Rural Panic in Revolutionary France by Georges Lefebvre. An unrelenting rationalist who detected clear patterns in the swirl of events that made up the French Revolution, Lefebvre studied its strangest episode, a mass delusion that swept the kingdom in the spring and summer of 1789, provoking peasants to sack châteaux in a preemptive strike against imaginary brigands and foreign invaders who, according to rumors, were about to massacre the innocent. Lefebvre traced the outbursts of violence with extraordinary precision. He related them to resentments about seigneurial dues and worries about counterrevolutionary forces that threatened to destroy the National Assembly meeting in Versailles. As he told the story, it made sense; yet his account failed to assimilate bizarre episodes, such as the testimony of women who said they had seen their husbands slaughtered at their feet not long before the husbands returned safe and sound from chasing nonexistent brigands.
Equally puzzling panics have occurred closer to home. The best known is Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of October 30, 1938, which reworked H.G. Wells’s science fiction fantasy, The War of the Worlds, as a news report about an invasion from Mars. So many listeners took it seriously that police offices were flooded with phone calls and roads were jammed with people trying to get as far away as possible from the reported landing site at Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. (The traffic jams probably were exaggerated, but the exaggeration was part of the collective delusion.)
The Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic provides the best-documented case of a switch in the mass perception of reality. In April 1954 the police received numerous reports of “pits and dings” that appeared in car windshields in Bellingham, Washington. The pitting spread in waves from town to town, heading for Seattle. It reached the city as expected, provoking thousands of emergency calls from panic-stricken …