Monday, November 07, 2016
No, a silent film of a train probably didn't cause mass hysteria
You've probably heard this one before: back during the dawn of motion pictures, a short movie showing a train heading for the camera caused audiences to freak out and try to run from the theater. It's a funny anecdote about how much of an impact film made – and it makes those audiences look pretty naive.
But as Atlas Obscura's Eric Grundhauser explains, this probably never actually happened. We can trace the story to a specific film (1898's Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat), the lack of circumstantial evidence like news stories and police accounts of a mobscene suggests this was just a myth. If anything, it was a metaphor for the powerful impact of film, one that spread so quickly it was parodied in a 1901 short (embedded above).
So although audiences probably didn't actually panic, the mental image was real. It might've been exaggerated shorthand. Think of it like a turn-of-the-century straw man argument.