7.7.09

OUTBREAK!

Hilary Evans and Robert Bartholomew. Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of
Extraordinary Social Behaviour. Anomalist Books, 2009.

A truly massive encyclopedia with nearly 350 articles and 765 pages, covering a huge variety of cases of outbreaks of extraordinary behaviour ranging from demonic possession in early modern convents to fainting outbreaks in twentieth and twenty-first century schools; from rumours circulating about strange lights in the sky to phantom attackers, satanic abuse scares to Gulf War Syndrome; panics generated by broadcasts of the 'War of the Worlds' to religious revivals.

Examples at random include copycat suicides, genital shrinking scares, shouting mania, the Merphos poisoning scare, the Methodist revival, the phantom Florida gas poisoning, the South Carolina Martian panic, apparitions of the Virgin Mary, the Great Airship Wave of 1897, the Taiping rebellion, cargo cults, moving statues. Everything from the Abdera outbreak of prose and poetry to the zoot suit riots.

What unites this mass collection of disparate phenomena, is that they are situations in which groups of people start behaving in ways which are very different from the standards of behaviour of their time and culture, though the difference is often expressed in cultural terms. For example in medieval and early modern Europe and in many Third World societies today extraordinary behaviour is manifested and explained in terms of demonic or spirit possession. In the modern West it is often manifested and explained in medical or quasi-medical terms. The possessed nuns in the convent are replaced by school children and office workers suffering from imitative illnesses. In some cases not only is extraordinary behaviour manifested but extraordinary abilities also, which challenge our ideas of what human beings are capable of, such as resistance to pain, extraordinary contortions and athletic abilities and what at least look like paranormal phenomena.

While the phenomena discussed here are too heterogeneous to have a common origin or purpose, the authors suggest several sub-divisions: actions which are generated by severe social stress and protests against the same (enclosed religious orders, authoritarian educational or work place environments); experiences and behaviours based on hope and expectation; social movements generated by authority figures rather than by the community at large and so on.

Needless to say this is all good Fortean stuff, and this may well be the first time that a collection of Fortean phenomena has been assembled with the approval of academics for what is clearly an intended academic audience. Of course it is not just academics who will find this of interest, and this must be required reading for any Fortean, anomalist and psychical researchers of any kind. It will, no doubt generate controversy, for there are many advocates in a variety of these fields, ranging from Gulf War Syndrome activists to ufologists who will object to the authors' psycho-social interpretations and who will want to challenge interpretations of their particular fields. However, even for those who will not subscribe to all the authors' interpretation there are mountains of valuable information.

Even at 750+ pages, there are topics which are missed out; perhaps a second volume would cover the Great Martian Panic of 1954, the phantom helicopter scare of 1973/4, the extraordinary reaction to the death of Princesses Diana, the MMR vaccine scare and so one. My colleague John Rimmer would insist that you add much of the talk about climate change to the list!

One of the the values of a book like this is that it sparks off your own ideas. Among those which I ran through were the connections with intrusion of wilderness into the habitat, notions of disinhibition, the thought that as many of these extraordinary behaviours have a global reach, they must have a biological and presumably genetic base and pre-date the great human disapora, perhaps even pre-dating the evolution of modern humans, and which presumably at one time had survival value. Maybe in some of these experiences and behaviours we see the beginnings of all religions.

This is a huge achievement for a small publisher such as Anomalist and marks a completely new level of publishing for them. Final thought, what a great achievement for Hilary Evans at 80! Give him a birthday present and support Anomalist Books, buy this book! -- Peter Rogerson


 
Update: You can read an interesting interview with co-author Bartholomew here:

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