Technology changes constantly. In recent centuries, at least, people have become used to marvels appearing that they couldn’t imagine when they were growing up. This means that people have to get used to new technology; how do they react?
I read an interesting paper on reactions to early movies (1890s/1900s). Specifically the author was looking at whether people panicked at the sight of a train coming towards them on the big screen — apparently this is known the ‘train effect’ in movie circles.
The author, Stephen Bottomore, could find fairly credible stories of viewers being startled by activity on the screen. “The first sight of films, particularly of train films, might have been an unpleasant experience for some viewers, but equally there were probably many others to whom a little shock was a welcome thing” (Bottomore, 1999, page 199).
While the stories of cinemas full of panicking customers seem a little far fetched “some people may have had a very real perceptual shock when they saw such a film” (Bottomore, 1999, page 196). Perhaps as remarkable as the fact that some people found the movies a bit startling is how quickly people got used to them. People adapted quickly.
The conclusion of the paper is measured. Some people were a bit weirded out but most coped. What then explains the notion of mass panic hitting movie audiences? Some stories are revealing.
During the Boer war “there was an anecdote of a British soldier standing up in a film show and shouting angrily at the figures of Boers on the screen… he [later] declared `I thought it was all real’. The story subsequently appeared in the local newspapers and served to boost audiences for the show. It was only discovered later that the man, a civilian, had been costumed in the soldier’ s uniform and had been paid £5.” (Bottomore, 1999, page 183). Technology has changed dramatically, the willingness of some entrepreneurs to generate publicity through outrageous stories has changed less.
Read: Stephen Bottomore (1999), “The Panicking Audience?: early cinema and the ‘train effect’,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 19 (2), 177-216.