“Every age has its peculiar folly — some scheme, project, or phantasy into which it plunges, spurred on either by the love of gain, the necessity of excitement, or the mere force of imitation.”
— Charles Mackay, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, London, 1841.
FOR THE TITLE PAGE of the 1852 edition of his pioneering work on fads and the unpredictability of human behavior, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles Mackay chose an image of the peculiarly formed rocky spires in the Harz Mountains of northern Germany. The Brocken, the highest point in the Harz range, was a place well known to Victorian readers, who would have recognized the sullen power associated with this notorious site. Witches and demons were thought to congregate there, and it is where many German folk tales are set, including “Cinderella,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Rumpelstiltskin,” “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Rapunzel.” The spring festival Walpurgis Night also takes place on the Brocken, and it’s where Goethe has Mephistopheles tempt Faust to give up his soul. Rocks have power and their presence can move men to extremes. Mackay knew that the image of a notably spooky, craggy place would have an impact on his readers; seeing the image of the mountain in the book’s opening pages would alert them that they were in for some surprising accounts of bizarre events.
The Victorians, with their neo-Gothic fancies, were not alone in their affection for eerie outcroppings and haunted grottoes. The children of Southern California — I among them — were treated to an experience directly linked to Mackay’s image of the chimerical Brocken when, in 1959, a renowned mountain miraculously appeared in Orange County: the Matterhorn. Somehow, we sensed the Matterhorn’s formidable power, and when its diminutive duplicate was unveiled at Disneyland, we were in its thrall. The real Matterhorn is nearly 14,700 feet high, while the Disneyland facsimile, built at a scale of 1/100, is 147 feet. But to us, it seemed as tall as any Alpine peak, and as alluring. In the car, we would spend most of the ride down to the Magic Kingdom in a state of high excitement, on the constant lookout for the Matterhorn; whoever spotted it first was accorded special, nearly seer-like status. When we arrived at Disneyland, we raced first to that magical mountain; no other ride captured our imagination as did this wonderful simulacrum. We were ecstatic careening on a fast-moving bobsled through snow that had never fallen on Anaheim. Though we could have gone to nearby Mount Baldy (at 10,000 feet the highest nearby peak), it was not height we were after; it was thrills and chills. There was something inexplicably enchanting about the Matterhorn, a mountain built for children, and its intention to overwhelm, yet remain safe, was clearly understood by us. Our fantasies of rocks, snow, wind, trees and speed — of wildness, for that was what it really represented — were perfectly encased in that brilliant, benevolent decoy. Were we duped by an imitation, deluded by a fraud à la Mackay? I prefer to think that it triggered our imaginations and aroused our senses in ways that were productive, that this mountain-in-miniature, i...read more