Curiosity killed the catastrophe sufferer.
The eponymous ensemble in Ray Bradbury’s 1943 short story “The Crowd” appears seemingly out of nowhere, and arrives too quickly at the scene of traffic accidents: “That crowd that always came so fast, so strangely fast, to form a circle, to peer down, to probe, to gawk, to question, to point, to disturb, to spoil the privacy of a man’s agony by their frank curiosity.” Honing in on a big bang, the amassing crowd is like “an explosion in reverse, the fragments of a detonation sucked back to the point of impulsion.” Matters grow more uncanny when Bradbury’s protagonist, the car crash survivor Spallner, discovers in his obsessive investigations the same set of faces looming over victims at random accident scenes over the years. Spallner isn’t sure if these figures manifesting “at any public demonstration of this thing called death” are “vultures, hyenas, or saints.” By tale’s end, Spallner (after getting into a second wreck) comes to suspect that the crowd is comprised of the specters of past accident victims. Worse, they seem to be stealthy murderers, who dispatch the wounded under the guise of assistance (e.g. moving the body of someone with a spinal injury).
Bradbury’s classic story demonstrates that not all mobs operate via the lofting of torch and pitchfork. Their menace exists less in their othering impulse than in their smothering impulse. In the final paragraphs, an incapacitated Spallner looks up at the grim witnesses of his predicament and thinks, “You’re the crowd that’s always in the way, using up good air that a dying man’s lungs are in need of, using up space he should be using to lie in alone. Tramping on people to make sure they die, that’s you.”
“The Crowd” takes a commonplace idea–the propensity for gawkers to gather in morbid curiosity at accident scenes–and adds a supernatural/sinister twist. Bradbury also touches on something primal here, reminding readers that to be human is to be born into disadvantage: throughout life, every individual is grossly outnumbered by other people. This is quite a daunting notion, even if such multitudes (contra “The Crowd”) don’t prove to be something other than people.