Things to Avoid When Christmas Shopping: Crowd Crushes and Spontaneous Suicides

Christmas shopping can be daunting, so it’s best to just do it all online, where it’s safer and warmer.

Christmas card credit: reconsidered Retro

Last week, a few videos of Manchester went viral in the usual places (the MEN, the Manc, ITV, etc) showing huge crowds gathering inside and outside of the Arndale. Councillor Karney, a spokesperson for the city centre, said: “it is a Christmas headache that we don’t need. There must have been around 700 of them,” where ‘them’ refers not just to groups of shoppers, but several groups of adolescents setting off fire alarms and releasing fireworks. 

We know that large crowds increase anonymity and because of that can create a guise for delinquent behaviour, but there’s another, less known side to crowds that’s overlooked: huge crowds exhibit fluid-like behaviour that can, according to a 2019 article published in Science, be predicted by hydrodynamic theory. In other words, crowds flow like water. And as Bruce Lee astutely summarised in an often repeated interview, “water can flow, or it can crash,” and crashing is not what you want if you’re encumbered with the weight of a day’s Christmas shopping. 

Recent events have showcased similar things: Travis Scott’s Astroworld tragedy led to ten deaths, and the largely covered-up 2015 Saudi Arabia Hajj disaster has a potential death toll of at least 2,110. Both of these events had similarities: open spaces become constricted by huge groups of people, which leads to mass panic, and eventually, individual intention is eroded by instinctual mechanisms, where people begin to flow with the movement of the whole. 

The aforementioned 2019 Science article isn’t anything ground-breaking, and the phenomena has been discussed since 2006, when Keith Still, a professor of Crowd Fluids, challenged the idea that crowds move like liquids by appealing to mathematic models of flow types. But in essence, densely packed crowds, perhaps like those that start to gather around Oxford Street or any congested city centre at Christmas time, put you in a pickle.

Still suggests that there are some basic rules to follow that’ll keep you safe: “Be aware of your surroundings,” he says. “Look ahead. Listen to the crowd noise. If you start finding yourself in a crowd surge, wait for the surge to come, go with it, and move sideways.”

While being crushed in a stampede of shopping bags would be a terrible demise, there might be more worrying concerns around Christmas time. While it’s important to keep a watch out for crowd movements and mass enthusiasm, there’s a second type of Christmas shopper – those that are so fed up with the whole ordeal they decide to send it off the top floor. 

In 2013, Tao Hsiao was shopping with his girlfriend in Jiangsu province, east China, when he decided to take a leap of faith. 

An eyewitness recalls Hsiao complaining about the length of time he’d been shopping with his girlfriend. “She started shouting at him, accusing him of being a skinflint and of spoiling Christmas,” claimed the eyewitness, before Hsiao chucked the bags on the floor and launched himself seven stories to the floor. Hsiao, after hitting several sets of Christmas decorations, died on impact. 

The balcony that Hsiao sent it down, accompanied by hundreds of eager-eyed onlookers

A spokesperson for the shopping centre came forward to add that “this time of year can be very stressful for many people.” 

On that note, while big crowds are intimidating, Christmas shopping can be just as scary with your nearest and dearest. Perhaps it’s best to avoid the Trafford Centre at all costs, and do your shopping online instead.

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