In the movie The Lion King, Simba’s father Mufasa is killed when he is trampled by a wildebeest stampede. Stampedes are a common behaviour in herd animals such as cattle, horses, wildebeests and elephants. When one animal is startled by something, it shows a fear response which then startles the animals around it. This startle propagates rapidly through the herd and the entire herd begins running away from whatever caused the first startle. They run with no clear reason or direction – it is a mindless rush of fear. Because of this, anything in the path of a stampede is crushed to death as the herd blindly rushes forward with impressive power and energy.
The destructive nature of a stampede not only affects whatever is in the path of the herd, but the herd itself. Native Americans are well-known for their buffalo jump style of hunting, where they would herd wild bison then trigger a stampede. They would direct the stampede towards a cliff and the frightened bison would blindly jump off the cliff to their deaths.
As deadly as a bison or wildebeest stampede may be, there is a species that causes far greater damage to humans when they stampede: us. Human stampedes are a well-known phenomenon documented throughout history, from crowds rushing away from a city being bombed to religious pilgrimages to sports games. Just like animals, when there is a large enough crowd of people, a simple spark of fear can cause mass panic.
This is described as the “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theatre” effect. In 1941, 4000 people were killed when the Japanese army bombed the Chinese city of Chongqing, causing a mass panic at an air raid shelter. More famously, 96 people were killed in the Hillsborough stadium crush in England, 1989, when crowds of people attending a soccer match squeezed into a tunnel blocked at the other end. There have been several incidents during the pilgrimage to Mecca where hundreds of people were killed during stampedes.
In human stampedes, death is not usually caused by trampling but by compressive asphyxiation. The sheer force of people pressing on each other limits chest expansion, making breathing impossible. The force of a panicked crowd can be great enough to bend steel bars. This phenomenon is also called crowd crush.