Flashbulb Memories: 10 Historic Events that Everyone Remembers

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Every now and then, something happens which creates a lasting memory. There are historic events that everyone remembers, along with exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard about them. These are called flashbulb memories, because they are events that are so powerful and impactful that the effect is as though a flashbulb went off in your mind, fixing a mental image like a photograph that you will forever associate with that historic event.

Here are some impactful events in recent history. Do you remember where you were when you heard about them? If you weren’t alive yet, have any family members recounted these events?

Moon Landing
Flashbulb memories tend to be dominated by bad news and upsetting events – which isn’t so surprising because tragic events bring more shock and astonishment than happy ones. But the 1969 moon landings are a positive flashbulb memory. Almost the whole country (and much of the rest of the world too) stayed home from work and school to watch the television broadcast of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin step out of their lunar module and tread on the moon for the first time in history. To everyone watching it was more than a historic event; it was a landmark moment that affirmed that anything was possible and no dream was too big. A generation of children learned that they could shoot for the moon and succeed.

The assassination of Martin Luther King
We recently observed the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination. As the leader of the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King inspired generations of Americans to fight for human rights and civil liberties through his legacy of peaceful protests. When he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968 it seemed like the hopes and aims of an entire movement were shot as well. It was a moment so fraught with shock and grief that every American found themselves asking, “Where were you when Martin Luther King was assassinated?”

The assassination of John F. Kennedy
95% of Americans who were aged over 8 at the time, remember where they were when they heard that President Kennedy had been shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald.  Kennedy was a very popular president whose death seemed to represent the death of an entire zeitgeist and has been the subject of countless conspiracy theories.

The sinking of the Titanic
In 1912 the Titanic was called “the unsinkable ship.” Everyone in both England and America believed that it couldn’t possibly sink. When the news that the Titanic had struck an iceberg arrived in England, no one was concerned, which made the shock even greater when the news came that it had sunk. Early morning headlines in the newspapers that 1,517 people had died and only 700 survived brought complete shock, astonishment, and disbelief to the entire country.

The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand
Called “the shot heard around the world,” when Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo in 1914 it became the spark that lit the fire of World War I. Although many members of European aristocracy had been assassinated in the previous few months, it was the death of Archduke Ferdinand that had a long-lasting impact, and that created the most flashbulb memories for people at the time. While many people who experienced this are no longer living, it is still referred to as a classic flashbulb memory.

The End of WWI
After believing that the war would be over by Christmas of 1914, the British public settled into the routine of a long, hard war. Although there had been news that armistice talks were going on, the actual peace came as something of a surprise. The announcement of Armistice at 11am on November 11th, 1917 brought joy, celebration and relief to the entire United Kingdom, France and Belgium and all their allies. At the time, people all around the world asked each other, “Where were you when the peace was announced?”

Pearl Harbor
On December 7, 1941, America woke up to the news that she wasn’t safe from attack on her home soil. In the words of then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt, it was “a date that will live in infamy” and for millions of Americans, it was a rude awakening to the threat of war. The next day, America declared war on Japan.

Fall of the Berlin Wall
An entire generation of Germans grew up in a city divided between two world superpowers, and the rest of the world grew up with this most visible symbol of the dangers of Communist Russia. The possibility of Russia firing a nuclear bomb was a real and present fear throughout the 1960s and 1970s. On November 9, 1989 Germans civilians began to break the wall down without any interference from government authorities. The Fall of the Berlin Wall represented the end of Communism’s reign of fear across the world. The sight of millions of happy, reunited people tearing down the Berlin Wall was shown on TV screens around the world and remains an iconic image today.

The 9/11 Terrorist Attack on the World Trade Center
It was the biggest terrorist attack on American soil; 2,606 people were killed and thousands more were injured when two planes crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. The shocking sight of the mighty towers crumbling into ash was broadcast around the world and remains seared into the memories of everyone who saw it. 97% of Americans remember exactly where they were and what they were doing at the time.

The Royal Weddings
The British public were given a day off to celebrate the weddings of Prince Charles to Diana Spencer in 1981 and Prince William to Catherine Middleton in 2011 so that they could enjoy the festivities surrounding the momentous events. Almost 23 million viewers in the U.S. watched the coverage of the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, outnumbering the estimated 17 million who tuned in for Prince Charles and Diana’s wedding.

Some flashbulb memories are generational, like the death of Michael Jackson which meant more to those who’d grown up with his music; geographic, like the Oklahoma City or Boston Marathon bombings; or specific just to some religious groups such as when Pope John Paul II was shot in May 1981, which resonates in the memories of Catholics worldwide.

Every individual will have their own personal flashbulb memories too, like when you hear that a loved one has passed away or the moment of your first kiss.

What are your flashbulb memories? Tell us in the comments below.

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