Were American’s hysterical during the “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast?
In 1938, Orson Welles was a 22-year-old phenom. He was a radio actor, theatre director, and producer. Welles flourished while working under the Federal Theatre Project (part of the New Deal). Welles and John Houseman founded the Mercury Theatre repertory company and they got many important and impressive young (-ish) actors to join them. It was a very big deal in the American theatre. Their productions were very popular and critically acclaimed.
CBS radio asked Welles to create a radio show for that summer. It was called Mercury Theatre of the Air. They broadcast weekly radio plays of classic literary works.
For its Halloween episode The Mercury Theatre put on an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds,” which is a science fiction novel about earth being invaded by Martians. Welles adapted the story as a series of news reports of a strange event happening in New Jersey – a Martian landing!
The show started with Welles reading a lengthy extract, setting the scene of the radio play – a country happily listening to the radio while they were being watched by people from outer space. The radio program Welles was referring to then started as a broadcast of dance music.
Then, 3 minutes and 30 seconds in, the regular program of dance music was interrupted by a “news bulletin.”
The bulletin said that scientist had just seen large “eruptions” on the surface of Mars. From then on, the program went back and forth between its regular “show” and news reports of a gradually unfolding landing by Martians on Earth. The eruptions had presumably been their rocket ships blasting off.
Now, here’s where the fun supposedly started. As the plot became more exciting and alarming, the rapt American public became terrified, thinking that Martians were really invading. According to the standard story, listeners across the country panicked, and millions broke out into mass hysteria, running for shelter, calling the police, rioting, and attempting suicide.
Farmers in the north-east rushed out that night with shotguns in hand, taking pot shots at water towers and other things that looked like Martian spaceships. People were rushed to hospitals and treated for shock, and one man in Baltimore had a heart attack and died.
Hysteria ramped across the country. Some accounts said that “millions” had panicked.
The show continued while, allegedly, the country was freaking out. Reports of panic started to filter into the studio, and CBS broke into the show four times to remind listeners that it was just a dramatization.
Alas, Buzzkillers, the War of the Worlds panic and hysteria was greatly exaggerated. Almost none of the famous stories about it ever happened.
What did happen? Well, some people thought the broadcast was real, or at least they worried about it. Radio was still a relatively new medium and they weren’t sure how to take a show about a radio broadcast with staged music programs and staged news bulletins.
So how did these people generally react? Perfectly rationally, as it turns out. As far as research can determine (and this has proven difficult, but not impossible), almost everyone listening to the show knew it was fiction. Some people were a little confused, but in the overwhelming majority of cases they changed channels to see if other stations were “reporting” the same “news.” They called radio stations to ask what was
going on, and also called the police. In both cases they were told it was a fictional show and that there was no invasion.
What about the panic, then? Did it happen? Why has the panic story become part of history?
Let me take you back to 1938, Buzzkillers. They didn’t have the internet then, but they did have something we don’t have now — evening newspapers. All cities and many towns had morning and evening editions of their major newspapers. Major cities also had night editions, bringing the total to three editions per day.
Evening newspapers were prepared during the day, and when there was breaking news they could hold the front page and print it, and the news wire services like The Associated Press picked up stories and shot them out over the wires 24 hours a day. That’s what happened in this case. Late newspapers were able to write and prepare stories about the “panic” as they heard about it. This wasn’t the height of investigative journalism, but some reports were coming in and the newspapers ran with it.
And boy did they run with it, especially the next morning. No stories about an invasion, but lots of huge front-page headlines like “Radio Causes Panic,” and “Fake Radio War Stirs Terror Through U.S.” Even a New York Times front-page headline the next day read “Radio Listeners Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact.”
Some scholars suggest that the newspaper boys weren’t duped by The War of the Worlds, nor did they believe that there was widespread panic. But when they heard that there were rumors of radio-inspired panic, they couldn’t resist beating up on the new medium of radio as unreliable and scare-mongering. The idea here is that newspapers barons were worried about these new broadcast technologies and how much they would cut into their own revenues. This specific aspect of the whole story is still a matter of debate.
What’s not in debate is that newspapers pumped up the panic, which couldn’t have hurt paper sales. Life magazine had run a picture of a farmer with a shotgun, standing guard over his barn and protecting it from aliens, and people believed it was genuine, even though it was staged.
For a couple of days many people in the country thought there had been some kind of panic, but they must have thought it happened in another town or city because they certainly didn’t witness it. There were calls for Welles and the Mercury Theatre to be prosecuted. There were also calls for congressional investigations, but all the authorities — from local cops on the beat to President Roosevelt— knew that nothing had happened.
Welles himself expressed shock over the supposed reaction and apologized profusely. He talked to reporters, who clearly believed the panic stories, the next day and said he didn’t know that people were taking the show as real. Welles stressed that he was “deeply shocked and deeply regretful” about the broadcast
Perhaps we need a little healthy skepticism here. Welles may have been pulling a big practical joke on everyone, but there’s no actual evidence for that.
The Myth Grows!
Once it was in print, the myth of the panic just grew and grew over the years. Helped by a 1940 academic study “The Invasion from Mars” by Princeton professor Hadley Cantril, the story became embedded in the American consciousness. Cantril, by the way, said that one million (one million!) people panicked. Scholars since have pointed out all kinds of methodological (and just sloppy) errors in Cantril’s work, but that didn’t matter. The phenomenon began to be taught in college sociology and journalism courses.
Ironically, the newspapers that started the story and inflated the story, dropped it within a couple of days of the broadcast. Seemingly embarrassed by the fact that it didn’t happen, they killed all references to the panic. They didn’t print retractions, but even if they had it probably wouldn’t have made much difference.
The story grew as an urban legend and it only got worse over the decades. In 1957 there was a live television play, “The Night America Trembled,” about the “hysteria.” An even more exaggerated television movie, “Night That Panicked America,” came out in 1975. The “Night That Panicked America” strongly suggested that Welles cooked up the whole idea and planned a radio show that would sound so realistic people would believe it and drive publicity into outer space!
Fortunately, Professors Michael Socolow and Jefferson Pooley did serious and scholarly work on “The War of the Worlds” story and showed that, not only was almost no one fooled by the broadcast, but the work of Cantril was flawed at its very foundations. Slate magazine, the BBC, and Snopes.com have all debunked the myth comprehensively.
Still, the myth persists. PBS’s “American Experience” ran a documentary in October 2013 that repeated the entire myth, presenting “facts” that weren’t facts at all. And Radiolab (the popular and excellent radio show and podcast) did the same thing the very same month.
Maybe people will listen to Professor Buzzkill this time!
:20-1:00 Welles says he didn’t know that people were taking the show as real.
5:22-5:33 Welles “deeply shocked and deeply regretful” about the broadcast
Here’s the best serious scholarship on the story:
Jefferson D. Pooley & Michael J. Socolow, “Checking Up on The Invasion from Mars: Hadley Cantril, Paul Lazarsfeld, and the Making of a Misremembered Classic,” International Journal of Communication, Volume 7 (2013).
Jefferson D. Pooley & Michael J. Socolow, “War of the Words: The Invasion from Mars and its Legacy for Mass Communication Scholarship in Joy Elizabeth Hayes, Kathleen Battles, and Wendy Hilton-Morrow, (eds.) War of the Worlds to Social Media: Mediated Communication in Times of Crisis (New York: Peter Lang, 2013).