Orson Wells, “The War of the Worlds,” and the Panic that Never Was

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Today is the 85th anniversary of Orson Welles’s legendary broadcast of H. G. Welles’ The War of the Worlds, a terrifying broadcast that was less terrifying than you might think it was.

You probably know a lot about the Welles broadcast, a dramatization of H. G. Welles’s novel which he hosted for CBS’s Mercury Theater. The program began with a brief introduction, which stated “The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air in ‘The War of the Worlds’ By H. G. Wells.” After a few words of exposition by Welles, the broadcast then switched to orchestral music for a while.
Then, in the first of a series of interruptions, a newscaster announced strange explosions spotted on the surface of Mars. As the events of the plot unfolded, it became clear that something from Mars was on its way to Earth.  Soon enough, they announced that a strange “meteor,” later proven to be a martian spaceship, had crashed into a wooded area of New Jersey. Over 1000 people had already been killed, and many more were in danger from the poison gas that the martians were using to slaughter us humans.
It’s a creepy narrative device, and it’s particularly effective. Listen to the whole broadcast here and see if you don’t experience a little chill as the reports roll in, only to have the broadcast return to big-band swing music.

If you know this much, you probably know what happened next. Tens of thousands of radio-listeners all across the country, convinced that the world was under attack from Mars, rushed into the street. There was mass confusion, murders, and suicides. Some people died of fright. Emergency rooms were crammed with people who had taken to violence or tried killing themselves, men with rifles marched into the woods in search of little green men to shoot, and a panicked housewife poisoned her sleeping children rather than allow them to fall to the filthy invaders.
Except none of that really happened. Though there were a flood of phone calls that crashed CBS’s fledgling infrastructure, and some New Yorkers did take to the street in confusion, there were no reliable accounts of suicide, death by fright, murder, or any other tragedies. (Here is the New York Times article from the following day.) People were jumpy, of course, but their fear was of invading Nazis, not martians. Keep in mind that this was 1938, just over a year since a very real airship, the Nazi Hindenburg, crashed in northern New Jersey, and less than a year before Hitler’s troops invaded Poland and began World War II.
The Hindenburg disaster
This was a media-produced event, and the media happily ran with whatever accounts of hysteria it could drum up. (Even the Nazi party released a statement about Americans’ gullibility.) But subsequent studies into the events of that night did not reveal the kind of panic that 85 years of myth building has produced.
A social psychologist from Princeton named Hadley Contril wanted to prove that mass media had an overwhelming control over human behavior, so he interviewed many people who were listening that night and asked them how they reacted. His results suggest that the people in his study, influenced by the media attention of the broadcast, lied about how they reacted that night. Rather than present those findings, though, Contril exaggerated his findings to support his hypothesis. His report was later censured by his peers.
So, what is there to learn from this not-so-scary story? Well, it’s that conventional wisdom is often wrong, that rumors get spread and amplified over the years, and that we don’t always know the things we think we know. Also, it shows that we can be gullible, even about how gullible we really are.

Sources Cited:

Folsom, Bettse. “Radio’s Halloween hoax spooked the nation.” Capper’s Oct. 2008: 18. General   
      OneFile. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.

Socolow, Michael J. “The Hyped Panic Over ‘War of the Worlds’.” The Chronicle of Higher 
     Education 55.9 (2008). Gale Power Search. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.

Walker, Jesse. “America the paranoid: from the man who tried to shoot Andrew Jackson to The War of 
     the Worlds, a brief history of political paranoia.” Reason Oct. 2013: 52+. Gale Power Search. Web.

Wikipedia-free! 29 Oct. 2013.

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