W. Joseph Campbell

Halloween’s greatest media myth

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Media myths and radio, War of the Worlds on October 26, 2010 at 4:03 pm

My Q-and-A with Big Think blog was posted today. In it I discuss Halloween’s greatest media myth–Orson Welles’ famous War of the Worlds dramatization, which aired on CBS radio 72 years ago this week.

The War of the Worlds program was so clever, and made such effective use of simulated news bulletins reporting a Martian invasion of Earth, that tens of thousands–or even hundreds of thousands–of Americans were pitched into mass panic and hysteria.

Or so the media myth has it.

As I discuss in my new mythbusting book Getting It Wrong, “the panic and mass hysteria so readily associated with The War of The Worlds program did not occur on anything approaching nationwide dimension” on that long ago night in 1938.

While some Americans may have been briefly frightened or upset by Welles’ program, “most listeners, overwhelmingly, were not: They recognized it for what it was—an imaginative and entertaining show on the night before Halloween,” I point out in Getting It Wrong.

I discuss in the Q-and-A with Big Think just how improbable and unlikely it was that tens of thousands of people were panic-stricken by the radio show.

Think about it, I say: “Tens of thousands? Even hundreds of thousands? That sounded to me quite unlikely and highly improbable. Especially given that mass panic is such a rare phenomenon.”

I added that anecdotal news reports about reactions to the broadcast “simply did not rise to the level of nationwide panic and mass hysteria.”

I also pointed out that had there indeed been widespread panic and hysteria that night, “newspapers for days and even weeks afterward would have been expected to have published details about the upheaval and its repercussions. But as it was, newspapers dropped the story after only a day or two.”

No deaths, serious injuries, or even suicides were associated with the program. “Had there been widespread panic and hysteria,” I noted, “surely many people would have been badly injured and even killed in the resulting tumult.”

I discussed in some detail at Big Think what I call “the would-be Paul Revere effect,” which emerged as the The War of the Worlds show unfolded.

This effect occurred when well-intentioned people who had an incomplete understanding of The War of the Worlds broadcast set out to warn others of the sudden and terrible threat.

“These would-be Paul Reveres,” I noted, “burst into churches, theaters, taverns, and other public places, shouting that the country was being invaded or bombed, or that the end of the world was near. …

“The unsuspecting recipients of what were typically jumbled, second- and third-hand accounts had no immediate way of verifying the troubling news they had just received so unexpectedly. Unlike listeners of the radio show, they could not spin a dial to find out whether other networks were reporting an invasion. This second- and third-hand fright didn’t last long. It was evanescent.

“But it is interesting that the show caused some level of apprehension among many people who had not heard one word of the program.”

The “would-be Paul Revere effect” is a little-recognized subsidiary phenomenon of The War of the Worlds broadcast, a show that always is remembered at Halloween time.

WJC

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