W. Joseph Campbell

More treat than trick: Recalling the ‘War of the Worlds’ radio ‘panic’

In Debunking, Media myths, Media myths and radio, War of the Worlds on September 23, 2011 at 4:12 am

The autumnal equinox inevitably signals an uptick in media references to the famous radio adaptation in 1938 of The War of the Worlds, the show that gave rise to Halloween’s greatest media myth.

The program’s accounts of invading Martians wielding deadly heat rays supposedly were so realistic and unnerving that they set off nationwide panic and mass hysteria.

That’s the media myth, anyway. Like many media myths, it’s a good yarn but thinly documented. There’s scant evidence that the radio show — the work of Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air troupe — left millions of Americans panic-stricken that night.

It is a delicious tale, one inevitably recited this time of year — as suggested by a theatrical review posted yesterday at the Berkshire Eagle.

“It was trick and it was treat,” the newspaper said about Welles’ radio adaptation of the 1898 science fiction work, The War of the Worlds.

“On Oct. 30, 1938, millions of radio listeners were thrown into near hysteria when a radio broadcast by Mercury Theatre was interrupted by eyewitness, live-from-the-field reports of an alien invasion from Mars.

“By the time it was all over about an hour later, it became clear to everyone who had missed the advisory at the top of the show that this was make-believe; the clever invention of a brash, wildly creative 22-year-old force of artistic nature named Orson Welles who had taken H.G. Wells’ novel, ‘War of the Worlds,’ and, capitalizing on the power of the radio to catch our imagination in ways that only radio could, gave it chilling immediacy.”

Except that panic and “near hysteria” were not at all widespread. Fright that night certainly did not reach nationwide dimension, as I discuss in my latest book Getting It Wrong.

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

I also point out in Getting It Wrong that Hadley Cantril, a psychologist at Princeton University who promoted the notion that the radio show caused widespread panic, drew on surveys to estimate that at least 6 million people listened to the hour-long program, which aired live over the CBS radio network.

Of those listeners, Cantril estimated, 1.2 million were “frightened,” “disturbed,” or “excited” by what they heard.

But as I point out in Getting It Wrong, “Cantril left unclear the distinctions among ‘frightened,’ ‘disturbed,’ or ‘excited.’ Nor did Cantril not estimate how many listeners acted on their fears and excitement”  — a crucial element had there indeed been widespread panic that night.

Being “frightened,” “disturbed,” or “excited” is hardly akin to being panic-stricken. Or pitched into hysteria.

Cantril’s estimates, moreover, signal that an overwhelming majority of listeners recognized Welles’ program for what it was — imaginative radio entertainment.

It was for them more treat than trick.

Had the War of the Worlds show created nationwide panic and mass hysteria, the related turmoil surely would have resulted in deaths and serious injuries.

But newspaper reports in the program’s aftermath were notably silent on extensive casualties.

Not only that, but American newspapers quickly dropped the story from their pages after a day or two.

“Had there truly been mass panic and hysteria across the country that night, newspapers for days and even weeks afterward could have been expected to have published detailed reports about the dimensions and repercussions of such an extraordinary event,” I note in Getting It Wrong.

But newspapers gave little sustained attention to The War of the Worlds broadcast and the reactions it supposedly stirred.


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