An upcoming PBS documentary about the famous War of the Worlds radio dramatization seems certain to embrace the media myth that the show provoked panic across the United States when it aired nearly 75 years ago.
The PBS program is to be shown October 29, on the eve of the anniversary of the radio play that starred Orson Welles and cleverly told of the invasion of America by Martians wielding deadly heat rays.
A description PBS has posted online signals that its documentary, as suspected, will buy into the panic myth. The description says, in part, that “perhaps a million or more” listeners that night in 1938 were “plunged into panic, convinced that America was under a deadly Martian attack.”
PBS also says The War of the Worlds program created “one of the biggest mass hysteria events in U.S. history.” As if there have been many such events.
The ever-appealing tale of radio-inducted hysteria is one of the 10 prominent media-driven myths that I addressed and debunked in my latest book, Getting It Wrong. Simply put, the notion that The War of the Worlds convulsed America in panic and mass hysteria is Halloween’s greatest media myth.
I note in Getting It Wrong that pockets of Americans may have been frightened by the program. But there is scant evidence that many listeners acted on their fears. And being frightened is hardly synonymous with being pitched into panic and hysteria.
In overwhelming numbers, listeners to the program recognized it for what it was: An imaginative and entertaining show that aired on CBS Radio in its usual Sunday evening time slot.
I also note that had panic and mass hysteria swept the country that night, the resulting trauma and turmoil surely would have led to many deaths and serious injuries.
But newspaper reports of the time were notably silent about extensive casualties. No deaths were attributed to The War of the Worlds broadcast.
Nonetheless, the panic myth probably is too well-known, and too entrenched in American culture, ever to be thoroughly cast aside. And the PBS program in late October may well serve to reinforce an already-tenacious media myth.
It could be a cheesy show, too. The PBS description suggests as much, saying the program will make use of “letters written to CBS, the Federal Communications Commission and Mr. Welles himself” to dramatize “the public’s reaction … with on-camera interviews, bringing to life the people who listened that night to the broadcast and thought it was rip-roaring entertainment… or the end of the world.”
(The actor outtakes posted online undeniably are cheesy.)
The PBS program, should it promote the media myth, would run counter to a substantial body of research that has dismissed or cast serious doubt on the notion Welles’ radio program caused panic and mass hysteria. In addition to my research and Socolow’s work, Robert E. Bartholomew, an authority on the phenomenon of panics, has written that many people wrongly “believe a panic took place” during and immediately after the airing of The War of the Worlds radio show.
Moreover, this month has brought publication of The United States of Paranoia, a sophisticated study of conspiracy theories in the United States. The book, written by Jesse Walker, an editor at Reason magazine, addresses The War of the Worlds radio show and notes:
“There were indeed listeners who, apparently missing the initial announcement that the story was fiction, took the show at face value and believed a real invasion was under way. It is not clear, though, that they were any more common than the people today who mistake satires in The Onion for real newspaper reports.”
That’s very good. The producers of the PBS documentary would do well to give thought to such a telling observation.
More from Media Myth Alert:
- PBS set to embrace mass hysteria myth in anniversary show on ‘War of Worlds’?
- Why ‘War of the Worlds’ show didn’t panic America
- ‘War of the Worlds’ radio panic was overstated
- Halloween’s greatest media myth
- ‘Digital wildfires’ and the ‘War of the Worlds’ media myth
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- The Internet’s uneven capacity to expose media fakes
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- JHistory: ‘Getting It Wrong’ deserves to be ‘required reading’