“Wishing Welles” (War of the Worlds broadcast)


Though not my intent, I have riled a few people with my posts and comments about topics related to the skeptic movement. Some folks care little for probing questions about their great passions, be they psychic powers, ghost hunters, cryptozoological critters, or cancer-conquering baking soda.

But we should consider sound evidence even when it contradicts a cherished belief, and I strive to be consistent with this. When presented with enough proof, I have discarded ideas that I loved.

For example, while I don’t believe aliens have visited Earth, I once believed that people thought this was happening, and I found the story fascinating. Specifically, they were convinced invading spaceships were ravaging the eastern seaboard the night of Oct. 30, 1938. On that date, Mercury Theater on the Air broadcast Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of his near-namesake’s novel, H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.

Producer and director Welles tasked script writer Howard Koch to frame the play as a radio broadcast featuring a series of breaking news events that interrupted mellow jazz. Each interjection became more disconcerting until finally Martian laser weapons were zapping and frying farmers, state troopers, and newscasters.

Some persons mistook the fictitious newscast for a factual one, with subsequent newspaper reports portraying this as the country losing its collective mind. Sociologists have pondered that this tale has endured because it speaks to the power of unrestrained media and has a vague Big Brother feel to it, as an unseen, baritone voice of authority deftly dupes the populace. A competing hypothesis is that modern listeners allow themselves to feel superior to Depression Era rubes who fell for such a preposterous notion. The latter hypothesis ascribes unjustified credulity to modern news consumers who unquestioningly pass around Poes and Onion articles as authentic.

As for my love of the tale, it had nothing to do with contemplating the reach of powerful mediums or wanting to feel uppity. It was just a story that was at once intriguing and amusing. No one died, no long-term harm was done, and it was all encapsulated in a well-written, well-acted theater program presented in entertaining crescendo style. For a few months, I made listening to the broadcast a bedtime routine.

For those who tuned in from the beginning, it was obvious that the broadcast was of a dramatic production. But listeners coming across it later might have taken it as fact. On the following day in headlines, and in the following half-century in American folklore, there were tales of near-suicides, impromptu minutemen armies, terrified citizens fleeing to churches and hilltops, and roads and phone lines being jammed.

But while there was panic, little of it centered on an early version of Space Invaders. Rather, the panic came in the form of all caps banner headlines, lawsuits against CBS, Congressional hearings, and calls to tighten broadcast regulations.

Subsequent research has shown that overreaction to the broadcast was localized instead of nationwide, and often came in the form of measured concern rather than full-blown anxiety. The freak-out was likely limited to parts of New York and New Jersey, with the exception of Concrete, Wash. There were persons outside those areas who were taken in by the broadcast and who telephoned relatives in the east, but these responses stopped short of panic.

The idea that millions were pouring into the streets to escape or confront the aliens is vastly different from reality. Four days after it ran a sensational report alleging this, the Washington Post ran a letter from a man who had walked down F Street during the broadcast and witnessed “nothing approximating mass hysteria. In many stores radios were going, yet I observed nothing whatsoever of the absurd supposed terror of the populace.” Then in 1954, Ben Gross, radio editor for the New York Daily News, wrote in his memoir that Gotham’s streets were “nearly deserted” that night.

One of the few instances of confirmed hysteria took place in Grover’s Mill, N.J., where the first alien cylinder was said to have landed. There, residents thought Martians had transformed the water tower into a war machine, so they turned their attention and rifles on it. Meanwhile, in Concrete, Wash., the broadcast reported that Martians were working their way west, destroying railroad tracks, highways, power grids, and communication centers in order to cripple the country. As this happened, a thunderstorm took out a power station and telephone lines. The sudden loss of electricity and phone service seemed consistent with the alien occupation report, so some residents took this as Concrete proof, so to speak, that their village had fallen prey to the invaders.

Despite just two verified cases of terrified throngs, headlines the next day blared, “RADIO FAKE SCARES NATION” and “FAKE RADIO WAR STIRS TERROR THROUGH U.S.” Hitler, who some listeners thought was responsible for the apparent invasion, called the alleged panic “evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy.”

But while there were tiny pockets who took the broadcast as truth, the reactions of editors and genocidal dictators were greatly unwarranted. There were other radio stations to choose from and there were plenty of activities to occupy one’s time besides radio. The most popular show in the time slot, by far, was the Chase and Sanborn Hour, hosted by Edgar Bergen and his wooden sidekick, Charlie McCarthy. I’m not sure I understand the appeal of a radio ventriloquist, but let’s stay on topic.

The strongest evidence for how overblown the supposed size of the panic was comes from a poll of 5,000 households taken by the C.E. Hooper Ratings Service. In the telephone survey, two percent responded they were listening to the Mercury Radio Theatre production. Of that two percent, none of them answered that they were listening to news reports of an alien invasion. True, some who took the play to be a newscast were fleeing from or seeking out the invaders and therefore would not have been home to answer the call. Also true is that some of those who thought there were interplanetary interlopers were basing this on third-hand accounts and not the broadcast.

Still, reports of a country teetering on the brink is inconsistent with an estimated audience of 2.6 million in a nation 50 times that size. Moreover, those 2.6 million included many who listened from the beginning and were aware all along the broadcast was of a drama and not a doomsday. Some who tuned in late took it for the theatrical production it was, while others thought the attack was courtesy the Nazis. The rest went with the Invaders From Mars conclusion. But that number would have been in the hundreds, maybe thousands, but certainly not millions.

The main culprits for propping up the mostly-mythical panic were newspapers. Editor & Publisher encapsulated the industry’s combination of haughtiness and concern over dwindling profits by fuming, “The nation continues to face the danger of incomplete, misunderstood news from a medium which has yet to prove that it is competent to perform the job.”

While newspapers were still fumbling around with linotype machines and changing the ink on their printing presses, broadcasters were filing reports on the same story in real time, hours before newspapers could hit the streets. Unlike the Internet, there was no way for newspapers to embrace this neophyte technology and use it for themselves. The War of the Worlds broadcast presented publishers an opportunity to smear the radio medium as sensationalist, unprincipled, and unwholesome – ironically by displaying those same traits.

Wire service articles conspicuously lacked names of persons who were said to have panicked. Subsequent investigations of reports about patients being admitted for shock at St. Michael’s Hospital in Newark, N.J., showed that this was untrue. American University communications professor Joseph Campbell has characterized the newspaper coverage as “almost entirely anecdotal and largely based on sketch wire service roundups that emphasized breadth over in-depth detail.”

While the number of persons impacted was greatly exaggerated, so too was the nature of their reaction. While there were reports of persons feeling “frightened, disturbed, or excited” by the show, this fails to differentiate between those who thought it was news and those who knew it was a play. One could well be scared or thrilled by a radio drama about invading aliens without thinking it was real.

Some observers suspect that the Depression and looming threat of global war left the relative few who did panic ripe for doing so. I disagree. People in 1950s, with the war won and economy booming, fell for a bogus story about Italy’s pasta harvest. The Roaring 20s gave us the Cottingley Fairies hoax. People believe crazy stuff without seeking confirming evidence regardless of what economic circumstances or technological developments define the era.

Much as I loved the tale and wish it true, evidence shows the panic was sparked not by a Martian militia, but by people’s alleged reaction to it.


One thought on ““Wishing Welles” (War of the Worlds broadcast)

  1. Pingback: String theory – Moline Skeptics

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