It was Halloween Eve 75 years ago today that Orson Welles went on the airwaves of CBS radio to broadcast his adaptation of H.G. Wells “War of the Worlds.” Actors from the anthology series The Mercury Theater on The Air presented a 60 minute broadcast depicting the H.G. Wells novel as a simulated news bulletin. It’s the story of how people in a small town discover a recent meteorite that struck ground. This meteorite is eventually revealed to actually house an alien rocket with a passenger inside: a creature that exposes itself to be quite nefarious when it uses heat rays to obliterate the crowd. Soon this monster from outer space is joined by an armada of other alien visitors with similar capabilities. What follows is an alien invasion as more cylindrical devices fall to Earth. The result of this broadcast was a mass panic as many of the estimated 6 million listeners actually believed the broadcast to be real. But did the 1938 portrayal of “The War of the Worlds” actually create the huge mass hysteria we’ve all come to know as the Panic Broadcast?
It’s been widely accepted that the Orson Wells broadcast created a huge panic among Americans. I remember when I was a kid I learned about this time in our history and even watched news reports of people running through the streets in hysterics (actually stock footage from a movie of people running through the streets). It spawned a huge amount of parody in such shows as The Simpsons, Futurama, and the Flintstones. It’s been referenced numerous times and alluded to in such films as Woody Allen’s “Radio Days.” It’s inspired portions of comic books, video games, and even been the subject of songs. This fright that the “War of the Worlds” brought about has been ingrained in the creative works of generations of artists, thinkers, and creators.
But was the panic as widespread as we have been lead to believe?
Just this past weekend, the people at RadioLab did an in-depth analysis of the broadcast and examined its effect on the estimated number of listeners it reached. It’s generally believed that “some 6 million heard the CBS broadcast; 1.7 million believed it to be true, and 1.2 million were ‘genuinely frightened” RadioLab says that on the contrary: “Far fewer people heard the broadcast — and fewer still panicked — than most people believe today. How do we know? The night the program aired, the C.E. Hooper ratings service telephoned 5,000 households for its national ratings survey. ‘To what program are you listening?’ the service asked respondents. Only 2 percent answered a radio ‘play’ or ‘the Orson Welles program,’ or something similar indicating CBS. None said a ‘news broadcast,’ according to a summary published in Broadcasting. In other words, 98 percent of those surveyed were listening to something else, or nothing at all, on Oct. 30, 1938. This miniscule rating is not surprising. Welles’ program was scheduled against one of the most popular national programs at the time — ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s Chase and Sanborn Hour, a comedy-variety show.”
The belief that a huge panic happened is believed to have started with the newspapers. Radio had turned a lot of advertising away from print and the newspaper industry took the opportunity of the CBS broadcast to discredit the validity of radio as a viable news source. The newspaper industry sensationalized the panic and tried to draw a picture of irresponsibility that radio had with reporting news too quickly.
As the days, weeks, and months rolled on something began to happen that usually happens with the creation of folklore: it began to grow.
More and more people began to tell their stories of where they were when the broadcast aired. More people had anecdotal accounts of the horror they experienced as their neighbors freaked out. This is a predictable phenomenon with these types of social events. People want to marry themselves to the controversy.
Wire service reports did state that some people panicked and were calmed by their neighbors. However, there was never any report of a verified suicide and all rumors of hospitals being over run with people being treated for shock were unsubstantiated. The Washington Post reported that one Baltimore listener died of a heart attack during the show, but no one bothered to follow up to confirm the story or provide corroborative details. One particularly frightened listener did sue CBS for $50,000, claiming the network caused her “nervous shock” but her lawsuit was dismissed.
So, no, the Orson Welle’s broadcast might not have had people crashing their cars and losing their minds to the extent that we believe. Sure, there were some people that believed it, many people called in to the radio station thinking it was real, and there were probably even some people that rushed out of their apartments to drive away from the city. But no one really got hurt. Orson Welles wasn’t even reprimanded for the broadcast. The FCC even refused complaints about it to be used in renewal hearings.
Interest in the Panic Broadcast persists with the public because we share a certain unease with the power the media has in influencing our lives. Most people don’t think about the aliens, the meteors, or the heat rays when they think about the “War of the Worlds” phenomenon. Most people think about how the public was duped by a radio show. The news media is supposed to protect us by giving us the information in our world, not trick us into a state of fictional unease. The “War of the Worlds” persists and is repeated over and over again because we need it as a cautionary tale about the media’s role in our lives.