The story that mass panic broke out because of an Orson Welles radio show became part of modern folklore. The idea that hysteria swept America on October 30, 1938, when a 62-minute radio dramatisation of The War of the Worlds, remained unchallenged for nearly eight decades. Even those who had never heard Welles reading the HG Wells story about invading Martians wielding deadly heat-rays later claimed to have been terrified. Welles, who was born on May 6, 1915, used simulated on-the-scene radio reports about aliens advancing on New York City to pep up the story by Wells, who died on August 13 1946. But what is the truth about that historic Halloween eve CBS Radio show from the Mercury Theatre in New York?
(Article by Martin Chilton)
DON’T PANIC . . .
According to popular myth, thousands of New Yorkers fled their homes in panic, with swarms of terrified citizens crowding the streets in different American cities to catch a glimpse of a “real space battle”. In 1954, Ben Gross, radio editor for the New York Daily News, wrote in his memoir that New York’s streets were “nearly deserted” that October night in 1938. In the Orson Welles broadcast, part of the hoax involved the town of Grover’s Mill, near Princeton in New Jersey, being taken over by aliens. Welles and scriptwriter Howard E Koch (who went on to co-write the film Casablanca) skillfully ratcheted up the tension with fake radio reports from the US infantry and air force. The true extent of the panic seems to have been that a small band of Grover’s Mill locals, believing the town’s water tower on Grover’s Mill Road had been turned into a “giant Martian war machine”, fired guns filled with buckshot in an attack on the water tower. In 1998, residents held a tongue-in-cheek “Martian Ball” to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the incident.
WHAT ABOUT PEOPLE JUMPING OFF BUILDINGS AND HAVING NERVOUS BREAKDOWNS?
In the immediate aftermath of the broadcast, analysts in Princeton’s Office of Radio Research, working under the direction of Professor Hadley Cantril, sought to verify a rumour that several people had been treated for shock at St Michael’s Hospital in Newark, NJ after the programme. The rumour was found to be false. In addition, when they surveyed six New York City hospitals in December 1938, they found that “none of them had any record of any cases brought in specifically on account of the broadcast”. A Washington Post claim that a man died of a heart attack brought on by listening to the programme was never verified. Police records for New Jersey did show an increase in calls on the night of the show. However, in the preface to his textbook Introduction to Collective Behaviour, academic David Miller points out that: “Some people called to find out where they could go to donate blood. Some callers were simply angry that such a realistic show was allowed on the air, while others called CBS to congratulate Mercury Theatre for the exciting Halloween programme”.
AND IN FACT NOT MANY PEOPLE HEARD THE SHOW . . .
On the evening of October 30, 1938, most people tuning into radio were in fact listening to the highly popular Chase and Sanborn Hour, a comedy variety show hosted by the ventriloquist Edgar Bergin, which was airing at the same time as War of the Worlds on competing radio station, NBC. The radio ratings survey firm CE Hopper Company were, coincidentally, conducting a telephone poll that night of approximately five thousand households. They asked: “To what programme are you listening?” Only two per cent of people said they were listening to The War of the Worlds. In addition, several key CBS affiliate radio stations (including Boston’s WEEI) decided to carry local commercial shows rather than Welles’s programme, further shrinking its audience. Frank Stanton, later president of CBS, said that CBS were never censored for The War of the Worlds, admitting: “In the first place, most people didn’t hear the show.”
AND THE SHOW HAD CARRIED A WARNING THAT IT WAS MADE UP . . .
Welles, who went on to have such a glittering career as a film director (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Othello) and actor (The Third Man, Compulsion) knew what he was doing with such artful radio mischief-making. He played recordings of Herbert Morrison’s radio reports of the Hindenburg disaster for actor Frank Readick and the rest of the cast, to demonstrate the mood he wanted. He said: “We wanted people to understand that they shouldn’t take any opinion predigested, and they shouldn’t swallow everything that came through the tap whether it was radio or not. But as I say it was only a partial experiment, we had no idea the extent of the thing.” To mitigate any possible fallout from the hoax, CBS made him carry warnings that it was a fictional show at the start of the show and again at 40 and 55 minutes into the broadcast.
ANY YET THE MYTH OF MASS PANIC TOOK HOLD?
Research published six weeks after the broadcast by the American Institute of Public Opinion was skewed. They later admitted that figures of one million people listening to the programme were wildly inaccurate. In addition, where people surveyed had said they were “frightened”, “disturbed”, or “excited” by show, these terms were conflated into the description that they had felt “panicked” by The War of the Worlds. Such was the initial publicity that Adolf Hitler even got in on the act, citing the supposed panic as “evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy”.
MAINLY BECAUSE IT WAS FUELLED BY NEWSPAPER COVERAGE
Newspaper headlines about the event were lurid. ‘Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact’ was the front page headline on The New York Times. ‘Radio Fake Scares Nation’, said the Chicago Herald and Examiner. ‘US Terrorised By Radio’s Men From Mars’ said the San Francisco Chronicle. There were also front page stories in the The Boston Daily Globe and The Detroit News. One repeated claim was that within a month, 12,500 articles had been published throughout the world on the alien mass panic. Yet in his comprehensive analysis of contemporaneous reporting in a book called Getting it Wrong, American University professor W Joseph Campbell found that almost all newspapers swiftly dropped the story. “Coverage of the broadcast faded quickly from the front pages, in most cases after just a day or two,” he wrote.
WHICH GAVE NEWSPAPERS THE CHANCE TO ATTACK RADIO
The newspapers had a clear agenda. An editorial in The New York Times, headlined In the Terror by Radio, was used to censure the relatively new medium of radio, which was becoming a serious competitor in providing news and advertising. “Radio is new but it has adult responsibilities. It has not mastered itself or the material it uses,” said the editorial leader comment on November 1 1938. In an excellent piece in Slate magazine in 2013, Jefferson Pooley (associate professor of media and communication at Muhlenberg College) and Michael J Socolow (associate professor of communication and journalism at the University of Maine) looked at the continuing popularity of the myth of mass panic and they took to task NPR’s Radiolab programme about the incident and the Radiolab assertion that “The United States experienced a kind of mass hysteria that we’ve never seen before.” Pooley and Socolow wrote: “How did the story of panicked listeners begin? Blame America’s newspapers. Radio had siphoned off advertising revenue from print during the Depression, badly damaging the newspaper industry. So the papers seized the opportunity presented by Welles’s programme, perhaps to discredit radio as a source of news. The newspaper industry sensationalised the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted.”
BUT IT DIDN’T DO WELLES’S SHOW COMMERCIAL HARM
In fact, the notoriety of the broadcast led the Campbell Soup Company to sponsor the The Mercury Theatre on the Air, and the show was renamed The Campbell Playhouse.
AND THERE WERE NO LEGAL REPERCUSSIONS
One frightened listener tried to sue CBS for $50,000, claiming the network caused her “nervous shock” with the broadcast. Her lawsuit was quickly dismissed. Only one claim was ever successful, for a pair of black men’s shoes (size 9B) by a Massachusetts man who said he had spent the money he had saved to buy shoes on a train ticket to escape the Martians. Welles reportedly paid for the man’s shoes.
EVEN HG WELLS MOCKED THE PRETENCE
The War of the Worlds was originally published as a novel in 1898 (in the story it is Leatherhead, Woking and Weybridge in Surrey that are attacked by aliens). When HG Wells was asked about the supposed mass panic in America 40 years after his book came out, he was ironic about the whole incident. HG Wells was questioned during a joint radio interview with Welles on KTSA in San Antonio in 1949 and replied: “In England we had articles about it, and people said, ‘Have you never heard of Halloween in America, when everybody pretends to see ghosts?’”
THOUGH THE PUBLICITY SUITED ORSON WELLES
In Getting it Wrong, Professor Campbell said that Welles was happy in later decades to encourage the myth of the panic because it was a “tale just too delectable not to be true”. Campbell added that: “It is part of the lore of Orson Welles, the bad-boy genius who did his best work before he turned 30.”
IT REMAINS A POTENT FANTASY
There have been lots of dramatisations of the events of that night, including a 1975 made-for-television movie broadcast on the ABC network called The Night That Panicked America. Some film and TV makers treated the incident with more humour. In a The Simpsons parody, Homer is tricked into believing a Martian has eaten the President of the United States. In Woody Allen’s 1987 film Radio Days, the broadcast prompts a character to abandon his date Aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest) in the car and run away in panic, leaving Bea to walk six miles home. The next day, he calls her for another date. She turns it down claiming she has “married a Martian”.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE SCRIPT
Welles’s directorial copy of the broadcast was auctioned in 1994, at Christie’s in New York, and bought for £24,000 by filmmaker Steven Spielberg. He went on to make a version of The War of the Worlds in 2005, starring Tom Cruise.
THE WAR OF THE WORLDS WAS NOT THE FIRST RADIO HOAX
England actually beat America to that trick, because the first radio hoax was broadcast on 16 January 1926, on the BBC. A talk on 18th-century British literature was interrupted by a 12-minute series of fictitious news bulletins about a riot in London, in which Big Ben was blown up by mortars, the Savoy Hotel burnt down and a politician lynched on a tramway post. The show, curiously, was written by Father Ronald Knox, a Catholic priest.
AND IT’S NOT A GOOD IDEA TO COPY ORSON WELLES . . .
In February 1949, Leonardo Paez and Eduardo Alcaraz produced a Spanish-language version of Welles’s 1938 script for Radio Quito in Ecuador. The broadcast set off panic. Quito police and fire brigades rushed out of town to fight the supposed alien invasion force. After it was revealed that the broadcast was fiction, the panic transformed into a riot. The riot resulted in at least seven deaths, including those of Paez’s girlfriend and nephew. The offices Radio Quito, and El Comercio, a local newspaper that had participated in the hoax by publishing false reports of unidentified flying objects in the days preceding the broadcast, were both burned to the ground.
Read more at: telegraph.co.uk