The ‘War of the Worlds’ Panic Is a Myth
Orson Welles scared very few people with his 1938 radio version of H.G. Wells’s novel about an alien invasion. The lingering question is, why do we want to believe he did?
The cover of Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News features a woman’s face frozen in terror. Author A. Brad Schwartz opens the book with the dramatic account of a Manhattan couple who, hearing Welles’s October 30, 1938, radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’s science fiction novel and believing that Martians had indeed invaded New Jersey, spent their last six dollars on train tickets to flee the advancing alien army. Glimpsing the cover and perusing the opening pages, readers would be forgiven for assuming that Broadcast Hysteria was written to bolster the long-held belief that Welles’s infamous Halloween prank had created nationwide mass panic. Schwartz, however, intends to do the opposite—albeit, it seems, reluctantly.
Welles was just 23 in October 1938, a ridiculously precocious actor, writer, producer, and director working in theater and radio who had already graced the cover of Time. He and his creative partner, John Houseman, were tapped to create a weekly show for CBS Radio, Mercury Theatre on the Air, adapting classic works of literature for broadcast. Welles had the idea of updating War of the Worlds by presenting the material as a series of fake news bulletins; his writer, Howard Koch, closed his eyes and picked a random spot on a map of New Jersey to decide on the tiny town of Grover’s Mill as the site of the alien landing.
At this point, Americans were increasingly turning to the young technology of radio for their news. One of Welles’s innovations in War of the Worlds was to cut off the actor portraying a reporter at the scene and then hold the silence for seconds, the unprecedented dead air suggesting that the reporter—and everyone nearby—had perished in the Martian attack.
This is one of several examples Schwartz cites to explain why listeners would have found Welles’s broadcast credible. Others include the use of real place names and highways in describing evacuation procedures, and even the fact that many of the decade’s biggest breaking-news radio stories, from the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby to the crash of the Hindenburg, had also taken place in New Jersey.
It’s curious that Schwartz works so hard to establish the broadcast’s believability since he knows that very few listeners were taken in by War of the Worlds. For one thing, the audience was small: Mercury Theatre—up against NBC’s popular Chase & Sanborn Hour featuring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy—was heard by less than 4 percent of the audience. Of those who did tune in, the vast majority were aware that they were listening to a radio drama. Stories of panic—including unsubstantiated rumors of heart attacks and suicides—were exaggerated by newspaper coverage in the days after the broadcast. (Historians have argued that the papers went after Welles to cast doubt on the integrity of their new rival, radio; Schwartz questions that theory, noting that newspaper circulations rose with radio’s popularity, suggesting that “if anything, broadcast journalism increased the American appetite for the printed variety.”) The panic narrative was later cemented by a 1940 academic analysis, Hadley Cantril’s The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic, which estimated that at least 1 million listeners were convinced that America was under attack. Schwartz determines that Cantril, himself taken in by sensationalized media reports, “deliberately oversampled people frightened by the broadcast” and “ignored survey data from listeners who knew it was fiction.”
First-time author Schwartz wrote his undergraduate thesis on Welles’s War of the Worlds at the University of Michigan, which had recently acquired large collections of the director’s papers, including 1,400 letters written in response to the notorious broadcast. Schwartz was the first scholar to read those letters, and he parlayed that windfall into a gig co-writing PBS’s 2013 American Experience episode on War of the Worlds, which stuck stubbornly to the panic narrative despite recent scholarship challenging it.
In his book, he often appears ambivalent, acknowledging that there was no mass panic (most of the letters he examined were written “in praise and defense of Welles”) but straining to find significance in the fact that some listeners were frightened and in the broadcast itself. Those frightened “may have been relatively few in number, and they may have held the historical spotlight for too long,” Schwartz writes, “but their stories are worthy of examination and explanation.” Later, in somewhat overblown language, he declares that the episode “decided the fate of Orson Welles and of American broadcasting itself.”
It is true that after War of the Worlds, Hollywood came courting. Welles cut an extraordinary deal with RKO that gave him total artistic control, and his first film, Citizen Kane, released just as he turned 26, is widely considered the greatest movie of all time. Broadcast Hysteria is entertaining despite its flaws largely because Welles, born a century ago, continues to fascinate. Another new book, Josh Karp’s Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of ‘The Other Side of the Wind’, examines the auteur at the twilight of his career, a much messier figure than the boy wonder of Schwartz’s book and one who, by then, wasn’t above milking the panic myth when it helped him raise money to finance his flailing projects. Perhaps the War of the Worlds controversy would have faded from memory if Welles hadn’t been the man behind it.
Despite that the story of mass panic is inaccurate, it will probably live on. As Schwartz observes, the broadcast “has become shorthand for the dangerous power and influence of the media,” and it reflects anxieties that we still experience, whether the scary new technology is radio, television, or the Internet. I vividly recall learning about War of the Worlds from the same junior high social studies teacher who told us that dozens of people in Queens had witnessed the brutal 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese without intervening, another bit of history recently shown to be a fable. Somehow the lessons of these stories—that the masses are overly susceptible to media influence, that bystanders might not intervene to help a stranger in distress—continue to feel true even after we know that the stories themselves are not.