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Aug 09 2012

The myth about The War of the Worlds panic

Almost everyone has heard the story about how Orson Welles produced a radio drama based on H. G. Welles’ story The War of the Worlds that was broadcast October 30, 1938, the night before Halloween. The dramatization largely took the form of a series of news bulletins that interrupt regular programming about the Earth being attacked by Martians. The story goes that people who heard it thought it was a real news story and there was mass panic and hysteria, with people all over the country running out of their homes and into the streets in fear.

Frankly, I just did not believe it. It seemed like one of those too-good-to-be-true stories and I had it on my to-do list to check out the news reports from that time to see if it was as big an event as portrayed now.

But as is often the case, if you wait long enough, someone else will do the work for you and I learn that W. Joseph Campbell in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C debunks the story, suggesting that the broadcast itself, while causing some pockets of consternation, did not produce anything close to mass hysteria, though some people who had heard about it second hand and misunderstood what was going on repeated the warnings to others.

The original story quickly died down and disappeared but later developed a life of its own, being recycled regularly, usually at Halloween time.

9 comments

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  1. 1
    feralboy12

    I read a Cracked.com article debunking this recently. Apparently, most of the people who did get a fright tuned in a bit late and, this being 1938, thought that WWII was breaking out; very few really thought aliens were invading. And the famous photo of the guy behind the sandbags with the rifle was staged.
    So, yeah.

  2. 2
    Ryan

    I’ve tried telling people this and they insist that there was mass hysteria. The most British guy I know insists that it was unique to Americans. I even once heard a complicated rationalisation about how crowds had changed the radio station when an unpopular band appeared on one, and thus turned to the station that the Wells drama played on, mid report, and assumed it was real.

  3. 3
    smhll

    I’m glad you posted. It always smelled a little over the top to me.

  4. 4
    Marcus Ranum

    We used to listen to a lot of the Mercury Theater recordings when I was a kid. They’re so, ummmm… theatrical, they wouldn’t fool anybody. Except for the kind of person who walks through the check-out lines and reads the cover of Weekly World News or The Onion and mistakes it for reality. There are a few people out there, like that. But they listen to Rush Limbaugh not Orson Welles.

  5. 5
    Carl

    For those who’d like to listen, The War of the Worlds is available as a downloadable MP3 on the Murcury Theater website: http://www.mercurytheatre.info/#wotw

  6. 6
    Winterwind

    Aww. Mass hysteria would have been cool. I always liked that story. Yet another beautiful fiction slain by an ugly fact (apologies to Huxley).

  7. 7
    Aliasalpha

    It didn’t work on Pinky & The Brain either

  8. 8
    peicurmudgeon

    My father was 15 the year that this play aired. I asked him once about how rural PEI reacted. He just shrugged his shoulders and said “It was just a radio show”. That was many years ago, and from that, I concluded that any stories of mass panic were likely exaggerated.

  9. 9
    Brian Faux

    How does one become the `most British` I wonder.
    Bowler hat? furled umbrella? Union Jack underpants?

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