The myth of the Martian invasion panic

Today is the 75th anniversary of the famous radio broadcast of the Orson Welles production of the H. G. Wells story The War of the Worlds, that began with a series of fake news bulletins that announced an alien invasion and supposedly triggered widespread panic. There are bound to be news items that refer to this event.

A legend has grown up that the broadcast was so realistic that many people believed it and ran into the streets in fear. Last year I wrote that people who have looked closely at contemporaneous records of this story say that it has been wildly exaggerated. But perhaps aided by its proximity to the Halloween holiday when the media likes to hype scary stories, the myth refuses to die, like the zombies that people love to dress up as.


  1. Jockaira says

    A legend has grown up that the broadcast was so realistic that many people believed it and ran into the streets in fear.

    If you’ve ever heard a complete recording of that particular presentation of the Mercury Theatre, even you might have skipped over the short introduction announcing the nature of the show. If you had been around in 1938 and missed the first few seconds, you probably would have been in a panic like many others in the same situation.

    The first half of the show coincided exactly with what would have been expected of a regular radio show interrupted by news bulletins detailing an invasion of earth by hellish creatures from another planet. If one had taken to the streets and missed the second half, where the dramatic nature of he show became apparent, then it is understandable that many would panic though perhaps not in the scale represented by the hucksters and starving newscasters of the time.

    The extremely well-done drama in retrospect no doubt gave substance to the many rumors and inflated wide-eyed astonishments shown by many credulous observers at a multi-state panic and declaration of martial law to combat the invaders.

    I’m sure that many recordings of that show are available on-line, but if you can’t find it there, many public libraries also have it. I recommend it highly for anyone wanting to experience the power of radio in the pre-TV world.

  2. thewhollynone says

    When you realize how many people today believe what they see on Fox News and accept as factual what they hear on right wing talk radio, then you can’t fault people in the 1930’s for being more gullible.

  3. moarscienceplz says

    There are a whole host of reasons why the broadcast might have seemed real to some people, not least of which is that it was consciously modeled after the radio report of the Hindenberg disaster which had happened only a year earlier. However, it is almost certainly true that the newspapers and other parties exaggerated the panic to suit their own purposes.

    Given all that, one only needs to look at the plethora of infomercials on late night TV to realize that there is probably way more than one sucker born every minute.

  4. dmcclean says

    I’m not in a position to judge whether the nature of what happened in the US in ’38 has been overly exaggerated in retelling. Certainly there is a phenomenon by which such stories are nearly always exaggerated. Hell, all stories are usually exaggerated.

    But the general idea doesn’t seem totally implausible. Apparently a 1949 re-airing/translation/tribute in Quito, Ecuador caused a panic in the streets; when the radio station broadcast a repeated statement that it was fictional and an apology the mob got angry and burned down the radio station, killing 6 people.

  5. AsqJames says

    Undoubtedly some people panicked. Undoubtedly the print media, feeling threatened by their bumptious new rival, exaggerated the panic in an attempt to show how dangerous this new medium was.

    The same forces can be observed today with established media running scare stories about the dangers of the internet. Plus ca change…

    What I didn’t know until recently was that the BBC had provoked a similar mini-panic and disproportionate response 12 years earlier.

    Listeners were stunned. Anxiously they gathered around their radios as the alarming reports continued, informing them that the National Gallery had been sacked, the Savoy Hotel blown up, and the Houses of Parliament were being attacked with trench mortars

    Just as with 1938 in the US, it’s hard to tell how much of a panic there really was in the UK in 1926, but I wouldn’t be surprised if many more people really did believe the fake news of revolutionary riots. Only 9 years earlier there was the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, 6 years earlier London dockers refused to load ships with arms destined for the anti-communist Russians, 2 years earlier the Daily Mail printed the fake Zinoviev letter, and a few months later industry basically ground to a halt in the general strike.

    That this event is less famous is certainly a product of many factors – Welles’ fame and the BBC losing (or more likely re-using) the tapes are probably part of it.

  6. Trebuchet says

    My late mother heard the broadcast live in her sorority house at the University of Nebraska. She said the girls were pretty panicky, trying to make long-distance calls home (a big deal in 1938!) and such.

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