War of the Worlds Radio Panic of 1938 was no Myth

          October 30th was the 75th anniversary of the War of the Worlds radio play, infamous for the panic it triggered in the United States. And it did indeed trigger a panic, contrary to a new book that was featured in a Slate Magazine article on Oct 28th.

1920s-radio           Two quick points. One, I have a dog in this fight, as I authored a short story called Theater on the Air which deals with a rural family who become caught up in the event. Secondly, the new book, War of the Worlds to Social Media by Jefferson Pooley and Michael Socolow, is quite correct that the panic was exaggerated by the print media of the time. The newspapers seized on the incident to cudgel the newborn radio news industry, which was starting to get competitive. 

          I have not read the book, but based on what was said in the Slate article there is no reason to suppose that “no panic” or “almost no panic” occurred that night. The case for denying the panic overlooks some facts about human nature, as well as some events that are known to have taken place at the time. It is true that the panic was smaller than most documentaries make it out to be, but something happened, and indeed we will never know the true dimensions of the craziness of that night.

Not something you admitted to

          You see, it is embarrassing to be deceived by a hoax, especially something as absurd as rampaging Martian monsters. Not everyone who believed the broadcast would have admitted to it. The embarrassment was national, too, remember. Though this aspect of it is rarely mentioned by anybody, the national reputation got a little black eye that night. Americans were made to look like gullible fools before the whole world. That was probably the main reason why the news media dropped all mention of the incident after a few days, although Pooley and Socolow claim this as evidence that there was no real panic. 

          Pooley and Socolow make much of the low ratings of the Welles broadcast, but most of the panic would not have come from people who directly heard the show. It was the second-hand and third-hand rumors that snowballed into hysteria. Those who actually heard the show were more like catalysts, transferring their emotions to others, who did the same in turn. Also, broadcast ratings in 1938 were probably not quite as accurate as what Neilsen offers us today. Who knows how many dial-twirlers caught part of that national broadcast?

 

Old Radio Performers

There can be no doubt that the newspapers hyped the panic for all it was worth, but a long enough list of vignettes has emerged that it begs the question, were they all fabricated? These tidbits from the New York Times paint a picture of something that, if not panic, doesn’t sound like much fun! Panic is a relative term. People can panic in private. It need not be throngs screaming in the city center.

Letter from 1938

          Someone in my family has a letter written by her father in 1938, when he was a student at North Carolina State University. The letter, which I have seen, says numerous students on campus had listened to the broadcast and became very agitated about it, thinking it to be reality.

 

          If you have heard the tape of the broadcast I don’t see how you could doubt it might engender some degree of panic. Parts of it are absolutely spine-chilling, and contain numerous Wellsian gimmicks that no one had ever heard before, like the shrieks of heat-ray blasted soldiers that end abruptly in total stone silence for several seconds.  

 

More than a Kernel of Truth

          Would it not require a panic of some size for the newspapers to have something to exaggerate? They all seized on the story the next morning, with headlines blaring. Exaggeration is not the same as “nothing happened.” Why did Orson Welles deliver his famous apology if nothing happened? Granted, there is no such thing as bad publicity, but neither can one apologize for nothing and not look kind of strange.

 

          The final postscript on all this is even more surreal and insane than what happened on October 30th, 1938. It turns out that on the night of February 12th, 1949, a radio station in Quito, Ecuador, had the astounding poor judgment to stage a re-enactment of the War of the Worlds broadcast. The results are not in question. Panic ensued in a significant percentage of Quito’s population of a quarter million. When they learned they had been fooled, they were neither silent nor generous about it. A mob formed, attacked the radio station, and burned it to the ground. Six people died.

 

          My story Theater on the Air is part of Tales of Real and Dream Worlds. (2006)

Bookmark the permalink.