On the evening of October 30, 1938, CBS radio broadcast an adaptation of H. G. Well's War of the Worlds, the 1898 novel about a Martian invasion of Earth, as part of the radio drama series Mercury Theatre on the Air. Written and directed by Orson Welles (left), the program was mostly in the form of simulated news bulletins. For decades stories have been told about the panic that ensued when many listeners jumped to the conclusion they were listening to an actual news broadcast.
The next day The New York Times reported that "Throughout New York families left their homes...Thousands of persons called the police." The nation's newspaper of record quoted an eyewitness who said that the streets of Manhattan were filled with people "milling around in panic." Some listeners were said to have committed suicide. Others had heart attacks.
It's a compelling story. Too bad it's not true. A few listeners apparently did mistake the radio play for live news, but there were so few of them their panicked reactions could hardly be called mass hysteria. The bottom line about War of the Worlds is that almost no one listened it. Mercury Theatre on the Air had the worst time slot imaginable. It ran at the same time as the most popular radio show in America: a comedy-variety program on NBC called The Chase and Sanborn Hour (right).
So why the story of mass panic? Blame the newspapers. For years print media had been losing both subscribers and advertising revenue to radio: editors jumped at the chance to attack radio as unreliable and even a danger to public safety.
As Orson Welles left the CBS studio after the broadcast he was mobbed by reporters questioning him about his role in creating national hysteria and chaos. Welles believed them and was horrified. But he shouldn't have felt so bad: this obscure director of a struggling acting troupe was now internationally famous.
If you want to learn more about the broadcast and the story behind the supposed widespread panic, you should read Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles' War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News. If you want to learn more about Orson Welles, you could read one of the numerous biographies or the chapter devoted to him in a work of American cultural history published last year, American Rhapsody. And if you've never seen Welle's masterwork, Citizen Kane, you should
A week later (Nov. 6) The Boston Globe sought to reassure any troubled readers with the article, "Why Earth is Safe From Men of Mars," explaining that conditions on the planet were unlikely to be capable of sustaining life. However, the Globe opined, "Venus may be inhabited by superior beings."