The Panic That Never Actually Panicked

In 1898, English novelist H.G. Wells published a novel entitled The War of the Worlds in which a spaceship from Mars lands on Earth, inciting panic and leading to conflict between humans and extraterrestrials. It was groundbreaking for its time, highly popular, and still ranks among the most read and most celebrated science fiction novels of all times.

It also factors largely into one of the most widely circulated tall tales of all time: the 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast which caused widespread panic and hysteria when millions mistook it for a real news bulletin.

But did that actually happen?

On October 30, 1938, music on the Columbia Broadcasting System was interrupted by an announcer reporting that Professor Farrell of the Mount Jenning Observatory had detected explosions on the planet Mars. The music resumed but was soon interrupted again with another announcement that “at 8.50pm a huge, flaming object, believed to be a meteorite, fell on a farm in New Jersey.”

Carl Phillips, a reporter at the scene, broke through to describe a metal cylinder whose top was starting to open. In a voice marked by rising panic, he went to say:

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed. . . Wait a minute! Someone’s crawling. Someone or . . . something. I can see peering out of that black hole two luminous disks . . . are they eyes? It might be a face. It might be . . . good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake.

“Now it’s another one, and another one, and another one. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing’s body. It’s large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face, it . . . ladies and gentlemen, it’s indescribable.

“I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, it’s so awful. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is kind of V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate.”

His account was vivid, his terror palpable. In the background, listeners could almost hear the creatures emerging, the horrified yells of the onlookers, the footsteps as hundreds began to flee.

Of course, none of it was real. Carl Phillips was actually Orson Welles, a twenty-three year old actor working with the Mercury Theater Company reading a script inside a sound stage.

But, as legend goes, many missed the announcement at the beginning of the program that the story was fiction. As the narrative progressed with the evacuation of New York and the disintegration of thousands by the Martians’ “heat ray,” supposedly, reports began to flood in about panicked citizens filling the streets, overloading police circuit boards, and huddling in shelters. The next day, newspapers across the country blasted headlines such as “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact; Many Flee Homes to Escape ‘Gas Raid’ from Mars” (New York Times) and “Fake Radio War Stirs Terror Through US” (Daily News).

The only problem is that it wasn’t true.

Although some people did mistake the broadcast for real, leading to phone calls to both CBS and the police, it was never on the scale in which the newspapers reported. Far from the widely accepted notion that “millions” were deceived, the number was only in the thousands and heavily localized rather than country-wide. In fact, research has found that a majority of Americans weren’t even listening to the program, as the broadcast was airing at the same time as the Chase and Sanborn Hour, the most popular show in that time slot. In addition, the number of complaints received by the FCC after the broadcast were far fewer than a number of other controversial radio programs at the time–further proof that, even among those listening, the fright was limited or short-term. Although phone calls to police stations were up, most citizens–if they were calling about the program–were calling to find out more information, not to panic or demand police action. A letter later published by The Washington Post described empty streets on the night in question. Even firsthand accounts from newspaper men themselves paint a different story. In 1954, Ben Gross, the New York Daily News’ radio editor, published a memoir in which he recalled the streets of Manhattan being deserted as his taxi sped to CBS headquarters just as War of the Worlds was ending.

So why the dis-information? Blame it on good old-fashioned jealousy. Radio, the up and coming new media, had soared in popularity and siphoned off advertising revenue from slower-paced print sources during the Depression. Radio offered instant news and immersive entertainment in ways in which print media simply couldn’t compete. Lacking money and facing further declining sales and profits, newspapers seized the opportunity presented by Welles’ program to discredit radio as a source of news. The newspaper industry sensationalized the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted.

While their efforts on this respect failed, what newspapers did manage to achieve was a story that soon reached legendary proportions. It wasn’t long before news outlets as far away as Australia were reporting on the “mass hysteria” of a feigned alien invasion. The story became a story that became a story.

Welles, for his part, aware that the episode made him a household name, embraced the story and wove it into the tapestry of his persona. “Houses were emptying, churches were filling up; from Nashville to Minneapolis there was wailing in the streets and the rending of garments,” he said years later.

Because who really wants a little thing like facts when the legend is so delightfully fascinating?

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