On the eve of Halloween in 1938, Orson Welles’ The Mercury Theater on the Air presented a radio drama adaption of H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel, The War of the Worlds, on CBS. The next day, there were headlines in nearly all the prominent papers detailing mass panic, tales of people fleeing their homes, farmers roaming the land with guns to repel invaders, frightened people shooting at a water tower in the mistaken idea that it was a Martian. The figure that was thrown around, and is still thrown around (it was mentioned in an introduction to an H.G. Wells novel I own) is that around 1 million people were frightened by the broadcast, frightened that Martians were invading America. It was cited as proof both that people are incredibly gullible and also that the radio wielded unprecedented power over the masses.
The trouble is that the hysteria was grossly exaggerated, according to A. Brad Schwartz, in his extremely engaging book Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News. His book covers a variety of topics: the radio broadcast itself, Orson Welles (which might be tedious for those who are already familiar with his life, but I knew little and found the context fascinating ), about the state of radio in America in 1938, the nature of radio and people’s perceptions of its credibility, the fallout of the “The War of the Worlds” broadcast, the state of radio censorship in 1938, research into the nature of people’s reactions to the radio and a discussion of how the panic got blown out of proportion in the first place.
The script for the radio drama was mostly written by Howard Koch (who became a screenwriter who helped write Casablanca, as well as writing the screenplay for Letter From an Unknown Woman). Most people who participated in The Mercury Theater on the Air didn’t take H. G. Wells’ book very seriously and thought that it was mostly kid stuff. To breath a little life into it. Orson Welles came up with the idea of presenting the story as a news bulletin, with frequent interruptions and news’ flashes. Koch tried to update H.G. Wells’ story, which was set in England, by grounding it in real locations in America, with the Martians landing in Grover’s Mill, NJ. He used real street and city names, which lent verisimilitude to the broadcast.
But what Schwartz points out is that most of the people who were frightened by the broadcast did not actually believe that Martians were invading earth, contrary to popular representation. Most people did not catch all of the show (and most missed the opening, where Welles announced that the show was fiction) and as a result believed that either a foreign army was invading (possibly from some nation like Germany – the world had only recently come through the annexation of Czechoslovakia by Germany, which was reported on the radio, which was new for the radio to play such a prominent role in news reportage) or that some natural disaster had occurred, like a meteor strike.
Not only does Schwartz explain the myriad reasons why many people were frightened, but he also shows how the entire incident was blown out of proportion, primarily by newspapers. And readers simply accepted the supposed facts reported by newspapers, mostly because it confirmed their conviction that Americans were gullible. The real hysteria, Schwartz argues, was not caused by panicked listeners, but by the reporting. Suddenly, there was discussion about the power of radio, should radio be censored, did this demonstrate how fascism could come to America as Hitler had done in Germany.
But interestingly, many people feared censorship and there were far more letters written to the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) defending Welles and pleading for no censorship than there were from outraged listeners wanting the FCC to step in and prevent any abuse by broadcasting companies. The end result, Schwartz argues, is that American radio was too little regulated and that sponsors of radio shows ended up mostly dictating what was heard on air, resulting in less chances taken on diverse shows (like The Mercury Theater on the Air, which had a fairly small audience – it was allowed because broadcast companies had to prove to the FCC that they were educational).
I highly enjoyed the book and the context that Schwartz provides. It gives you a sense of what it would have been like to hear the show, what people were thinking and all the national and world news that went into the everyday understanding of people in 1938. The book also makes you think twice about accepting news, no matter how widely reported.
After the initial broadcast of “The War of the Worlds,” many people wanted CBS to re-broadcast it, but CBS refused for fear that they could accidentally cause a second panic. However, it is now available on youtube. Incidentally, the music for the The Mercury Theater on the Air was composed or arranged by Bernard Herrmann…and often conducted (he composed the score for Psycho, Taxi Driver, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, North By Northwest – not that there’s any music in this “The War of the Worlds”).
I can understand the confusion; you have to listen carefully to fully follow what is happening. There are lots of references to “the enemy,” as opposed to “martians” or “aliens.” There also isn’t a radio break until 40 minutes into the show, at which point there were a lot of relieved listeners.
And here is Orson Welles, talking to reporters about the incident. I found it interesting, in Broadcast Hysteria, to learn that for the longest time Orson Welles was primarily known for “The War of the Worlds” and the supposed mass panic and not for being a cutting edge director. It was only in the ’70s that he began to receive more general recognition for his work in films. Welles would later claim that he deliberately set up his “The War of the Worlds” so it would be taken seriously to show up radio and people’s gullibility, but Schwartz does not find that creditable. There seems to be a lot of evidence that Welles was shaken up after the broadcast by the reaction of the media and the supposed panic (he was told initially that people had died) and was even a little worried that it would ruin his career. Ultimately, it didn’t and Schwartz believes that it was his “The War of the Worlds” fame that he rode to Hollywood, even more so than the buzz he had generated from his presentation of “Julius Caesar” for The Mercury Theater, the theater company he founded with John Houseman. In this interview, he was mostly interested in damage control. He says he’s “terribly shocked to learn” that people believed that aliens were invading earth, but as Schwartz demonstrates, most people did not think that.