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Making Sense of "Panic Broadcast" War of the Worlds (1938)

If you haven't heard Orson Welle's 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast that aired on this day in 1938, you owe it to yourself to give it a listen. While many stories today will revist the broadcast as causing "mass hyesteria," many of the accounts in the press were false. However, many cities took thousands of calls from relatives concered about their loved ones in the cities from the play. While many were aware that the book by H.G. Wells took place in Europe, Orson Welles and Howard Koch altered the radio play to take place in the United States using real locations. This was undoubtedly a stroke of genius.

Those who didn't tune in immediatedly were most easily duped. The opening of the show clearly states that it is a Mercury Theater adaptation of the famous novel, however, the play quickly appears to get disjointed as we hear the network supposedly jump from place to place trying to make sense of some new observations on Mars. The only "station break" was not until 40 minutes into the play and by this time anyone who would be concered was already on the phone or (supposedly) out the door. In addition, Welles added many lengthy pauses that were not in the script to increase the appearance of breaking and unpredictable news.

It is important to remember that the 1930s were a decade where people trusted the radio. Audiences were used to hearing not only news but the president via his "fireside chats." During and after the Great Depression the United States was a fractured nation that turned to the radio for a sense of community and hope for the future. In addition, growing concerns over the war in Europe left many fearful of Earth-bound enemy invasion on our own soil. Therefore, those who didn't tune in right away and began hearing of "invasion" did not necessarily believe there were aliens but rather an invasion from the Axis.

The next day Welles spoke to the media and apologized, acting as if he did not know the broadcast would have any impact. The truth is that Welles' and co-writer Howard Koch were so determined to create an impression of real panic that they studied the footage and reporting from the Hindenberg disaster that occured the previous year. If you've heard War of the Worlds, it will be easy to see the similarities between the infamous Hindenberg broadcast (see it below).

After the broadcast, the press quickly jumped at the opportunity to stir the pot. Articles claiming that the radio play led the country into mass hysteria became commonplace. Some papers went as far as to make up specific stories claiming that listeners began firing shots at water towers because they were mistaken for the alien tripods in the play. An infamous staged photo shows an old man near his barn brandishing a shotgun as a result of the embellished panic.

Of course, such claims were false and this is where armchair critics love to call the whole panic a hoax. The truth, however, is that the city manager of Trenton, New Jersey sent an angry letter to the FCC urging them to never air such a program again. Communication in the city was crippled and if there was a real emergency, the results could have been be tragic. In addition, the New York Times took thousands of phone calls and the New Jersey telephone companies reported about 100,000 extra calls that night beyond the usual traffic. The country was not in total unrest over the program as the legend would have it, but many people (usually older) fell for the Halloween prank.

War of the Worlds and its afterman has taught us many things. First, it is a reminder that we shouldn't believe everything we hear on the radio or read in the newspaper. Second, this event displayed that fragility of a nation that was on the verge of war and still feeling the impact of the Great Depression. While this broadcast has its place in history for taking advantatge of a vulnerable zeitgeist, future adaptations of this play sparked fear and outrage in subsequent decades. Ultimately it all boils down to media literacy. Those most familiar with popular culture (and therefore different types of narrative) reacted with amusement instead of fear.

I will leave you with Orson Welle's final words in the broadcast:

So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian. . .it's Halloween.

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