W. Joseph Campbell

Mythical ‘War of the Worlds’ radio show adapted to stage

In Debunking, Media myths, Media myths and radio, War of the Worlds on October 8, 2010 at 9:15 am

Orson Welles’ famous radio dramatization in 1938 of the War of the Worlds was an adaptation of the 1898 novel of the same title by H.G. Wells.

And Welles’ radio show–the source for what has become a delicious and tenacious media-driven myth, one debunked in my new book, Getting It Wrong–has been adapted to the stage. A run of the World of Wars, based on Welles’  radio adaptation, opened last night at a theater in Tampa. (The Tampa production, to be clear, is not the first stage adaptation of Welles’ version of War of the Worlds. There have been others.)

In publicizing the stage production, Tampa’s alternative newspaper, Creative Loafing, offered up the myth that Welles’ program in 1938 created mass panic and nationwide hysteria.

The Creative Loafing write-up said:

“Welles presented the first two-thirds of 1938 radio broadcast as a series of fake news bulletins, which listeners believed and in turn incited mass hysteria.

“People really thought that an alien invasion by Martians was really in progress.”

Both paragraphs are in error.

The War of the Worlds show, which aired on CBS radio on October 30, 1938, made clever and effective use of simulated news bulletins about an invasion of Earth by Martians wielding deadly heat rays. But “fake news bulletins” comprised nothing close to two-thirds of Welles’ hour-long program.

The program’s use of simulated bulletins was intermittent, and largely confined to the opening 20 minutes, by which time it sounded as if the Earth were under alien attack.

But as I write in Getting It Wrong, “Listeners who followed closely would have easily recognized that events moved far too quickly to be plausible.” It took the invaders less than a half an hour to blast off from Mars, crash-land on Earth, and launch their deadly onslaught.

Most listeners–in overwhelming numbers–recognized the show for what it was: Great entertainment on the eve of Halloween. Surveys taken in the days following the show found that a fraction of the radio audience was “frightened,” “disturbed,” or “excited” by what they heard.

The terms were those of Hadley Cantril, a Princeton University psychologist who investigated the aftermath of the War of the Worlds program. In his 1940 book, The Invasion From Mars, Cantril estimated the program attracted no fewer than 6 million listeners, of whom at least 1.2 million were “frightened,” “disturbed,” or “excited.”

Cantril did not explain what the terms meant; nor did he offer estimates about how many people acted on their fears.

In any case, being “frightened,” “disturbed,” or “excited” was far from being convulsed in panic or driven to hysteria.

Cantril’s estimates signal that most listeners were neither panic-stricken nor fear-struck. Even though his data indicate that comparatively few listeners were upset by the show, Cantril offered the inconsistent view that “[l]ong before the broadcast had ended people all over the United States were praying, crying, fleeing frantically to escape death from Martians.”

The Invasion From Mars became the cornerstone study of audience reaction to the War of the Worlds program. It has been recognized as something of an early landmark in mass communication research.

But over the past 20 years or so, Cantril’s findings about the War of the Worlds “have been challenged by sociologists and others who point out that mass hysteria and panic are rare and, given their transient nature, difficult to study,” as I note in Getting It Wrong. “Cantril, they say, failed to demonstrate that panicked reactions and flight were widespread among listeners to the show.”

I point out that Robert E. Bartholomew, “an authority on mass hysteria and social delusions, has said that ‘a growing consensus among sociologists that the extent of the panic, as described by Cantril, was greatly exaggerated.'”

Bartholomew also wrote that only “scant anecdotal evidence” exists “to suggest that many listeners actually took some action—such as packing belongings, grabbing guns, or fleeing in cars after hearing the broadcast.”

I also write in Getting It Wrong:

“Had mass panic and hysteria indeed swept the country that night, the trauma and turmoil surely would have resulted in many deaths and injuries. But the newspaper reports were notably silent on casualties.” Those reports, I write, “contained few references to injury or adverse health effects linked to the program.”


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