W. Joseph Campbell

The ‘War of the Worlds’ radio show produced a ‘Paul Revere effect’

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, Media myths and radio on October 31, 2011 at 5:15 pm

I call it the “Paul Revere” effect, and it helps explain the many reports of fright associated with the radio dramatization 73 years ago of The War of the Worlds, a clever program that told of a lethal Martian invasion of Earth.

The radio show aired October 30, 1938, and supposedly stirred panic and hysteria across the United States — a delicious narrative that I debunk in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, as a media-driven myth.

I also discuss in Getting It Wrong the seldom-examined “Paul Revere effect” associated with The War of the Worlds program, which was the work of Orson Welles and his “Mercury Theatre on the Air” troupe.

This effect occurred when well-intentioned people who had little more than an incomplete understanding of The War of the Worlds broadcast decided individually and on their own to warn others about what they thought was a sudden and terrible threat.

These self-motivated Paul Reveres, I write in Getting It Wrong, “burst into churches, theaters, taverns, and other public places, shouting that the country was being invaded or bombed, or that the end of the world was near.”

I note that it must “have been a cruel and unnerving way of receiving word of a supposedly calamitous event — to be abruptly disturbed in familiar settings by a vague reports offered by people who themselves clearly were terror-stricken.”

The unsuspecting recipients of these invariably garbled, second- and third-hand accounts of calamity had no immediate way of verifying the wrenching news they had heard. Unlike the audiences of Welles’ dramatization, they could not spin the radio dial to find out whether other networks were reporting an invasion from Mars.

Scrutiny of contemporaneous newspaper accounts reveals numerous cases of this false-alarm contagion. This meant that people who had not heard not a word of The War of the Worlds show were themselves fearstricken, if only briefly.

In New York, for example, some apartment houses “were hurriedly emptied by frantic listeners to the program and by those who heard second- and third-hand accounts multiplying the supposed peril,” the Newark Star-Eagle reported.

“Many of the panic-stricken did not hear the original broadcast but got their misinformation from others,” the newspaper said.

A Methodist church service in Indianapolis was disrupted that night “when an hysterical woman member of the congregation entered shortly after worship had begun,” the Indianapolis Star reported.

The woman rushed to the pulpit, telling the pastor, “Something so terrible has happened that I must interfere.”

She told worshippers that “New York has been destroyed” and added: “I believe the end of the world has come. I heard it over the radio.”

The pastor offered a short prayer and excused anyone who wanted to return home. Several members of the choir “doffed robes and went from the church, followed by a portion of the congregation,” the Star reported. But the service continued.

Soon, several members of the congregation returned, explaining sheepishly that the alarm had been caused by nothing more than a misunderstood radio show.

As I note in Getting It Wrong, it is impossible to estimate the cumulative effect of the false-alarm contagion that night. But the second- and third-hand accounts, spread Paul Revere-like, stirred some measure of evanescent apprehension among untold thousands of people who had not listened to the program.

It is tempting to suggest, I write, “that what radio-induced fear there was that night was mostly spread by credulous people who heard muddled and fragmentary accounts about the program and set about to alert others,” on their own.


Recent and related:

  1. […] blogged about the dubious “panic broadcast,” too, as posts here, here, here, and here indicate. I’ve also written about The War of the Worlds myth for the BBC online. Others have […]

  2. […] would-be Paul Reveres, I wrote, “burst into churches, theaters, taverns, and other public places, shouting that the […]

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