W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Hysteria’

The mythical ‘panic broadcast’: Tired cliché of Halloween

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Media myths and radio, Newspapers, War of the Worlds on October 30, 2015 at 9:16 am

Welles and The War of the Worlds

The days around Halloween can be among the most myth-indulgent of the year, given the many media reminders about The War of the Worlds radio dramatization that aired 77 years ago tonight.

The hour-long show, which aired on CBS radio and starred 23-year-old Orson Welles, was so vivid in telling of the invasion of Earth by Martians wielding deadly heat rays that tens of thousands of Americans supposedly were convulsed in panic and mass hysteria.

Or as the Indianapolis Star put it the other day, “Pandemonium swept the nation that evening” in 1938.

Or as the Louisville Courier-Journal said about the program, “unsuspecting listeners reacted in horror while listening to descriptions of a devastating landing of ‘ferocious Martian invaders.'”

And so it goes: Late October brings predictable references to the “panic broadcast” of 1938 and to the upheaval it supposedly caused. It’s so predictable as to have become a cliché.

That the program set off widespread panic and mass hysteria also is a hoary media myth, a myth that offers deceptive messages about the influence radio wielded over listeners decades ago and about the media’s capacity to sow terror and alarm. There is scant evidence that The War of the Worlds had such effects: Whatever fright there was that night 77 years ago did not reach nationwide proportions.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, had panic spread across America during The War of the Worlds broadcast, the resulting trauma and turmoil surely would have resulted in deaths, including suicides, and in serious injuries.

But nothing of the sort — no deaths, no suicides, no serious injuries — were conclusively linked to the show.

Moreover, newspapers in 1938 would have devoted extensive coverage to the consequences of the extraordinary phenomenon of nationwide panic and mass hysteria — had it occurred. But after an initial burst of misleading and highly exaggerated reporting about the show’s supposed panic-inducing effects, large-city U.S. newspapers quickly dropped The War of the Worlds story.

What, then, accounts for the enduring fascination with a long ago radio show, the effects of which have been routinely hyped and overblown?

It is, for starters, famous, or infamous, for what it suggests about the presumptive dark power of mass media.

It is, moreover, a deliciously clever story, one well-suited for retelling at Halloween.

Indeed, the show is often rebroadcast, or re-enacted, this time of year — which serves to reintroduce and celebrate the performance, keeping it fresh in the popular consciousness.

The “panic broadcast” also lives on because it allows contemporary media consumers to indulge, if quietly and privately, in a bit of smugness — that we would never be so gullible as to believe such a media hoax; we are too media-savvy. But back then, in the 1930s when radio was still new, they weren’t so sophisticated: They were more naïve, more easily duped by exaggerated media messages.

This is known as the third-person effect, the belief that others are more credulous, or more susceptible to media influences, than we are.

Such smugness has helped keep alive the tired Halloween cliché of The War of the Worlds.


More from Media Myth Alert:

Area 51 book offers implausible, myth-based tale

In Debunking, Media myths, War of the Worlds on May 21, 2011 at 6:45 am

I had a chance yesterday to thumb through Area 51, Annie Jacobsen’s provocative new book, which says Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was behind the crash-landing of an alien-like spacecraft in New Mexico in 1947, in a one-off bid to sow panic in America — much like the fright supposedly caused by the War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938.

Welles and 'War of Worlds'

I found Jacobsen’s speculative claim as absurd and far-fetched as it is implausible.

It’s based on a single, unnamed source, and it draws sustenance from a media-driven myth.

According to Jacobsen, the strange craft contained children who had been “biologically and/or surgically reengineered” to look like space aliens, with large eyes and large heads.  “Stalin sent … the craft over New Mexico hoping it would land there,” she writes, adding:

“Stalin’s plan was for the children to climb out and be mistaken for visitors from Mars. Panic would ensue, just like it did after the radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds.”

Oh, right. Sure.

As I discuss in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, “the panic and mass hysteria so readily associated with The War of The Worlds program did not occur on anything approaching nationwide dimension” when it aired October 30, 1938.

While some Americans may have been briefly frightened or disturbed by the program, “most listeners, overwhelmingly, were not: They recognized it for what it was — an imaginative and entertaining show on the night before Halloween,” I note in Getting It Wrong.

Had the radio program — which starred and was directed by Orson Welles — provoked widespread panic and hysteria, newspapers for days and even weeks afterward would have published details about the upheaval and its repercussions. As it was, though, newspapers dropped the overblown story after only a day or two.

Significantly, no deaths, serious injuries, or suicides were associated with Welles’ program. Had panic and hysteria indeed swept the country that night in 1938, many people surely would have been killed and badly injured in the tumult.

The War of the Worlds radio dramatization aired on a Sunday from 8-9 p.m. (Eastern), when most newspaper newsrooms were thinly staffed.

Reporting on the reactions to The War of The Worlds broadcast posed no small challenge for morning newspapers with tight deadlines.

“Given the constraints of time and staffing,” I write in Getting It Wrong, “relying on wire services such as the Associated Press became essential. This dependency, in turn, had the effect of promoting and deepening the notion that panic was widespread that night: On a late-breaking story of uncertain dimension and severity, many newspapers took their lead from wire service dispatches.

“They had little choice.”

The AP’s reports about the program essentially were roundups of reactions culled from the agency’s bureaus across the country, I write. Typically, AP roundups emphasized sweep — pithy, anecdotal reports quickly gathered from many places — over depth and searching detail.

The anecdotes about people frightened by the show tended to be sketchy, shallow, small-bore. But their scope contributed to a mistaken sense that radio-inspired fear was widespread that night.

The reliance on superficial wire service roundups helps explain the consensus among U.S. newspapers that the broadcast had created a lot of fright, even mass panic.

Stalin  may well have had intelligence resources to have known that, to have understood that U.S. news reports of mass panic and widespread hysteria following The War of the Worlds broadcast had been exaggerated.

Jacobsen’s far-fetched claim falters on another point: Why would sending bizarre-looking aviators to thinly populated, postwar New Mexico have created panic across the United States?

Rural New Mexico would have been among the least likely places in the country for Stalin to have deployed a mission to stir panic in the United States. Especially since the aviators were not armed with the kind of lethal heat rays that the invading Martians wielded in The War of the Worlds story.


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