I’ve always had this nagging suspicion that the stories of the panic that followed the broadcast of The War of the Worlds for radio by a young, pre-movie stardom Orson Welles and based on the equally famous science fiction novel by H. G. Wells (no relation) were exaggerated.
Granted, all this happened a long time ago -1938 to be exact- and mass media wasn’t quite as overwhelming as today so most of the stories I read furthered the idea that the broadcast did create a panic. Yet I couldn’t help but think for this to have happened, we had to believe people back then were, bluntly, rubes. Easily swayed. Easily fooled.
But let me back up a moment. The story of the radio broadcast of The War of the World goes like this: The radio-play was presented as a “newscast” and it was the nature of the serious “reporting” within the play itself that fooled many people into thinking the events unfolding were actually real, that Earth/New Jersey was being invaded by Martians at this very moment. Naturally, this was what supposedly caused the panic that followed.
Again, the question I (and others of course) asked was exactly how much of this panic was true?
In honor of 75 Anniversary of the transmission, Jefferson Pooley and Michael Socolow offer a fascinating article for Slate.com exploring the myth and reality of what actually happened when Orson Welles and company staged their infamous radio play, and the reality of the “panic” that followed:
At the risk of ruining a big chunk of the article, the authors state there is scant evidence there was any “massive” panic at all (the article goes as far as saying almost no one was “fooled” into thinking there was a genuine invasion and what panic there was was so minimal as to be “immeasurable”).
Which brings up the more intriguing question: Where did this panic story come from and why?
I found the answer to that one of the more fascinating things in the article and, no, I won’t give it away here.
Give the article a read, it offers a fascinating window into myth making.