It was a sleepy Sunday evening in 1938, and millions of Americans thought the world was coming to an end.
Already jittery from news of an ascendant Adolf Hitler causing trouble in Europe, they were sent over the edge by radio reports of a Martian landing in Grovers Mill, New Jersey. In short order, the invaders laid waste to everyone who tried to stop them, and experts from government and the academy could barely stammer their way through explanations.
A disclaimer was aired 40 minutes into the broadcast, but by then it was all but too late. People had called their loved ones to warn them of the impending disaster. Still others had taken to the streets, looking for evidence of the carnage, or just trying to get somewhere safe. A nation had been thoroughly panicked, thanks to the talents of a precocious wunderkind and his fellow thespians.
Except it didn’t exactly go that way.
War of the Worlds, the Mercury Theater of the Air’s radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ short story “The War of the Worlds”, was a landmark event in the history of radio. It demonstrated the full artistic potential of the still-young medium, as well as its power to move an audience. And it put Orson Welles, the 23-year-old mastermind behind the production, on the national map. But the frenzy it allegedly sparked was blown out of proportion in the hours and days after the broadcast. Most of its listeners, in fact, quickly and easily surmised that the show was nothing more than a sci-fi story expertly told.
A. Brad Schwartz dissects myth from reality in Broadcast Hysteria, a deeply researched account of the broadcast and its aftermath. Building his story from letters listeners wrote after the show, Schwartz points a finger at a likelier source of the consternation: newspapers, which used the event to trumpet themselves as the voice of reason in a rapidly expanding media universe.
What had happened was… much of the audience had tuned in late, or had gotten phone calls from worried friends and neighbors. They wondered about the ruckus, but looked outside their windows and saw nothing but business as usual. They called the police or their local newspaper and, hearing no confirmation of impending doom, went back to their lives. Eventually, those who tuned into the broadcast were reassured that it was all a dramatization, with Welles’ coda reminding everyone that the next day was Halloween.
But newspapers blew the story out of proportion with sensational headlines in their next editions. They ran with hyped accounts of supposed panic, which were all nothing but rumors. There were a few listeners who bit hard, and some in New Jersey who rushed to the site of the alleged invasion, but there was nothing to support the breathless accounts the press published.
Over the years, the hype became the story. But two groups of letters lead to a more complicated interpretation. Schwartz surveys both, including a recently unearthed cache of 1,400 letters written to Welles and the Mercury troupe in the days after the show. The vast majority of those letters congratulated Welles for telling a heck of a ghost story, and even questioned the intelligence of those who fell for it.
The latter writers were probably too harsh in such judgments. The production, although it did not congeal until just before airtime, was expertly done, made to seem like a regular network radio show with an announcer cutting in to “report” on the goings-on in Grovers Mill. Sound effects and strong performances, not Martians, created the impression of a siege. The only actual invasion that night was by cops and reporters, who rushed to the studio after the show to find out what the heck was going on (and sweep the building for explosives, in response to some not-at-all-fake bomb threats).
Schwartz reports the show’s aftermath prompted Congressional curiosity, which thankfully went nowhere after an attempt to essentially censor radio’s dramatic potential died on the vine. In fact, print media’s response shows that it, too, felt itself on the defensive. Schwartz suggests that newspapers may have taken the opportunity to scold radio for being irresponsible peddlers of panic – not because they were genuinely concerned about the populace, but rather because they were jealous of radio’s potential to bring live news from far-off locales directly into American homes, as had been happening in the previous years.
“The War of the Worlds” presented scholars with a chance to study how audiences reacted to rumours prompted by a broadcast. But it turned out to be something of a missed opportunity, as the projects fell victim to faulty assumptions and infighting among the researchers. One finding, however, continues to resonate in today’s media landscape. It noted some people could be persuaded to spread misinformation among their peers, especially if it agreed with their worldview. Thus, listeners who at the time were inclined to fear an invasion by Germany or some sort of Biblical reckoning were more likely to buy into a yarn about a gang of Martians taking over the Earth.
Schwartz also identifies “The War of the Worlds” as a milestone in the whipping up of fake news, drawing connections to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. But the accounts on those TV shows aren’t meant to be taken with full gravitas; although actual events are shown and discussed, we know going in that these aren’t straight news shows. Anybody listening to “The War of the Worlds” from the beginning would have known the truth, but millions made curious by the frightened calls of others tuned in after the show had begun to see if it was “real” news. If anything, “The War of the Worlds” was the first, and perhaps still the most spectacular, example of a pop culture event going viral in real time (and, in this case, before reason could intervene).
Broadcast Hysteria may well turn out to be the definitive account of this fascinating moment in American media history. Schwartz captures everything about the show’s genesis, from the real-world political tensions in the air to the backstage melodrama surrounding the creation of the broadcast. He uncovers a story that is much bigger and more nuanced than the legend we’ve received over the years. Maybe it’s not as scary as a dramatized Martian landing, but it’s just as skillfully done, with as much attention to detail as the Mercury Theater invested in the show itself.
Through it all, “The War of the Worlds” has enjoyed a strange afterlife. It includes a recreation in Ecuador that went tragically wrong, and the embrace of the myth by the actual town of Grovers Mill in the name of tourism. But it was Welles himself who came out the winner in the end. With this heralded achievement under his belt, he wrangled a movie deal with RKO Pictures (never mind that his entire experience to that point had been on stage and on the air). But the first ventures never got off the ground, Welles had a famous (and literal) flame-out with longtime collaborator John Houseman, and RKO didn’t get the film version of “The War of the Worlds” it wanted. Instead, it got Citizen Kane. And the rest is very real history.