Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Panic! A War of the Worlds 75 years after a radio sensation.



In 1938, a radio and theater forward thinker, Orson Welles, decided to put on a little radio show for the Columbia Broadcasting Systems audiences. War of the Worlds. It was an adaption of the H.G. Wells novel of Martians landing on Earth and going to war on humanity. Only the writers updated it to take place wholly on the United States East Coast. Specifically the first reveal of Martians happens in the small town of Grover's Mill, New Jersey.

The decision was to go for reality. The most of the show would be recreations of news bulletins, detailing the latest events of the Martian assault on the United States.

It was a change in how many shows like this were done (Though it had already been tried to certain effect in Great Britain and Australia. -- Though most US listeners wouldn't be aware of that.). Using the form of normal news flashes to tell a far fetched tale was not one that radio listeners were used to. Hearing the structure of new coverage was bound to grab listener. And the show the story ran on Mercury Theater on the Air, which was a show that ran with no commercials. So there was no breaking of the story over it's one hour run. It was a continued stream of realism.

Welles, acting as the director, producer (with the respected John Houseman), actor, and narrator, was always one to push people's expectations. In theaters, and later film, he liked rocking the boat. (You can judge for yourself his success in this.) So playing with nightly radio listener, the night before Halloween, must have been a tempting opportunity.

The resulting broadcasst proved to be quite realistic.. He trained his "news people" by having them listen to the broadcast from the Hindenburg crash, so they could pick up how the real news reacted and sounded as a shocking tragedy hits. Listeners were taken with the results. And many were offended by how it sounded like the actual news. That just wasn't proper.


And then we have the stories of the others. The panicked masses. People sent running into the street. People brandishing guns. People firing into the skies. People rioting. People running for the hills to hide.

And for decades the accepted view by many was that there was a mass panic. That everyone was tricked by a silly radio show. The country went mad!!!

And the photos in the days after of Orson Welles apologizing for scaring people, and assuring them he had not intended to scare, helped cement for many the reality of this view.


But how much panic was there? People and media have claimed that millions (or at least 1 million) were terrified and panicked that night. But those numbers have never been substantiated.

True that stations were hit with many calls from people asking if what they were hearing was true. Then others made calls, and found service failing, and jumped to a conclusion that it was all true. And others came into the show and became terrified by hearing what sounded like news people telling them that they were being invaded, and then headed out.

It was 1938, war was breaking out in Europe. Battles were waging in the Pacific. And the idea that some danger had finally befallen them, some invasion, fit right into the dark fears that some had.

Actual photo from 1938.
So much of what ended up as stories of panic proves to be anecdotal. And you should never put too much wait on anecdotes. (As one sharp person once said, "The plural of anecdote isn't fact.") Despite talk about people panicking, running around with guns, and racing around in cars, there were no deaths or accidents proved to be tied to the show. Most of the "panicked calls" were people calling in confused about why a fantastical story was sounding like a news show. (And some apparently called to praise the show.)

So, yes, some people did get scared. Some may have even went out to their cabins. Some may have called in a panic into radio stations or to the police. But it was not a mass panic, or most of the country. It was a small number, mostly on the East Coast. And part of this came from people who raced out of their houses to tell people in other places about the danger, startling them briefly. But by the end of the night things had calmed down.

But the media saw a story that it could sell, and they embraced it. It was convenient. For sensationalized papers, it sold. Heck, even Hitler took to the idea of how stupid Americans were, to try and bolster himself and Germany.

And this idea has held on over many decades. As the fame of that night's broadcast grew, more people started claiming that they'd heard it, bolstering numbers and giving more suspect tales of the night. But that happens as events recede into history. You just need to be careful separating actual stories from the more fanciful ones. Heck, when American Institute of Public Opinion gathered data 6 months after the broadcast, they got the 1 million listener numbers that has long since proven to be ever dubious. But since it comes from the time of the broadcast it's given a cache of veracity.


And this is a lesson to take away from those events 75 years passed. And with so many more mediums for receiving data it is certain, you most always be careful where you get your information and whether you can trust it.

And when a myth fits nicely into your views, look at it a second time, and question it.

It's three quarters of a century later and this myth still persists. Be aware of the more recent myths around you.


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