Welles' War of the Words


It’s supposedly a well known story. In 1938, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater radio show decided to jazz things up a bit by doing a modern day rendition of the famous book “War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells. The book, only forty years old at that point, told the story of a Martian attack on London. Aside from being a pretty heavy analogy on British imperialism, it was also dull as hell. Though lots of different people claim credit for coming up with the idea, it was eventually decided to present the story via a series of fake news casts interrupting a pretend show playing music. By which I mean the cast and crew, shitting their pants over how completely boring the story was going to be, just kind of threw together a cockamamie scheme right before the broadcast began. For the listeners at home, a brief announcement that the upcoming story was completely fiction was followed by 40 uninterrupted minutes of pure lunacy. Through the fake news bulletins, the radio show followed the fictionalized account of a strange cylinder landing near the real town of Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. Eventually the cylinder opens, revealing Martians, who start killing people willy-nilly. The army is sent in, but is defeated, people rush to flee the onslaught, and the Martians attack New York City. All pretty standard science fiction for the day.

Now according to the stories spread about the broadcast, Americans at the time were apparently stupid as shit. Taking the radio broadcast to be real, millions of people across the country panicked. People reportedly fled their homes en masse, running from the coming Martians. Roving bands of armed men roved the streets. Some people became so hysterical that they had heart attacks, while others contemplated suicide in order to end things on their terms. Phones at police stations and newspaper offices rang constantly, and hospital waiting rooms were overwhelmed by people injured in the wild flailing around of society. The newspapers the next day were filled with hundreds of such stories from across the nation. American’s demanded Orson Welles’ head for the stunt, and he was forced to issue an official apology. Today it stands as one of the greatest stories of mass hysteria in American history, which it is, just not in the way you think.

If you haven’t guessed the premise of all this yet, then you might have fallen for such shenanigans if you lived back then. That’s right. It was almost all completely bullshit. To start, not many people actually tuned into the radio show. The Mercury Theater wasn’t that widely listened to of shows. It was in the same time slot as one of the most popular shows on the radio at the time, which starred the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. That’s right, the most popular radio show of 1938 was a ventriloquist act. I’ll let that sink in for a moment. Okay, back to business. So again, not very many people even listened to the broadcast of War of the Worlds, and even fewer actually panicked. Now that’s not to say that some didn’t. After all, the United States had a population of 130 million people back then, just based on statistics there were bound to be some idiots. There were some reports of panics. For instance, across the nation the occasional person did call in to their local police, newspaper, or radio station to ask if the radio show was real, especially from listeners in New Jersey. As well, in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, purported center of the invasion, a couple of drunks did go out with rifles and shoot at the town’s water tower. So yeah, there were definitely some idiots out there, but a bunch of idiots out there is pretty different than an entire country freaking the fuck out.

This was something that Orson Welles figured out pretty quickly after his initial apology. In interviews afterwards he pretty much said the whole thing was overblown and ridiculous, though later in life he himself did play it up as some grand wide reaching scheme that he cooked up for publicity. According to the newspapers of the day, the panic was proof of how easily the new fangled thing called radio could manipulate the public. In truth, it was actually proof of how easily journalists could do the same, conflating a couple of random reports into a nationwide story. To understand why the newspapers would do such a thing, one only has to understand what was happening within the industry. Newspapers, once the only source for news in the country, were facing increasing competition from radios and movie theater news reels. Readership was declining, which meant advertising revenue was doing the same, and some pundits were predicting the eventual end of newspapers all together. It was pretty much the same as when newspapers print disparaging articles about the internet.

Outside of the newspaper accounts, there exists little to no proof of any kind of panic. A researcher did put together a study in 1940 suggesting millions freaked out, but later critics pointed out that the study was pretty much just made up. As for the newspapers, they kept hammering on the story for about three weeks, with a number of stories bluntly claiming that radio listeners were all mentally deficient, but finally abandoned it to go back to actually reporting on things like the real news. However, by that time the story had reached Adolf Hitler in Germany, who mentioned the so-called panic in one of his speeches as an example of the decadent corruption created by democracy. As for Orson Welles, the whole mess catapulted his career, allowing him to secure funding for a little film called "Citizen Kane”, which became one of the most famous movies in history.