Cranks, Crack-pots, and Martians
On October 30, 1938, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) broadcast an adaptation of The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. The hour-long radio program began with an announcer introducing a musical performance and moments later interrupting with a special news bulletin describing the landing of Martians in New Jersey and their subsequent attacks with death rays. Although CBS made four announcements during the broadcast identifying it as a dramatic performance, millions of Americans who heard it were scared into some sort of action, many wrote letters. The newly created Federal Communications Commission received more than 600 letters about the broadcast, including the one featured here.
I love the underlining. I did not jump out of the window.
The War of the Worlds “panic” is one of several media myths that media historian W. Joseph Campbell has sought to debunk. He says that one reason the War of the Worlds panic story is so persistent is that the tale is “almost too good, too delicious not to be true.”
Moreover, the “panic broadcast” myth endures because it evokes the latent power of media content: Media messages have the potential to produce effects that are unpredictable, wide-ranging, and even dangerous.
The myth also lives on because it offers implicit reassurance for contemporary media audiences: It reminds and reassures them of their comparative sophistication. Back then, back in the 1930s, media audiences were pretty gullible, as the panicked reactions to The War of the Worlds suggest. But that’s not so much the case today, this line of thinking goes (which overlooks such recent stunts as the Colorado balloon boy and the TV report of the breakup of Belgium).
The story also fed the growing legend of wunderkind Orson Welles, and Welles himself wasn’t shy about helping it along. In an interview later on in his career with biographer Peter Bogdanovich, Welles described the response to his broadcast thusly:
“Houses were emptying, churches were filling up; from Nashville to Minneapolis, there was wailing in the street and the rending of garments.”