In 1938, the Mercury Theater of the Air, directed by
Orson Welles, aired weekly dramas, such as Treasure
Island, Dracula and Julius Caesar, over the CBS network
every Sunday night at 8 pm.. On October 30th 1938, it
aired H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds rendered
in the style of a radio news story with bulletins from
reporters played by actors in the Mercury Theater. Ten
minutes into the program, the announcer said: Ladies
and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make.
Incredible as it may seem, strange beings who landed
in New Jersey tonight are the vanguard of an invading
army from Mars. Then reporters announced snake-like
monsters emerging from space ships and slaughtering
Americans with their ray guns in Grovers Mill, New Jersey.
had identified itself as a fictional drama at the beginning
of the program, listeners who tuned it later understandably
were confused by the mock news bulletins. Consequently,
their were many calls to CBS stations and newspapers.
875 people called the New York Times. Although
this represented only a minute fraction of the radio
audience, the Times turned it into a front page story.
The next day,
Halloween, the New York Times banner headline
declared: FAKE WAR ON RADIO SPREADS PANIC OVER
U.S. The story told of "waves of mass hysteria"
that included panicked blacks in Harlem evacuating their
homes. The Associated Press wire service instantly picked
up the Halloween story, which escalated into TIDAL
WAVE OF TERROR SWEEPS NATION. Newspapers reported
attempted suicides, traffic accidents and heart attacks
as mass exoduses took place. Life showed a picture of
a farmer taking up arms against the aliens. Three days,
the media then began commending itself for alerting
the government to the vulnerability of the public to
panic. Varietys headline, for example,
was Radio Does US A Favor. While the putative
panic was a short-lived phenomena in the newspapers,
it was adopted by the new science of social psychology
after Hadley Cantril, a professor at Princeton, interviewed
137 people who claimed to have heard the broadcast and
published The Invasion From Mars: A Study in the Psychology
of Panic. Then Hollywood brought the event full circle
in 1953 with a fictional movie. Then came a rock musical
about the panic of 1938.
hysteria of October 30, 1938" as it was portrayed
in newspapers, books, movies and rock musicals is a
fictoid. The accounts of suicides, heart attacks, traffic
collisions and flights all proved to be unfounded. The
subsequent examination of the statistical date from
that night show that there were no abnormal fatalities,
hospital admissions, or traffic accidents. And there
was no exodus from Harlem. The picture in Life
of a farmer with a rifle was posed.
to be sure, a large number of telephone inquiries to
CBS, New York Times and local police. Such telephone
calls, however, are not necessarily evidence of mass
hysteria. They are the expected response to media
reports, real of fictive, that describe an emergency.
It is hardly surprising some percent of the radio audience--
less than one-tenth of one percent-- attempted to determine
if a bulletin they heard on the radio was true or false
(whether it concerned the cancellation of a world series
game or an invasion of aliens) by telephoning the station
that broadcast it or their local paper.
itself of course was a fiction. So was the Mass
Hysteria, which became part of American folklore
about the power of the media.