Fictoid #7:
Mass Hysteria Over Martian Invasion

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.

Although it 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. Variety’s 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.

The “mass 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.

There were, 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.

The program itself of course was a fiction. So was the “Mass Hysteria,” which became part of American folklore about the power of the media.

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