‘War of the Worlds’ Didn’t Cause Mass Panic

By Debra Kelly on Friday, December 27, 2013
Orson-Welles-Show-1941
“This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character, to assure you that The War of the Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be; The Mercury Theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying ‘Boo!’ ” —Orson Welles’ on-air apology at the end of the show

In A Nutshell

War of the Worlds has the dubious distinction of being the radio program that threw the country into mass panic in 1938. People fled their homes and took to the streets thinking that aliens had invaded. It’s a great story about the power of fiction, but unfortunately only a small percentage of the country’s population even heard the original broadcast, and there was no mass panic in the streets. In an attempt to discredit the newfangled radio as a medium, newspapers greatly exaggerated the public’s reaction, and that exaggeration grew into myth.

The Whole Bushel

The widespread panic caused by the first broadcast of War of the Worlds is well documented. Newspaper headlines point fingers at the radio drama for causing widespread panic, making countless people living in the areas named in the broadcast as invasion sites flee their homes in blind panic. It was mass hysteria unlike anything the United States had seen before that fateful night of October 31, 1938 . . . wasn’t it?

Newspapers were the Internet of the 1930s . . . and just because it was in the newspapers doesn’t mean it was true. If they’re telling the truth, millions of people heard the broadcast; they tuned in well after the disclaimer that it was a work of fiction, changing the radio station only when another popular program had ended.

Unfortunately, as good a story as it is, it’s not true. There were no documented cases of people dropping dead from stress-related heart attacks, there were no actual traffic jams and car accidents, and there was no mass exodus from any of the locations named in the broadcast as the site of alien invasion.

C.E. Hooper was a ratings company, and on the night of the infamous broadcast they were calling hundreds of homes across America to see what they were listening to. Of the 5,000 homes surveyed, only about 2 percent of them were tuned in to War of the Worlds; this was largely because there was a hugely popular show on another station at the same time: The Chase and Sanborn Hour. Extrapolating that data, that still suggests that a very small percentage of the population was even listening, and that small percentage is made even smaller by a number of CBS affiliate stations pre-empting the broadcast in favor of other programming.

In fact, CBS was so concerned about the newspaper headlines that followed the broadcast that they commissioned their own survey to see how many of their listeners were inconvenienced by the radio drama. The answer? Not many.

Fact-checking that followed some of the newspapers’ claims about people being injured or hospitalized proved the stories inaccurate. No deaths were ever reported from the mass panic and evacuations. In fact, in the published memoirs of the New York Daily News radio editor, he recalls how deadly quiet the streets were in New York City on the night of the broadcast—a far cry from the legendary thousands of people that supposedly took to the streets thinking that the aliens were coming.

So where did the myth come from?

Newspaper editors saw a brilliant way to take a stab at the growing competition—radio. Radio was the new, up-and-coming thing, and it was taking a big piece of advertising revenue away from print media. And more than that, they also saw a way to increase their sales. Who would pass by a newsstand without picking up the latest edition with more information on this widespread panic about a Martian invasion?

Most of the stories that were run came off the wire services, growing in scale and severity with each re-telling. Once the headlines were on newsstands across the country, more and more people were saying that they had tuned in, that they, too, had been frightened by the broadcast, and they’d thought it was real.

Apparently, many newspaper editors missed the irony of spreading these falsified stories to demonstrate what an unreliable news source the radio really was.

Show Me The Proof

BBC: The Halloween myth of the War of the Worlds panic
NPR: 75 Years Ago, ‘War Of The Worlds’ Started A Panic. Or Did It?

  • Hillyard

    It seems the internet troll had it’s beginnings in the early 20th Century. I wonder how many of the papers that reported mass panic were owned by Hearst.

    • Nathaniel A.

      Do you comment on these because you don’t want them to feel lonely?

      • Hillyard

        Do you ever make sense?

        • Nathaniel A.

          What was nonsensical about that comment?

          • Hillyard

            Everything. You’re postulating that an article on the Internet can feel lonely, and that I make comments to ease that “loneliness”. You’ve made some ridiculous replies to some of my comments, ie that there is such a thing as a good dictatorship, but this kind of tops them all. Hopefully you were being sarcastic when you made your last reply and I’m just wasting time on someone trolling me. The other option is just sad. Good day sir.

          • Nathaniel A.

            My intention was for both comments to be sarcastic but maybe it came out wrong. I thought the joke was funny but maybe not. Also if the definition of dictator includes monarchs then yes, there were good dictatorships.

          • inconspicuous detective

            slow down and top yourself.

          • Nathaniel A.

            What?

          • inconspicuous detective

            edited.

          • https://soundcloud.com/arjan-hut Arjan Hut

            ‘Slow down and top yourself’ to me was very poetic and thought provoking. But that was because I thought Top Yourself meant ‘outdo yourself’ o~O

          • Nathaniel A.

            Oh OK that makes more sense, thank you.

          • SensiblePerson

            Comment area are viciously trolled and abused- I’m done here

    • SensiblePerson

      Good Idea

  • Shaniqua

    wudn’t dat a movie? u whiteys iz dum

    • shmabai

      …..really? War of the worlds was broadcast over the radio in 1938. The crappy ass movie came out recently.

      • Bill S. Preston (esquire)

        Actually there have been around 8 movies or sequels with “War of the Worlds” in the title, the first being in 1953 and the most recent being in 2012. There was also a 1988 TV series.

        • shmabai

          My point was the movie with tom cruise sucked. :) lol that and the original story was on the radio in the 30′s. I didn’t know there was a series.

          • tootthefirst

            Doesn’t any movie that features Tom Criuse suck by default?

          • shmabai

            I thought about it and I honestly cannot think of a good tom cruise movie lol. So, yes, tom cruise makes his movies suck just by having his name attached to it.

    • EggOnNeon

      Well I, for one, do not appreciate “white people”, or even “so-called” wannabe “white” people, continually trying to whip up the racist fire by pretending to be a Black stereotype. Isn’t that why your grandparents were driven OUT of Germany and the rest of Europe?

  • https://soundcloud.com/arjan-hut Arjan Hut

    I’m listening to the radio RIGHT NOW. Eat that, newspapers.

    • Lisa

      I listen to the radio & read the news on my phone. The newspapers can eat that also!

      • Hadeskabir

        I don’t listen to the radio and only read the news and listen to music on my computer, suck it Radio and Newspapers!

    • inconspicuous detective

      i get my news from a blimp. so fuck whoever might wanna provide it otherwise.

    • SensiblePerson

      And I don’t listen to the radio I buy my songs or listen to them on Youtube and I also read the news on my phone or computer- am I done here

  • bubbagump

    ….they were calling hundreds of homes across America to see what they were listening to. Of the 5,000 homes surveyed…

    *anybody else catch that?

    • Lisa

      I did lol

      • Sam Hias

        Yes, 5000 are 50 hundreds…

        • Lisa

          That’s alot more hundreds than the story implied & you really can’t blame the writer because that’s how it was reported.

    • EggOnNeon

      You’re killing me larry.

  • Hadeskabir

    I read this article in another website a few days ago, it’s like they only rearranged the sentences so it wouldn’t be exactly the same.

    • Micah Duke

      You really shouldn’t accuse someone of something as serious as plagiarism without offering proof.

      • Hadeskabir

        I read it here http://www.cracked.com/article_18487_6-ridiculous-history-myths-you-probably-think-are-true_p2.html

        I’m not saying they copied everything from there, but I bet the author took his inspiration from that, or maybe it is just a coincidence? Many times I see articles on Listverse and Knoweledgenuts that I saw similar before on cracked or reddit.

        • Micah Duke

          I mean … that article is from nearly four years ago. We do sometimes have things on the site that have been featured on other sites, but we obviously aim for the most original content possible.

          Cracked has a very distinct writing style and the two pieces use different illustrations to make their points. For example, we don’t mention Adolf Hitler or that farmer photo and Cracked didn’t mention CBS, competing shows, the ratings survey, etc. Trust me, this is a far, far cry from plagiarism.

          • Hadeskabir

            Yeah, I guess with the huge amount of informational websites that there is, some articles are bound to look familiar. When addressing a distinct topic the core information is always the same, if they are using the truth that is. The only difference is the small different pieces of information that each website uses when talking about the same topic as others. Probably I notice this more than others because I read so many articles everyday. I apologize from giving the impression that I was accusing the author of plagiarism, but honestly that thought crossed my mind.

  • scout

    Thanks! Again and Again we must remember that we must believe nothing of what we hear and about half of what we see, plus, deception of the ruled is as old as governments.

  • lallis

    My dad listened to it when he was a teenager. I asked him about it and he gave me a ‘boy what a dumb question’ look and said that the show had commercials because it was a SHOW. Okay, papa. I got it. Commercials.

  • Andrea Lynch

    My mom listened to this broadcast, and she said they announced it was fiction at every commercial break.

  • EggOnNeon

    There was an actual panic over a broadcast in South America.