Note: One of a couple of Halloween-themed posts for the season!
While researching a post for my new Tumblr “Science Chamber of Horrors“*, I ended up reading the October 31st, 1938 edition of The Evening Independent newspaper of St. Petersburg, Florida. Perusing the article that I had originally sought after, I couldn’t help notice some of the headlines of the evening edition:
THOUSANDS SCARED BY RADIO REPORTS
ONE WOMAN SAW FIRES FROM MARS
It only took a moment to figure out what the hubub was: Radio reports? Mars? Halloween? I had serendipitously stumbled across newspaper reports about the hysteria surrounding Orson Welles’ radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds!
A bit of background for those unfamiliar with the details: in 1898, H.G. Wells published perhaps his most famous novel, The War of the Worlds, about the invasion and conquest of Earth by the truly inhuman inhabitants of Mars. Humanity’s weapons were almost useless against the Martian tripod walkers, sporting a deadly heat ray and a toxic chemical black smoke.
For the 40th anniversary of Wells’ book, The Mercury Theater on the Air decided to broadcast an adaptation of the story that would begin like an actual news report, describing the observation of explosions on Mars (the launches of the Martian cylinders), the landing of the first cylinder in New Jersey, the initial attack of the Martians, and the collapse of societal order and communications as the Martians rampage across the United States. The episode was directed and narrated by actor Orson Welles who, in spite of the infamy the broadcast would bring, would ensure his fame through it.
The realism of the Welles’ production ended up spreading significant panic, especially since many people tuned in late and missed the introduction which explained the fictional nature of the broadcast. Citizens called the police, the radio stations, and the newspapers seeking more information. Reports of the era also suggest that some fled their homes in advance of the Martian menace.
Historians have since disputed the initial lurid reports of mass terror, suggesting that the newspapers had a strong motivation to boost their circulation and blast radio news, which was eating into their readership. Nevertheless, there may have been upwards of a million people who were frightened.
So what did the newspapers the next day have to say about the broadcast and its hysteria? The Evening Independent’s lead story, headlined, “Thousands scared by radio reports,” summarized it as follows:
Thousands of terror-stricken radio listeners throughout the country fled from their homes last night when they tuned into a series of synthetic news broadcasts which depicted the beginning of an interplanetary war.
The simulated news bulletins, which accompanied a CBS dramatization of H.G. Wells’ fantasy, “The War of the Worlds,” became so realistic that they sent a wave of mass hysteria across the continent. The broadcast was only intended as fiction.
Later, the article reports on some of the more extreme reactions to the broadcast:
Some apartment houses in New York were emptied hurriedly by frantic listeners to the program — and by second and third hand accounts that multiplied the impending peril.
A woman in Pittsburgh tried suicide, saying “I’d rather die this way than like that.”
The electric power failed at Concrete, Wash., a town of 1,000, and the lights went out in most of the homes. Many thought the invasion had reached the West coast. Women fainted and men prepared to take their families to the mountains.
Switchboards in newspaper offices and police stations everywhere were swamped with calls from terrified people, many of them weeping.
Some reported they could smell the gas and see the flames started by the attackers.
In what sounds like smug schadenfreude of newspapers against radio, the Independent notes later in the article,
Many of those who were blissfully listening to Charlie McCarthy’s foolishness on the NBC network doubtless were caught up in the furor of neighbors dashing out of their homes, some with personal belongings, and heading for havens against invasion from an unknown foe armed with strange death-dealing implements from another and presumably hostile planet.
Welles himself, surprisingly taciturn following the performance, had only a simple statement for the media:
Wells [sic], who startled the theater ocularly last season by portraying a Caesar in modern dress with fascist leanings, was overcome by the unbelievable reaction to his presentation of the Wells thriller-turned-horrifier.
All he could say after the broadcast was, “I’m sorry.”
Perhaps understandably, political figures leaped into action following the panic. The Independent reports,
Senator Clyde L. Herring (D.-Ia.) said he planned to introduce in Congress a bill “controlling such abuses as was heard over the radio last night. “Radio has no more right to present programs like that than someone has knocking on your door and screaming,” he added.
City manager Paul Morton of Trenton, N.J., near the locale of the fictional invasion, said he would demand an investigation of the Federal Communications commission “with the view of preventing recurrence of what happened.”
He didn’t have to work to hard at his demands; an article in the same issue of the Independent sported the headline, “Radio board will conduct investigation.” In the article, we learn that
The federal communications commission began an investigation today of a dramatic radio broadcast which led some people to believe last night that men from Mars had attacked the United States.
Chairman Frank P. McNinch asked the broadcasting system to furnish the commission with an electrical transcription of the broadcast, a dramatized version of H.G. Wells’ imaginative story, “War of the Worlds.”
McNinch told reporters that he had received many telephone calls last night about the broadcast, but that the commission had only received 10 telegrams, all protesting it, this forenoon.
Not sure why he needed to distinguish between telegrams and telephone calls!
H.G. Wells himself was still around at the time of the broadcast, and offered his own condemnation of the way it was handled, as noted in a small article:
H.G. Wells, whose “War of the Worlds” furnished the basis of the broadcast which spread alarm in the United States last night, said today that it was “implicit” in the agreement for selling the radio rights that any broadcast would clearly “be fiction and not news.”
The novelist added that he gave no permission whatever for alterations which might lead to the belief that the broadcast material was real news.
Wells was perhaps wise to preemptively cover his own rear end, considering how gleefully the newspapers reported the hysteria. Another article in the Independent listed noteworthy events in a variety of cities, including my current city of residence, of which here is a sample:
Richmond, Va.– Re “meteor,” Martinsville publisher says a guest “went home, crying.” Times-Dispatch readers report they “praying.”
Charlotte-Wilmington, N.C., reports several score called newspaper office; one said wife was hysterical; another said given his wife bromide result of broadcast;
Indianapolis — Woman ran into Indianapolis Methodist church, screaming, hysterical– “New York destroyed. It’s the end of the world. You might as well go home to die. I just heard it on the radio.” Service dismissed immediately.
Louisville, Ky. — Filling station operator reports carload of tourists, bound for California, stopped quickly for a tankful of gas, drove away with a roar, saying heard about meteors on radio and wanted “to get as far away from the destruction as possible.”
The most curious of these, however, was the actual report which led to the article title, “Saw fires from Mars!”
Boston — Boston Globe had call in connection with radio dramatization of meteor in which New Jersey woman called brother here to say she heard radio broadcast and she was leaving home immediately, getting out of here.” She told him many others in her neighborhood also leaving in haste. Claimed she could “see the fire.”
This highlights for me the most disturbing part of the entire Mars panic. I can appreciate and even sympathize with people who were misled by the broadcast, however improbable it seems today. What troubles me, however, are the people who imagined that they could “see the fire” or “smell the gas.” The realization that people’s hysteria can lead them to sense imaginary things frightens me more than the risk of an alien invasion…
A little science literacy could have gone a long way towards calming people’s fears. As the Independent smugly noted in another short piece,
Astronomical students and readers of the article that accompanies the star maps every month in The Evening Independent would not have been fooled by the broadcast of H.G. Wells’ famous book from New York last night.
The very first announcement made on the air drama, which fooled so many people, was as follows: “Twenty minutes before eight Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Ill., reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars…”
The planet Mars is not visible from this continent during the evening hours at this time of year, as every astronomical student knows. Therefore a scientist could not observe any gas explosions and the listener would have known immediately that the program was fictional.
* You didn’t know that I have a new Tumblr, the “Science Chamber of Horrors?” Well go read it!