“…you don’t play murder with soft words.” — Orson Welles, 31 October 1938
Tomorrow will be the 76th anniversary of the infamous The Mercury Theatre's dramatization of H.G. Wells’s story War of the Worlds. Social scientists and historians are still studying and postulating on what exactly happened in its aftermath and its meaning when it comes to mass hysteria.
A bit of background: the world was on tenterhooks on 30 October 1938. Nazi saber rattling had reached fever pitch. People over the world were focused on a crisis in Munich. Everybody was worried.
Radio broadcasts had only recently begun interrupting normal programming to report what we would call “breaking news.” Having just endured the privation and pain of the Great Depression, listeners across the United States were just getting used to sudden, staccato reports of dire happenings in Europe.
The American radio audience was primed for bad news
Then came CBS's broadcast of War of the Worlds.
And there is no doubt that the writer Howard E. Koch, the producer John Houseman, and the director Orson Welles sought to capitalize on prevailing conditions to ramp up the impact of their little Halloween hoax. They used the names of actual people and told a story that sounded (sort of) like a report of actual, ongoing events.
On the other hand, they did announce—at the beginning, twice during the course of the broadcast, and at its end—that they were acting out a play based on H.G. Wells’s fiction. Also, given the supposed “real-time” nature of the broadcast, the willing suspension of disbelief would have to have been at higher than fever pitch for people to believe, even in those simpler times, that all the events reported could have taken place in 62 minutes.
Certain habits of radio listeners played into their gullibility. The Mercury Theatre ordinarily garnered only about two percent of the radio audience. The Chase and Sanborn Hour, starring Edgar Bergen got the big bulk of the eardrums. But about twelve minutes into that hyper-popular variety show—that featured a ventriloquist on the radio, by the way—they announced a musical performance by a rather dull ensemble. Quite a few people got up from their easy chairs and twisted their dials to CBS just in time to catch the scary part of the Mercury broadcast, having missed the disclaimer at the beginning. The dimmer brains among those latecomers were the ones who were duped into thinking they were listening to an actual report. Some of them raised a ruckus.
Pretty much immediately after the show signed off the air, the cops invaded the studio, network employees collected all the scripts and records, and the print press corps took over the story. The next day, which was Halloween, newspapers across the country blared headlines about how the Mercury show had caused widespread panic. And, on that October 31st, Orson Welles was forced to meet reporters and apologize to the nation for its overreaction to his joke.
For a long while people believed the reports of widespread panic in the wake of the show. Recent analysis, however, has come to a different conclusion. American University media historian W. Joseph Campbell and many sociologists have reinvestigated actual events and found no evidence of panicked crowds in the streets. Slate Magazine ran an article last year on the 75th anniversary that concluded, “Almost no one was fooled.”
So what were all those news headlines about? Well, you see, in the 1930’s a real war raged between newspapers and radio for dominance in news reporting and in garnering the bulk of advertising dollars. In an attempt to discredit radio, newspapers greatly exaggerated the dimensions of public’s panic. It seems now that all those banner headlines were really meant to characterize radio news as an unreliable upstart medium.
Orson Welles took the blame.
For your listening pleasure, here is a link to the actual broadcast:
And here is the adorable young Orson apologizing on the following day:
Happy Halloween from---