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The Hoax That Panicked America; Or Not



Rob Hardy


The radio broadcast on Halloween Eve 1938 of War of the Worlds is the stuff of legend; it was, according to the title of one of several dramatizations of the event, The Night That Panicked America. The fake newscast about invading Martians, the stories go, led thousands of Americans to flee their homes, some heading to safer territory, some grabbing their guns to do battle. These are good stories, and in some cases they are close to truth, but they do not at all represent what actually happened. A. Brad Schwartz has studied the broadcast and its aftermath for years, doing his senior honors thesis on it and writing about it for PBS. Now his entertaining Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles's War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News (Hill and Wang) gives fresh documentation of what really happened. The story isn't as dramatic as the "panic" versions, but it is more interesting with its new details, and with some lessons for us residents of the twentieth century who get our fake news from sources more modern than radio plays.



Schwartz recounts some of the hoaxes the printed press perpetrated before examining the radio versions. War of the Worlds was not the first attempt at using radio bulletins to make a radio play. In 1926, BBC radio sent out Broadcasting the Barricades, a satirical show about unruly mobs in London. Like War of the Worlds, it would cut to and from "ordinary" broadcasts of dance music as news bulletins intruded. Although it was comical, some listeners took it seriously, but not many. When British newspapers reported on the aftermath, each paper had reports of fright and panic that were outside its own locale, everyone pointing the finger at others. The New York Times declared that such a panic could not happen here. Fakery in radio news broadcasts, however, was soon present, and accepted. Orson Welles himself had been an actor within "The March of Time," which began in 1931 as broadcast advertising for the new Time magazine. The program did cover real news as in the magazine's current issue, but the actors impersonated real people and were accompanied by sound effects as if the microphones were there on the spot. Time founder Henry Luce called this "fakery in allegiance to the truth." Listeners tuning in immediately after the Hindenburg explosion in 1937 would have heard sound effects of the explosion and girders cracking, along with crowd screams. It was all recreated, and it was all before anyone heard the famous reporting of Herbert Morrison which was not live on radio but a recording that was not broadcast until the next day. Not only was there fakery in broadcasting, but the real stuff was frightening enough; Schwartz makes clear the historical context for Welles's broadcast. Radio listeners were quite accustomed to hearing dire bulletins as Hitler marched through Europe, or as the Great New England Hurricane left almost 700 people dead.




Schwartz gives an account of how Welles and his Mercury Theater troupe, including John Houseman as co-founder, took Hollywood theater by storm, and were already making inroads on radio theater by dramatizing classics like Julius Caesar or Dracula. The Mercury Theater radio shows were serious dramas broadcast by CBS, and serious listeners enjoyed them. Listeners looking for lighter fare that evening would have been listening instead to NBC's "Chase and Sanborn Hour," which featured ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his wooden pal Charley McCarthy (it still seems hilarious that Bergen and McCarthy were such hits in a medium where the visual fooling between ventriloquist and dummy was invisible). Bergen would have won any ratings battle, but War of the Worlds made history. If you have never heard it, find it - it is on line in many sources, and it is still creepy and scary.



Schwartz has drawn on letters listeners wrote to the FCC, CBS, and to Welles himself (some of these letters only recently resurfaced) to analyze what really happened as the broadcast progressed. There were people who panicked; it isn't a surprise that the book's own first pages are devoted to the flight of a couple of New Yorkers who escaped the city because of the Martians who were approaching. It's a good story, and there are plenty of such stories, but Schwartz explains, "These panicked scenes of flight and near flight, which turned War of the Worlds into the stuff of American legend, did happen, but they were very, very rare." There was no mass hysteria, no suicides, no potshots at a water tower that was mistaken for a towering Martian machine, and no highways clogged with cars. What did happen? Well, people listened to their radios - they either enjoyed the drama as good radio theater and a thrilling scary story, or they were scared out of their minds and wanted all the news immediately. There were about six million listeners to the show, and about a million thought there was a real emergency, but the sort of emergency was not clear. Some did think that Martians were coming, and others thought a comet had made a disastrous impact. Some tuning in the middle of the program could have gotten the impression that there was a natural disaster on the east coast, or some sort of invasion by human armies. They called each other to spread the stories, and they called the police, and they called the newspapers, but in almost every case, they did not panic. (The Mercury Theater actors were huddled into the CBS basement after the broadcast because of a bomb threat, and police combed the building. Welles and Houseman were there and started hearing stories of the panic they had caused; Houseman wrote that they understood that the country was in chaos and that Welles and he were considered mass murderers. It is hilarious that the scare tables were turned on the hoaxsters; once they fled out of a back door of the CBS building, Welles and Houseman were shocked to find that all was calm.)



The general lack of panic wasn't a good enough story for the press at the time. It was far more fun to spread the stories of people who hit the road to flee the Martians. The day after the broadcast, reporters showed up to Grover's Mill, New Jersey, where some of the broadcast was supposed to have come from, and took a picture of an elderly man alert with his shotgun, a classic photo that ran alongside many stories, and showed how determined Americans were to bear arms against the interplanetary invaders. It is not at all clear that the old fellow heard the broadcast or took up arms except for the photo. The press response fed into a larger panic, not fake but not realistic, about how the new medium of radio might cause a general hysteria in otherwise sensible Americans. There were hearings, and FCC investigations, and fretting about how such programs would affect our children. It seems, though, that children, familiar with the new medium though Welles's own The Shadow and programs adults didn't want them to hear like Gang Busters, were among the least vulnerable to panic. A fourteen-year-old girl wrote of the panic stories, "Didn't any of our so called adults realize that Sunday night was Halloween and that is the night for scary things?"



In other parts of the world, since the panic stories were the way the news was reported, there was a good laugh at American gullibility. Even Hitler himself got in on the act, saying he would keep Germany well armed, but that did not mean "that I will start a war scare in the world, a panic, perhaps, about an impending invasion of Martians." There is an international surprise at the end of Schwartz's book; the invasion did not end on Halloween 1938, but was merely postponed. In 1949 there was an imitation of the original radio program aired on Radio Quito in Ecuador. This one had no announcement at the beginning or middle that it was fiction. There were panicked crowds this time, and they convened on the radio station. When they discovered it was all a hoax, they attacked the station, burning it down and killing people within it.



That millions of Americans panicked on hearing the broadcast turned out to be fake news, thought of as real even by those who had skepticism enough about the broadcast itself. Schwartz shows that this made people fret about government involvement in broadcasting, weakening the FCC. The panic is still invoked by people worried about how manipulative broadcasters might be. There have been fake news TV shows, like Special Bulletin (1983), which was about a terrorist attack on Charleston, South Carolina. These shows didn't produce the scares that the Mercury Theater did; Schwartz rightly points out that one of the reasons is that the visual effects on television might be iffy, but the visual effects of radio are always convincing, because people imagine them for themselves. And we have had Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and The Onion to give us news that isn't. Keep the airwaves open, is the lesson, and also: whether it be invading Martians, or Americans panicking in the streets: don't believe everything you hear.




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