War of the Worlds: Why Radio Panicked America

On October 30, 1938, CBS “Mercury Theatre on the Air” broadcasted a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’s science fiction work, War of the Worlds. The panic that occurred as a result of the broadcast is considered to be one of the most significant media events in history and provided a unique opportunity for the study of panic behaviour caused by a mass communication event.

In the adapted War of the Worlds broadcast, narrated by Orson Welles, Martians invade and begin to destroy America. While it may be astonishing to us today that so many Americans panicked as a result of such an outlandish premise, the historical context helps to clarify the audience response. Two features in particular are identified by scholars as contributing to the panic behaviour of the listeners: the popularity of radio at that time and contemporary world events.

In the late 1930s, Americans still felt the lingering effects of the Depression earlier that decade, and were also faced with the threat of Fascism, Communism, and another world war. Radio had evolved to provide rapid and dramatic coverage of news events; in particular, the broadcast industry had developed on-the-spot reporting to keep the nervous populace informed. These factors facilitated the panic behaviour that resulted from the airing of War of the Worlds.

War of the Worlds Broadcast

In addition to the historical context, the clever newscast style of the fictional program likely led many listeners to believe that Martians were taking over America. The broadcast began with an introduction by Orson Welles regarding other intelligences in the universe, and was followed by a series of meteorological and astronomical bulletins, a scientific interview, and a recurring music program featuring Ramon Raquello and his orchestra. This part of the broadcast was realistic in time-frame and was intended to bore or lull the listener.

The next bulletin announced what appeared to be a meteorite crash on a farm in New Jersey, and was followed quickly by the appearance of the Martians and their invasion of America. The transition to dramatic time, in which events that would have occurred over days or weeks were completed within 45 minutes, was skilfully presented so that the discrepancy was almost imperceptible.

In addition to the newscast style and skillful transitions, a number of other factors may help to explain why so many listeners panicked as a result of the broadcast. The American listener’s habit of dial-twisting, or switching between radio broadcasts depending on whether the program was of interest, resulted in some listeners tuning in late and missing the introductory announcement regarding the fictional nature of the broadcast. Three more announcements were made throughout the broadcast but may not have been heard, again as a result of dial-twisting or due to listeners already panicking following the most frightening part of the program. Listeners tuning in late might also have been influenced by the genuine-sounding appeal by the Secretary of the Interior. Indeed, the use of “experts” throughout the broadcast served to reinforce its realism.

The broadcast may also have provoked such a hysterical response in some listeners because the invasion was perceived as a real threat. Panic generally occurs, according to scholars Shearon Lowery and Melvin L. De Fleur in “The Invasion from Mars: Radio Panics America” (1983), “when some commonly accepted values are threatened and when no possible elimination of that threat is in sight.” In the case of the War of the Worlds broadcast, listeners panicked because they believed their loved ones, their country, and their entire world would be destroyed and that they were unable to prevent or control this destruction.

The Psychology of Panic

Following the panic, Hadley Cantril and his associates at the Office of Radio Research of Princeton University conducted a research study regarding the effects of the broadcast on the American Public . The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic (1940) was the only study of panic behaviour to date triggered by a mass medium. The framework of the study’s research and its findings also played a key role in the evolution of contemporary media theory.

The purpose of the study was “to discover the psychological conditions and the situational circumstances that led people to believe that the broadcast drama was real.” With regard to the extent of the panic, the study confirmed that “at least six million people listened to the program, and, of those, at least one million were severely frightened or panicked.”

A number of reasons were identified to explain why this particular broadcast frightened so many listeners, including those already mentioned, such as the popularity of radio and the historical context.The study also identified reasons for why some individuals panicked and others did not, including the critical ability of the listener to discern the fantastical nature of the program; the religious beliefs of the listener; personality factors such as emotional insecurity, phobic personality, lack of self-confidence, and fatalism; and unusual listening situations, such as being informed about the broadcast by a frightened family member or friend.

The Cantril study was seminal in the development of contemporary media theory. Although the researchers were not trying to develop a theory of mass communication, the study inadvertently presented one of the first challenges to the “magic bullet” theory, which held that the media had a direct, immediate and powerful effect on its audiences and their behaviour. Although the War of the Worlds broadcast would appear to support this theory—the program had a powerful effect on its listeners, causing widespread panic—the findings of the Cantril study indicate that listeners could also demonstrate selective forms of response, depending on factors such as critical ability, personality traits, social categories, and social relationships.

© Jennifer Bertrand, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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