To most individuals living in the United States on October 30, 1938, this Sunday evening seemed like any other Sunday evening. Around 7:00 pm, millions of families across the country were finishing dinner and waiting to tune into their favorite radio show. Approximately 34. 7 percent of the nation’s listenership would be tuning into NBC’s the Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show at 8:00 pm. However, on this particular Sunday evening, another radio broadcast was about to make history.
As usual many listeners of the Bergen and McCarthy show decided to “twiddle” their dials instead of listening to coffee advertisements. At 8:12 pm those listeners who turned the dial on the Chase&Sandborn coffee ads found themselves, stunned, listening to what seemed like a live report of an alien invasion occurring in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. The ‘live report’ was actually part of the Mercury Theatre on the Air’s fictional Halloween broadcast, the War of the Worlds.
Howard Koch’s radio adaption of H. G Wells’s 1898 novel resulted in chaos. People all over the country began fleeing cities; calling loved ones, and flooding churches and police stations. The reaction forced audiences and networks alike to realize that “when the circumstances are right the media can create panic and other effects that are unpredictable, disruptive, and wide-ranging.
” In my essay I will discuss the three major reasons why the radio dramatization War of the Worlds broadcast resulted in a nationwide panic: first the fear of foreign invasion was a realistic concern in 1938; secondly the show’s manipulation of sound blurred the line between fiction and reality in a way that had never been done before; lastly newspapers across the country printed stories that exaggerated the hysteria in an attempt to tarnish radio’s reputation as a serious and reliable media outlet. The War of the Worlds aired during a period of political turmoil and paranoia in America.
Fears of foreign invasion and anxieties toward technological advancements governed people’s reaction to the broadcast. In the late 19th century technological advancements in wire technology, such as the telegraph and later radio broadcasting, made communication faster and more affordable. In fact, according to a study done by Hadley Cantril, in 1938 “out of the then 32,000,000 families in the United States, 27,500,000 had radios- a greater proportion than have telephones, automobiles, plumbing, electricity, newspapers or magazines.
” With the threat of war lingering on the horizon, radio was no longer a household luxury; it was a necessity. In his book, Terror on the Air! : Horror Radio in America, Richard Hand explains, “that 1938 America was a post-depression nation in a global context that was governed by paranoia: an empire like Japan threatened to expand aggressively, as did the sinister fascist regimes in Germany and Italy, while the values of an old world imperialist such as Britain seemed to jostle with the revolutionary ideology of Stalin’s Soviet Union.
” On May 6, 1937 the German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire and was destroyed. On May 7 audiences across America tuned into listen to Herbert Morrison’s eyewitness account of the Hindenburg airship disaster. Morrison’s impassioned radio broadcast left listeners awestruck. Another important political broadcast focused on the issue of Czechoslovakia. The ‘Munich Crisis’ began after Adolf Hitler demanded Great Britain and France to allow Germany “to annex part of Czechoslovakia containing a large German ethnic minority… to millions of Americans the world seemed to be on the brink of war. It was.
And to many of those listeners, the crisis pointed to the possibility that the United States might be dragged into the war and, perhaps less plausibly at the time, even be invaded by an enemy force. ”After Morrison’s news broadcast of the Hindenburg Disaster and the events that lead up to the Munich Pact, it became clear that radio was the primary news outlet for most Americans. It was no longer just a device for entertainment; it was a personal informant, a ‘safe’ connection to the chaos. By 1937, John Houseman and Orson Welles had established themselves as dominant players in the theatre world and radio world.
The two decided to start their own theater company, calling it the Mercury Theatre. A year after it’s opening, CBS approached Welles and Houseman and asked if they would produce “a series of radio dramas for its summer schedule. ” John Houseman and Orson Welles quickly realized that one of “radio’s key advantages is its ability to “use dramatic sound locations- places where sounds are exaggerated or omnipresent, or where unusual sounds are foregrounded. ” Radio dramas were often more horrifying than cinematic dramas because radio forced itself into the imagination of the listener.
After all, as Stephen King said, “real horror does not come alive in front of a camera but on the screen of the mind. ” According to Jim Harmon, radio drama is unprecedented in its ability to explore and exploit “that purity of darkness, that blank slate of imagination. ” For Martin Shingler and Cindy Wieringa, the “stage of radio is darkness and silence, the darkness of the listener’s skull. ” The theatre company remade several classics such as Dracula and the Count of Monte Cristo, but none of radio shows received as much attention as The War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938.
Howard Koch, who had just recently been hired as a writer at the Mercury Theatre on Air, was instructed by Houseman to adapt H. G. Wells’ novel into a radio show. According Simeon Callow, Koch found Wells’ novel “dull and dated” and even tried persuading Houseman to let him switch. Despite his best efforts, Koch’s adaptation was not received well by other members in the company. Welles called the script “corny” and criticized the writers for “presenting so silly a show” according to the show’s producer, Dick Barr.
Even the technicians and the secretaries had reservations about the show. Koch chose to use real locations and landmarks to heighten shock value and increase the script’s entertainment value. Houseman suggested Koch “dramatize it in the form of news bulletins. ” Koch agreed and divided airtime between a slow music program and emergency news bulletins. The ‘fake’ music program took place at a hotel. “Radio was full at that time of remote programs from hotels,’ said Eric Barnouw, “they were always filling in time by going the Hotel Pennsylvania, and so forth.
” The dance music was continuously interrupted by emergency news broadcasts from reporters and live witnesses warning listeners of a Martian invasion currently taking place in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, a small town near Princeton University. The broadcast exemplified “radio verite- the highly effective use of overlapping dialogue, crowd noise, microphone feedback, and other effects. ” In his book, however, Cowell argues that Koch’s adaptation succeeded because of “its consistent immediacy: the music, sound effects, silences and hesitations throughout the play are as important as its blatant screams of hysteria and the story of itself.
” Even listeners who had heard the show’s introduction explaining that the radio broadcast was dramatic adaptation from Wells novel, were left stunned, pondering what they had just heard. Those who tuned in late or turned off the broadcast early were left even more in the dark. Halfway through the show, a small but significant portion of the audience tuning in to the Mercury Theatre on the Air was in a state of alarm. As I mentioned earlier most Americans considered radio to be a, if not the most, trustworthy and reliable source for information.
The emergency news bulletins were alarmingly convincing, so much so that listeners from places like Ohio, Cincinnati, and Chicago began frantically calling newspapers and radio stations in New York and New Jersey. Callers begged for more information, despite the fact that three more announcements were made to remind listeners that they were tuned into Mercury Theatre on the Air. By the shows end, thousands had taken to the streets, fleeing cities, flooding houses of worship, and desperately trying to contact loved ones. According to Callow some listeners “just sat down and waited to die.
” Panic-stricken listeners grew angry after realizing that they were the victims of a hoax. Some even threatened violence against Welles and the company. The intense and immediate reaction frightened many people in the CBS studio. “Someone had called threatening to blow up the CBS building, so we called the police and hid in the ladies’ room on the studio floor,” wrote Dick Barr. “Houseman denies this, but I distinctly remember a group of frightened men squeezed in the ladies room of the CBS building. ” Welles and Houseman were shocked, scared, and apologetic for the turmoil the broadcast had caused.
The following morning the War of the Worlds broadcast had turned into a media frenzy. Orson Welles was depicted as a villain and the Martian hoax became known around the world. Newspapers from cities all around the country printed stories highlighting the public’s reactions to Sunday night’s broadcast. The show made headlines in almost every major American news publication. “U. S. Terrorized by Radio’s Men from Mars,’” said the San Francisco Chronicle. “Thousands Terrified by Radio War Drama,” the Boston Herald wrote. “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact,” said the New York Times.
“Attack from Mars in Radio Play Puts Thousands in Fear,” announced the New York Herald Tribune. “Monsters of Mars on a Meteor Stampede Radiotic America,” declared the Washington Post. “Radio Listeners Become Panicky during Story of ‘Mars Invasion’” wrote the Cincinnati Enquirer. Each story seemed more outlandish than the last. In Newark, New Jersey, a large group of people fled their homes wearing wet towels around their heads as impromptu gas masks. In Indianapolis a woman ran screaming into a church where an evening service was being held and shouted “New York has been destroyed.
It’s the end of the world. Go home and prepare to die. ” In Harlem, a black congregation fell to its knees; In Staten Island, Connie Casamassina was just about to get married. One guest at the reception took the microphone from the singing waiter and announced the invasion. “Everyone ran to get their coats. I took the microphone and started to cry ‘Please don’t spoil my wedding day’ and then my husband starting singing hymns, and I decided I was going to dance the Charleston. And I did, for 15 minutes straight. I did every step there is in the Charleston.
” The Mienert family of Manasquan Park, New Jersey is an example of a family briefly fooled by the broadcast. The family fled NJ, “leaping into the car- taking the dog and the canary with them- paused in their headlong flight down the motorway to ask the latest news from bewildered passers- by, who, not having heard the broadcast, could tell them nothing. Desperate for information Mr. Mienert called his cousin in Freehold, NJ, ‘whose farm I knew was in the destructive path’. “Are the Martians there? ” he asked. ‘No,’ his cousin said, ‘but the Tuttles are, and we’re about to sit down to dinner.
’” After breathing a welcomed sigh of relief, the Mienerts returned home. A majority of US newspapers seized the chance to challenge radio’s position as a trustworthy news outlet. The newspapers continued to print articles about the controversial radio broadcast months after it aired. The War of the Worlds broadcast made individuals more skeptical towards radio broadcast and increased the power of print. Several scholars have argued that the War of the Worlds broadcast is a textbook example of mass public hysteria. For example, in 1940, Hadley Cantril wrote The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic.
In his study Cantril chose to use 135 subjects “because they were known to have been upset by the broadcast,” and concluded, “long before the broadcast had ended people all over the United States were praying, crying, fleeing frantically to escape death from Martians. ” His study is considered to be one of the earliest publications to link abnormal behavior with media trends. Cantril estimated that at least 1. 2 million listeners out of 6 million were “frightened,” “disturbed,” or “excited” by what they heard. However, in his book Getting It Wrong, W.
Joseph Campbell points out “Cantril’s own calculations prove that most listeners were neither panic stricken nor fear-struck. They were presumably recognized and enjoyed the program for what it was- and entertaining and imaginative radio show. ” Robert E. Bartholomew, a scholar of mass hysteria, has said a “growing consensus among sociologists that the extent of the panic, as described by Cantril, was greatly exaggerated. ” Only “scant anecdotal evidence (exists) to suggest that many listeners actually took some action- such as packing belongings, grabbing guns, or fleeing in cars after hearing the broadcast.
” After a closer examination, it is clear that newspapers exaggerated the hysteria created by the broadcast. Furthermore, several U. S. newspapers agreed with Bartholomew and Campbell’s claims. One reader wrote a letter to the Washington Post criticizing it “for having offered ‘a totally false impression’ about reaction to the program. ” The author argued, “Except for the scattered cases of ignorant or excitable people who telephoned police and newspapers in many cities, there was nothing approximating mass hysteria.
I walked along F Street [in downtown Washington] at the hour of the broadcast. In many stores radios were going, yet I observed nothing whatsoever of the absurd supposed terror of the populace. There was none. ” There isn’t enough hard evidence to prove that the broadcast incited mass hysteria. The 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast will forever remain a pivotal moment in media history. The show proved to individuals all around the globe that given the right circumstances media can create and shape public perceptions.
The broadcast aired during an anxious period in American history. The looming political troubles influenced the way listeners identified with the story. The invasion was told through news bulletins. These interruptions became the backbone to the story. Each interruption was increasingly more dramatic than the last, slowly drawing listeners in. Lastly, the hoax was highly publicized in newspapers. Everyone had heard about the alleged Martian attack. This hoax turned radio into a joke. Once again, print became the leading source for reliable information.