On October 30, 77 years ago, Orson Welles created widespread panic throughout the United States with his dramatic adaptation of the H.G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds on CBS radio – or so the story goes. According to legend, over a million people were convinced that aliens had invaded the United States and mass hysteria ensued.
It’s no wonder people were panicked, when what was billed as a news program aired this… “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed . . . Wait a minute! Someone’s crawling out of the hollow top. Someone or . . . something, I can see peering out of that black hole two luminous disks. . are they eyes? It might be a face. It might be . . .Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now it’s another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing’s body. It’s large, large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face, it . . . Ladies and gentlemen, it’s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate.”
But did the panic really happen? It would seem that newspapers deliberately tried to convince people that the panic was more widespread than it actually was. According to a Slate Magazine article by Jeffrey Pooley and Michael J. Socolaw in Slate Magazine, the actual number of listeners to the show was far fewer that reports indicated, and most of those listeners did not believe the show was real. Then why all the reports of widespread panic? Money, of course. During the Great Depression, when money was scarce, newspapers were concerned about the growing popularity of radio programming and their share of the nation’s advertising dollars. They jumped at the opportunity to discredit the radio industry and headlines across the country on Halloween morning attacked CBS and radio as a dangerous medium that was not to be trusted.
Like most good legends, the myth has continued for three-quarters of a century. Although the newspaper story died down in several days, people kept the story alive with claims of having witnessed widespread panic, unfounded lawsuits, and our love a good story. It’s a great story, so if you choose to believe it, we are fine with that. Happy Halloween to one and all!