What could explain the public's reaction to Orson Welles' Mercury Theater's 1938 broadcast of "War of the Worlds?"
The mass hysteria that accompanied the October 30,1938, radio broadcast of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds caught Orson Welles and his theater group, Mercury, by complete surprise. Broadcast the evening before Halloween, it was intended as an entertaining, if frightening to children, presentation of a popular science fiction story. Unfortunately, Welles was a little too convincing in his narration.
Radio was still largely in its infancy as a form of mass entertainment in 1938. Plus, this was pre-television, let alone the internet, which was still decades away form conceptualization let alone emerging as a form of mass communication. Americans, geographically and politically isolated from most of the world, had limited visibility into the broader world outside their borders. In addition, what was known of the outside world was not encouraging: the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany, the expansionism of Imperial Japan, the Great Depression had only very recently devastated the economy, and the spread of communist ideology all contributed to the insecurities gripping many Americans at that time.
When Americans turned on their radios for some well-intentioned diversions, they were greeted with the somber, trained voice of Orson Welles pretending to interrupt musical programming with the announcement that explosions on Mars, observed by astronomers on Earth through telescopes, were being followed by signs of a Martian invasion of the Earth. Many listerners were convinced the story was true, and panicked. When a "radio announcer" chimed in with his "on-site" observations of the "invasion," he described what he saw:
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed...Wait a minute? Someone's crawling. Someone or...something. I can see peering out of that black hole [the site of an apparent landing] two luminous disks...are they eyes? It might be a face. It might be...good heavens, something wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake..."
And so on, it went. Graphic details of an apparent invasion from another world, that threatened life on Earth. In the context of the times, it is not surprising that some people were convinced an actual invasion was occurring; what was astonishing was the scale and depth of the panic that ensued. Listeners hearing only snippets of the broadcast -- which did include regular mentions of the fictional nature of the story -- believed that they were in danger. Police stations, radio and newspaper offices were suddenly deluged with calls from frantic listerners, and many were reportedly treated for shock.
The domestic and international environments in which Americans were subsumed in 1938 made them vulnerable to a grand deception. Martian invasion may have been pushing that theory a little far, but the fact remains that many, many people believed such an invasion was real.