Orson Welles’ 1938 CBS radio drama based on H. G. Wells’ science fiction classic War of the Worlds lives large in public memory. Panicked listeners fled into the streets. Some people committed suicide rather than face the Martian invasion. Millions of Americans were terrified out of their wits.
The recent television docudrama “War of the Worlds” that aired on the PBS series American Experience (October 30, 2013) is the latest look at “the night that panicked America” (the title of an Emmy-winning 1975 TV movie about the event). It draws upon newspaper reports, books and of course the original broadcast. Unique among programs about this radio drama, the American Experience program tapped letters written to Welles by listeners, and used actors and actresses filmed in black and white to portray the letter-writers as if they were being interviewed on-camera. The producers acknowledge they adapted the letters’ content to work better as spoken words. That blurs the line between fact and fiction.
The American Experience program brought out critics saying that recent research on the 1938 broadcast has debunked the notion that Americans fled screaming into the streets in large numbers. The nationwide panic was purely a myth created by newspapers to attack radio, the medium with which they competed for advertising dollars, and to sell papers.
In some cases, however, the critics of the PBS broadcast have their own books to hawk. That’s not surprising: if they’ve researched and written about the Welles broadcast and the panic it inspired (or didn’t inspire), then they have information to share that they say contradicts the popular story of a terror-stricken America. However, it also raises the question, are they are doing the very thing they accuse “the media” of doing—taking advantage of an event (the PBS broadcast) to promote their product. In some cases, links to cited sources go directly to a book on Amazon.com, rather than to a supporting article.
Below are links to the website for the American Experience: War of the Worlds broadcast and to a couple of the articles that have accused its producers of ignoring or downplaying recent research. You can find others by Googling “War of the Worlds did not cause panic.” Judge for yourself how much actual panic spread through the country in 1938 and how much of that supposed panic was a media-hyped myth that endures to this day.
The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic, by Jefferson Pooley and Michael Socolow
Media Myth Alert, by W. Joseph Campbell
Gerald D. Swick experienced his own “Is this for real?” moment in the 1980s when he tuned in a TV movie already in progress and saw what appeared to be breaking newscasts about Warsaw Pact tanks rolling through the Fulda Gap into West Germany. He did not run screaming into the streets and denies any media reports to the contrary.