It has become synonymous with “mass hysteria.”
Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast celebrates its 81st anniversary this year. On October 30th, 1938, the modernized and Americanized retelling of a classic literary story by H.G. Wells, went down in urban legend (and more than a few history books) as causing a mass panic that had people literally running for the hills.
The panic, the size and scale of which has been of much contention for scholars and historians, didn’t seem to affect the City of Casper, Wyoming back in 1938. Or, if it did, such was not noted in the newspaper of the time.
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The 1938 broadcast starred and was directed by the famous ateur Orson Welles. In 1938, Welles was known for his bold Broadway stage productions and a lucrative career in radio, including a brief turn as the mysterious hero The Shadow. Welles would later go on to produce Citizen Kane, a film regarded by many to be the best American film of all time. The script for the radio version of War of the Worlds was written by Howard Koch, who would go on to co-write the classic film Casablanca.
The radio show updated a serialized novel, War of the Worlds, originally published in 1897 by science fiction author H.G. Wells. In the book, invaders from the planet Mars crash-land on Earth, and make quick work of human military forces as they invade the English country side with poison gas and heat rays. The book follows an unnamed narrator as he witnesses the Martian first-contact, and follows the invading vangard’s path of destruction.
Koch’s radio script updates the story to a then-futuristic setting of 1939, and exchanges the book’s English location to that of the small New Jersey community of Grover’s Mill. The first part of the story unfolded as a series of breaking news broadcasts, presented by anchors, as if the events were happening in real time. Before listeners very ears, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air painted a story of alien invasion that extended from the Jersey farmlands to the roof of the CBS building in bustling New York City. In the story radio reporters died, military bombers crashed, and artillery men choked on deadly gas- all heard by radio listeners.
Popular culture, urban legend, and media of the time would have us believe that the 1938 broadcast prompted widespread panic, fueling fears already in place by a pre-World War II Europe. An Associated Press story appearing in an October 31st edition of The Casper Tribune-Herald gives the bold top headline of “RADIO DRAMA PANICS NATION”.
The AP story continues:
“A horrible fantasy of war waged on the United States by fearsome, space-conquering men from Mars brought near panic to that part of the nation’s audience which was not tuned in last night on Charlie McCarthy’s rival radio program. In the double-quick tempo of the news broadcasters, the fiction of a Columbia program became so realistic that hysteria prevailed among listeners around the United States and Canada.”
In 1940, Princeton professor Hadley Cantril calculated that some six million people heard The War of the Worlds broadcast. He estimated that 1.7 million listeners believed the broadcast was an actual news bulletin and, of those, 1.2 million people were frightened or disturbed.
The size and scope of the panic, as well as Cantril’s findings, have come under scrutiny and criticism as being largely overblown, citing problems with Cantril’s methods of data collection. A Slate.com article from 2013 contends that “the supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast. […] almost nobody was fooled by Welles’ broadcast.”
If that’s the case, then Casper, Wyoming certainly seemed like an example of cooler heads prevailing in reaction to the broadcast. In the days following the 1938 War of the Worlds program, The Casper Tribune-Herald shows no stories of local residents panicking at the time. Reports of panic in the streets and jammed phone lines, often associated with the broadcast, were not reported on locally.
Elsewhere in Wyoming, The Laramie Republican and Boomerang newspaper from October 31st, 1938, reported that citizens of Laramie didn’t seem to buy the Welles dramatization, either.
A small sidebar published in the Laramie paper noted that residents of that city failed to see any panic in the wake of the broadcast. The paper explained that it conducted a survey in the area that “failed to show that there was any hysteria here over the CBS radio program last night.” The newspaper then adds that officials and the phone company reported no inquires about the broadcast in the Laramie area.
The phenomenon did not entirely pass local interest, however. A small piece, reported in the Casper Star-Herald, notes that the Orson Welles’ broadcast was the subject of discussion for the Casper Toastmasters Club.
In the short piece published on November 2nd, 1938, the Tribune-Herald noted that “radio listeners should not jump too quickly to conclusions.”
A 2015 book by A. Brad Schwartz, entitled Broadcast Hysteria- Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News, puts forward that the reaction of the Casper Toastmaster Club was probably the same reaction as the majority of the rest of the country.
Schwartz quotes heavily from letters sent to both the Federal Communications Commission and to Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre. Pulling from the letters, he notes specific examples of listeners who claimed, if nothing else, to be scared or unnerved by the broadcast. Even including a couple who used their last six dollars to flee the area, only to have to borrow money from a group of kindly college students in order to catch a return train back home.
However, Schwartz says that stories like this were the exception, rather than the rule. Of the thousands of letters received by Welles and the FCC in the weeks following the broadcast, more letters seemed to be reacting to the media coverage of the broadcast, after the fact, than were from people who were tuned in the night-of. Further, Schwartz also points out that the vast majority of letters received by both institutions were in support of Welles and the broadcast, than were complaining.
Many of the letters, both in support and in complaint of Welles and the program, criticized radio listeners who had been fooled. Saying that the panic was the sign of lack of intelligence, moral degradation, and the corrupting influences of radio as a whole (the medium still being fairly young at the time.)
Schwartz goes on to say that the “panic” of War of the Worlds may not have necessarily been people reacting to what they heard on the radio on October 30th, 1938. Instead, it may have been the public’s reaction to a “panic” that historians believe was largely overhyped by media of the time.
Listen to the 1938 broadcast here:
Orson Welles is interviewed by news men following the broadcast:
“So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian…it’s Hallowe’en.”Orson Welles, War of the Worlds, October 30th, 1938
A version of this story originally ran for the 80th anniversary of the broadcast, in October of 2018.