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Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

Thesis Topics: Ready-Made



Halloween is approaching, and 30 October 1998 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the Mercury Theatre on the Air's radio dramatization of H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds. Although the script for this broadcast imitated the format of radio news reporting of the time, an announcement at the beginning of the performance stated clearly that the program was fiction. However, so many people tuned in late-switching from another station during a break in a popular show-that they missed this crucial statement, with the result that thousands of listeners apparently believed that the United States was being invaded by Martians. The public reaction, beginning with panic and ending with annoyance and anger when it became clear that there was indeed no invasion, can be studied from a number of viewpoints.

The story of the broadcast and its aftermath is well-known, and is mentioned in numerous reference works on radio history.[1] Most Mercury Theatre radio dramas were collaborative productions of Orson Welles, John Houseman, and the scriptwriter Howard Koch. Welles had wanted to do something moderately scary for the Halloween production, but no one involved in the Wells adaptation was particularly excited about it. The story was a bit dated, and Koch believed that it could not possibly 'be made interesting or in any way credible to modern American ears;' his secretary declared that 'Those old Martians are just a lot of nonsense. It's all too silly! We're going to make fools of ourselves!'[2]

The script has been published in several editions of Hadley Cantril's The Invasion from Mars.[3] A modern reader does not necessarily need any recollection of 1930s and 1940s radio to imagine how it sounded: A program of dance music is being broadcast from a New York City hotel; an announcer, speaking in a somber voice, interrupts the broadcast with a disturbing report of gas explosions on Mars.[4] The program then alternates between dance music and ever-more-frequent, ever-more-devastating news bulletins, as it becomes apparent that the flaming meteorite landing in New Jersey is really some kind of space vehicle, and that death and destruction are resulting from the 'invasion.'

Reaction was immediate. The panic was a feature story on the front pages of many newspapers across the country. Local police stations, newspaper offices, and National Guard armories were inundated with telephone calls from anxious citizens. In the days following the broadcast, news stories focused on the dangers posed by the unwarranted hysteria and on the public outrage directed at the program's producers and the Columbia Broadcasting System. It is easy enough for the researcher to follow the chain of events in The New York Times; the index for 1938 (p. 1657) provides an outline from initial reactions to the broadcast, through apologies from both Welles and CBS, to agreements among the major radio networks not to broadcast simulated news programs. No other American newspaper was indexed at that time, however; front-page stories on the day following the broadcast are easy to find, but subsequent reports are much less so.[5]

Although John Houseman's memoir of the event mentions 'quite a pile of sociological literature'[6] about the program, very little appears in standard academic sources, although entertaining reminiscences appear from time to time.[7] The principal study analyzing the public reaction to the broadcast is Hadley Cantril's The Invasion from Mars, cited above. This study, which has become known as 'one of the classics of mass communication research,' was conducted at Princeton University by a group that had been formed to 'assess the influence of radio on listeners in the United States.'[8] From interviews with listeners and analysis of newspaper reports, the researchers attempted to discover why so many people believed the program was a news report when others, who also had missed the introduction, were able to determine that it was a play. Many were apparently too frightened to consider what more level-headed listeners understood, that events were happening far more quickly than could be physically possible.[9] One observation seemed to surprise the researchers: Some listeners with very little formal education knew instantly that the broadcast was a play.[10] Other factors are mentioned in nearly all analyses of the program; as Houseman notes, the broadcast

came within thirty-five days of the Munich crisis. . . . A new technique of 'on-the-spot' reporting had been developed and eagerly accepted by an anxious and news-hungry world. The Mercury Theater . . . found an already enervated audience ready to accept its wildest fantasies. The second factor was the show's sheer technical brilliance.[11]

Students of mass media generally agree with the conclusion that the broadcast 'established the power and effectiveness of radio drama.'[12]

Some questions remain. It might be worthwhile to expand the range of the Cantril study and try to determine whether the extent of credulity was overestimated. A sampling of letters to the editor in the 2 November 1938 issue of The New York Times (p. 22) shows a wide range of opinion:

The bad taste and lack of restraint in the Halloween 'joke' broadcast cannot be too harshly condemned. . . .

Make no mistake, it was not the ignorant, nor the believers in ghosts, who took this thing seriously. It was those who, acquainted with our own scientific accomplishments, see nothing impossible in any dream of what a more advanced people out in space might be able to accomplish. . .

May we hope that no action will be taken against the Columbia Broadcasting System for the brilliant dramatization . . . of 'The War of the Worlds.'

Vivid dramatizations over the radio of imaginary catastrophes . . . ought to be prohibited by law.

Unless the American average of intelligence is lower than some people suspect, I for one refuse to believe that any but children, old ladies and mental deficients were seriously perturbed by . . . a boring and rather inane production.

We are far safer from invasion by an unseen enemy squirting death rays than from results of a continued loose governmental fiscal policy.

It is difficult to believe that large segments of the public could be so thoroughly fooled again, although only a few years after the 1938 program, another radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds was broadcast in Chile; and while rumors of deaths (suicides? traffic disasters?) resulting from the Mercury Theatre program were unfounded, a Chilean electrical worker apparently died of a fright-induced heart attack.[13] And one has only to read the proliferation of newspaper and magazine articles that appeared during the fifty-year anniversary of the alleged UFO landing in Roswell, New Mexico, to get some idea of the possible consequences of another convincingly-presented 'news' story of a Martian invasion-everything from serious scientific inquiry to Internet sites to souvenir merchandising.[14]

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[1] 'The Mercury Theater on the Air,' in John Dunning, On the Air : The Encyclopedia of Old-time Radio (New York : Oxford University Press, 1998), 451-454; 'The "Invasion from Mars" (1938),' in Harold S. Sharp, Footnotes to American History (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow), 502-503.

[2] John Houseman, 'The Men from Mars,' Harper's Magazine (December 1948), 76.

[3] Hadley Cantril, The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), 4-43.

[4] A tape is available in the Sanborn English Library: H. G. Wells, Orson Welles' War of the Worlds [sound recording] (Glenview, Ill.: National Recording Co., [198-?]). The performance is indeed realistic, although the very act of inserting a tape in a player and pushing buttons inevitably precludes an exact recreation of the experience.

[5] News strories appeared also in the foreign press: 'Panic Caused by Broadcast,' The Times (London) (1 November 1938), 1; R. de Roussy de Sales, 'Un cas d'hallucination collective en Amérique: les Martiens envahissent le New Jersey,'L'Europe nouvelle 21 (19 November 1938), 1269-1270.

[6] Houseman, 'Men from Mars,' 78.

[7] Charles Jackson, 'The Night the Martians Came,' in The Aspirin Age, 1919-1941, ed. Isabel Leighton (N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1949), 431-443.

[8] Shearon Lowery and Melvin L. De Fleur, Milestones in Mass Communication Research : Media Effects (New York: Longman, 1983), 67.

[9] Cantril, Invasion, 89-102.

[10] Cantril, Invasion, 120-124.

[11] Houseman, 'Men from Mars,' 79.

[12] Footnotes to American History, 502.

[13] 'Those Men from Mars,' Newsweek (27 November 1944), 89.

[14] See, for example, David Noack, 'In Brief: Unidentified Flying Newspaper: The Roswell Daily Record in Outer Space,' Editor & Publisher 130:31 (2 August 1997), 29.

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