War of the Worlds (Who Scared Who?)

My first experience with War of the Worlds was pretty frightening, to say the least. It was in second grade, and I was sick with pink eye on Halloween day. I was home with Dad, and for reasons I can’t remember why anymore, we decided to watch the 1953 classic War of the Worlds. Though I thought I was brave enough for an ‘old people’ movie, I never made it to the end. Too scary for me. And to this day, I haven’t ever gone back and finished the film. Maybe I never will, who knows?

war of the worlds ship.jpg


A lot of accounts of the famous 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds sound like my own experience with the terrifying tale of alien invasion. There are a lot of newspaper headlines from the next day that read “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama on as Fact,” or something similar, painting a picture of masses of listeners confused, scared, or some mix of emotions that resulted in general panic and outrage. As a result, fire was added to ongoing debates about radio and its influence on society, and Orson Welles earned a reputation as a dramatic actor that would help him have a long and storied career.

Orson Welles
Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Now, there seem to be two schools of thought about the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast and its reception: 1- it scared tons of people, or 2- it didn’t scare anyone at all. Its easy to search the internet for sensational headlines about the War of the Worlds panic, and there are still a lot of accounts of millions of Americans who believed that invasion was upon them. In 1940 Hadley Cantril, a big name at the time in radio research, co-authored a book with Herta Herzog and Hazel Gaudet called The Invasion from Mars. Using data from the American Institute of Public Opinion, the book claimed that over one million people believed that the broadcast was a report of a real-life invasion and was not made-up at all.

In the decades since 1938, historians other critics have begun to say that this whole belief in a real invasion talk is actually nonsense, and that in fact hardly anyone was fooled by the broadcast. A few years ago a pretty good article was published on Slate about how the World of the Worlds panic was a myth, which I suggest you take a look at if you have a minute. Here’s how the authors sum up the creation of the panic myth:

“How did the story of panicked listeners begin? Blame America’s newspapers. Radio had siphoned off advertising revenue from print during the Depression, badly damaging the newspaper industry. So the papers seized the opportunity presented by Welles’ program to discredit radio as a source of news. The newspaper industry sensationalized the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted.”

I’m definitely on board with the idea that most folks weren’t actually scared or even confused by the broadcast. The average American living in the 1930s was much smarter than I was in 2nd grade and I don’t think they were fooled. Radio had been around for years and by the late 1930s was super popular. Your average listener was pretty familiar with radio and knew how to tell a serious broadcast from a fictional one pretty well. In fact, there are a lot of really good books out there like Lizabeth Cohen’s Making a New Deal and Kathy Newman’s Radio Active that show that in many ways, listeners had a better understanding of radio than the producers, and constantly kept producers on their toes.

No doubt these nurses are bracing for casualties from the incoming invasion… Photo credit: George H. Clark Radioana Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithonain Institution

Now, the Slate article I quoted above lays the blame squarely on the newspaper industry, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. Like Hadley Cantril, the 1930s had a lot of observers who were convinced that radio and the rest of the “culture industry” were taking over everything. If you look at the writings of people like Theodore Adorno, Max Horkhiemer, Rudolf Arnheim, and others, you can see they were all expecting radio, film, print media, etc to continue dominating Americans and would eventually everyone into passive consumers, content with the status quo (no matter what their situation in life was). Arnheim’s book, “Radio: An Art of Sound” (1936) is one of the best examples of this I think, and worth a read if you can find a copy. This line of thinking is a big part of what’s now known as the Frankfurt School philosophy. I have to admit, I’m taking a really complicated argument and diluting it down into a little paragraph, but I think I’ve got its essence here. With a radio, according to the Frankfurt School people, all you can do is sit and listen. Thus, you’re not able to participate culture, you’re just being absorbed into it’s world as a passive listener.

Horkhiemer (left) and Adorno (right). Photo Credit: Wikipedia.

Radio listeners in the 1930s were definitely not passive listeners in any sense of the word, I think they had a lot of control in what they listened to and how they felt about it. But, I don’t think many critics recognized this. They had their own ideas about what being an “active” listener was, weren’t as interested in whether a listener considered them self “passive” or not.

The idea of millions of listeners believing every word on the radio, even when the word was an alien invasion, fit right into the theories these intellectual critics were promoting, and so it makes sense to me why they supported the stories of mass panic. I don’t think this was malicious like the newspaper people were, but I do think that there were a lot of people who saw the changes happening in radio and related industries in the middle of the 20th century and mistook it for a sign of a culture industry that was soon going to take over society. Just like the War of the Worlds broadcast said alien invaders were coming to dominate all life on Earth. See any similarities here? Who was really fooled by the broadcast?
war of the worlds

I’ll end this with another thought. A few years ago, I came across an article in “Advertising Age,” a really interesting trade journal written by and for advertising industry insiders. Written only a week after the Halloween broadcast, it said that reports of a large part of the population thrown “into a dither” were grossly untrue, and that “the misunderstanding was caused by a small number of listeners possessing intelligence in inverse ratio to their loquacity.” (1) Looks like the advertising industry, who watched American society just as closely as any other critic, didn’t think that the average American listener believed everything they heard on the radio.

Its a pretty short article, which you can read here: War of the Worlds_Ad Age. I think this goes to show that if you remember the fact that advertisers aren’t always right and that their motives are profit and sales (not to accurately describe the world as it is), they can be a great source for learning about what ordinary people were actually like. Advertisers write a lot of stuff besides just advertisements, and its worth checking their stuff out!

If you’re interested, here’s a link to a paper I wrote a few years back about radio in the 1930s: radio-reception-paper. Its got more about the fear of radio’s impending domination of listeners that many observers predicted at the time. The paper isn’t perfect, but I still say worth a skim!



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