Orson Welles' War of the Worlds "panic" debunked


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This is another thing that needs to be cleverly summed up and placed on t-shirts for mass consumption.

How about, “Don’t believe every damn thing you hear. Especially if it tickles your sense of outrage.”


The “zomg, people lost grasp on reality and started shooting up water towers!” story is a lot more fun than “people listened to a radio show and thought it was well presented.”

Plus, if you’re a redneck, you don’t need a lot of excuses to shoot things. A few beers will usually suffice. People can attribute it to whatever they want.

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For the 3% of you who have not heard the RadioLab podcast on this subject, it’s excellent.

I don’t know if I buy this argument. I certainly am not convinced enough to buy Pooley & Socolow’s book. One of the few pieces of hard evidence against a “panic” they provide is the C.E. Hooper survey of 5,000 households the night of the broadcast, but they fail to take into account that panicking people probably would not have stopped to take part in a phone survey. The rest of the Slate article is spent shooting holes in the veracity of the evidence supporting the panic. I have little doubt that the newspapers exaggerated the hoax, but I also think that the authors are purposefully downplaying the cultural relevance of the broadcast. They are both communication/media/journalism assistant professors who have probably been using the War of the Worlds broadcast as a linchpin in some lecture about the “power of media” or “the rise of newspaper journalism in the pre-war era” long before they published this book, and they have, quite understandably, used the 75th anniversary of the broadcast to attempt to sell more copies of it. I’m as suspicious of their motives in writing this article and their book, as I am of the degree to which panic ensued as a direct result of the War of the Worlds broadcast.
In all honesty, I could care less if there was or wasn’t an “actual” panic. Even if the only empirical result of the broadcast was the immediate notoriety of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater, I would consider the War of the Worlds broadcast to be more than culturally significant. Disregarding the fact that it may well represent the first instance of self-referential “gonzo” journalism, or that it incorporated this strategy in service of a modern-day meta-parable that “one should not believe everything one sees or hears”, the broadcast served as a springboard for Welles’ career. Without it, there likely would have been no Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil, or F is for Fake.
Frankly, who gives a flying fuck if it caused a panic or not.
/end rant


Another case of “The Man” keeping down the little guy.
Oh the irony.

Or, is this just the Panic Deniers once again trying to cover the past?


I do. No matter how implausible, the panic is a part of my personal mythology, and I refuse to believe it is false. Exaggerated, maybe, but I swear those Jerseyites were pissing themselves.

If it’s a question of a good story, though, there is still some nice touch of irony in a radio play inventing a story of mobs fleeing from deadly tripods, replied to by newspaper articles inventing a story of mobs fleeing from radios.

Anyone up for an internet rumor about how the real panic was caused by the papers? And then maybe someday Martians can blame the internet, and bring things full circle.

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I first heard the broadcast when I was maybe 8 or 9 years old. At some point in my youth I fell in love with old time radio shows, so I grew up steeped in this stuff. While I like to think I would have been among the cool, calm, rational souls who waited for the station break, or consulted a second source like maybe another radio station on the dial, the fact is I probably would have been pissing myself too - especially if I happened to have been living in Grover’s Mill or Trenton on 10/30/1938 (really, I can’t put myself in the mindset of someone who had only two sources of media to turn to in a time of crisis: radio and newspaper).
Which brings me to another problem I have with the Pooley & Socolow argument: they have taken the untenable and inadvisable position of attempting to prove a negative. What constitutes a panic? What if the “panic” was localized to Grover’s Mill or Trenton or Podunk, Iowa? Do these guys really expect me to believe they’ve conducted such an exhaustive study, 75 years after the fact, of every little berg across the U.S. that had a CBS affiliate as to unequivocally rule that “there was no panic”? Have they scoured the police records and switchboard logs of every town in the U.S. on that night? An eyewitness said that Times Square was empty…what does that prove? No one panicked anywhere? Grrr.
I don’t know why this article has gotten me so riled up. It just seems like a weak-ass premise - the collegiate equivalent of troll-baiting, which probably only accounts for one chapter in their dumb book. And now they’ve used both Slate and boing boing, by proxy, as an advertisement for it. Well, I say, “nuts to that”!


My father was an actual eyewitness to an actual panic. He grew up outside Spotswood NJ, was 13 years old in 1938, and his family had a weekly tradition of driving into town on Sunday evenings to buy ice cream. They were unable to do so on October 30 of that year because bumper-to-bumper traffic in both directions prevented them from crossing the highway.

My father’s deceased, and I can’t prove he didn’t lie to me about what he saw when he was telling me the story decades later, but I sure can’t figure out any motive for him to do so.

To claim that a well known and widely reported historic event with lots of eyewitnesses wasn’t as big a deal as commonly believed would be defensible, but to claim that it didn’t happen at all and it took 75 years for anyone to notice? That’s a really massive stretch.


All it takes is a perusal into Google newspapers from that time. Not the national reports, but the local ones. From the articles I read, people did actually panic and people died as a result.

Hello! If you don’t have links you made it up.

Just an anecdote, but a first hand story from my grandmother. She was doing the laundry during the broadcast and heard it from the beginning, so she knew it was fiction, but it was such an intense experience that at the moment where the corespondent loses contact she tore a quilt in half. My whole family is built stout, but that’s still quite a bit of adrenaline.

One thing she explained that I hadn’t thought about was that they just didn’t do radio fiction so realistically then. No one had heard a “fake broadcast” before. At the time she associated radio reports with news about the war in Europe. I can certainly see where someone who missed the introduction might have been very concerned.


I remember listening to the whole thing when I was younger. I could see how people could think it was real for the first half - but the second half read more like a radio play to me.

Speaking of Orson Welles - loved him in The Shadow.

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

An example. The Pittsburgh Press October 31st, 1938:


Well thank you. I don’t suppose you would be surprised to hear that I am not convinced. The post we are talking about included the idea that these post-scare scares were propagated by the print press to ridicule and call into question the legitimacy of radio journalism and radio in general as being a dangerous new aberration. This linked article screams out that it is “ginned up” out of whole cloth and innuendo.

The newspapers were not known for their accuracy or unbiased reportage at that time. Especially in retrospect. See any thing at all about William Randolph Hearst as reference.

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I’m highly suspicious of research done 75 years after that fact concerning something that would be very hard to properly research to begin with. How do you measure panic?

I have NO doubt that newspaper reports exaggerated the events. However, the problem for the debunkers is that there are plenty of people alive today who experienced the broadcast. Here in this short thread there are already people relating personal memories of the experience or relating the experience of others as related to them. To that I will add that my own family heard the broadcast. My Aunt personally told me how terrified she was. I have also met other people who remember it.

So, the skeptic in me naturally doesn’t believe the panic was at the scale newspapers claimed, but when someone comes along flimsy claims that something didn’t happen that plenty of people know did, they are met with my skepticism as well.

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Does this take more modern cases into account?

There are plenty examples from the last 40 years or so, where large number of people fell for hoaxes or even what we today would call “mockumentaries”.

Two German examples are Das Millionenspiel from 1970 and the first German broadcast of the Austrian tv series Kottan Ermittelt in 1981, where the German station had a ticker about some UFO nearing the town of Duisburg.

Both caused quite a reaction. Not a panic, of course, but the recipients did not live during one of the largest wars humanity had known at the time for some time, were more familiar with the medium and the implied threat was far less severe.

This came up the other day when I was talking to my grandparents. My grandmother thought the broadcast was real. My grandfather wasn’t even aware it was on the radio. The panic may have been exaggerated, but the slate article goes too far in denying that people thought it was real.