Seventy years ago tonight, Orson Welles’ now-legendary adaptation of The War of the Worlds was aired over the CBS radio network, triggering a panic nationwide as countless listeners believe the report of a Martian invasion to be real.
That’s the story, in any case. The reality, one media historian claims, was far less dramatic.
“Nobody died of fright or was killed in the panic, nor could any suicides be traced to the broadcast,” Michael J. Socolow writes in the latest issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Hospital emergency-room visits did not spike, nor, surprisingly, did calls to the police outside of a select few jurisdictions. The streets were never flooded with a terrified citizenry. Ben Gross, the radio columnist of the New York Daily News, later remembered a ‘lack of turmoil in front of CBS’ that contrasted notably with the crowded, chaotic scene inside the building. Telephone lines in New York City and a few other cities were jammed, as the primitive infrastructure of the era couldn’t handle the load, but it appears that almost all the panic that evening was as ephemeral as the nationwide broadcast itself, and not nearly as widespread. That iconic image of the farmer with a gun, ready to shoot the aliens? It was staged for Life magazine.”
It’s an interesting article that examines how the legend took root and grew, thanks largely to the showmanship of Welles and the news media’s craving for a good story.
This being the 70th anniversary of the broadcast, it seems like a perfect time to read Ian Edginton and D’Israeli’s adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel on the Dark Horse website.