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  • Writer's pictureMelanie Roussel

The War of the Worlds Panic

Eighty years ago today, America was plunged into panic. But there's a twist to this story you've probably never heard.

Orson Welles explaining himself to the press

On Sunday 30th October 1938, Orson Welles released an audio dramatization of The War of the Worlds. It was aired as part of the radio drama anthology series called The Mercury Theatre on the Air and adapted from British novelist H.G. Well's book of the same name, published in 1898.

It was directed and narrated by Orson Welles and became famous, or rather infamous, for the mass panic it caused throughout the nation as people believed it to be factual reporting. Aliens were landing.

This is one of those monumental historical gaffs we've all heard of.

John Houseman, the producer, recounts what happened once the radio show was over:

The following hours were a nightmare. The building was suddenly full of people and dark-blue uniforms. Hustled out of the studio, we were locked into a small back office on another floor. Here we sat incommunicado while network employees were busily collecting, destroying, or locking up all scripts and records of the broadcast. Finally, the Press was let loose upon us, ravening for horror. How many deaths had we heard of? (Implying they knew of thousands.) What did we know of the fatal stampede in a Jersey hall? (Implying it was one of many.) What traffic deaths? (The ditches must be choked with corpses.) The suicides? (Haven't you heard about the one on Riverside Drive?) It is all quite vague in my memory and quite terrible.

The papers the next day were full of stories of American towns and cities which had gone into a panic at hearing the broadcast.

Orson Welles became famous.

The Truth...

Unfortunately, as with most viral fiction you desperately want be true, it's not.

Or not fully, at least.

The fact is, a lot of urban legends has sprung up around this event. Fuelled by the press, gossip and frankly, I suspect Orson Welles and the radio station themselves. But a lot of it is untrue. The play was advertised as being Well's masterpiece long before it aired. Announcements were made before and during the broadcast that you were listening to a dramatisation.

It's also become apparent that it hadn't been a popular show. The C.E.Hooper company who dealt with radio ratings contacted five thousand people after the broadcast and only 2% had been tuned in. Most people heard about it second hand and from the papers.

So why did so many people believe it?

There is some credibility to the panic - at a time when America was fully aware of gas attacks during the First and ongoing Second World War, hearing a portion of the broadcast out of context could have caused alarm.

During the broadcast itself, anxious callers contacted Jack Paar who had announcing duties at the same time at the Cleveland CBS affiliate WGAR. Paar told them, "The world is not coming to an end. Trust me. When have I ever lied to you?" Paar was then accused by his callers of trying to cover up the truth.

When things like this happen, the greatest enemy of the truth is usually ourselves. Telling people something isn't true is a handy way to make them believe it.

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The Twist...

In a fairly stunning and tragic incidence, the urban legend of the War of the Worlds panic actually became true.

In February 1949, Radio Quito in Ecuador broadcasted a Spanish-language version of Orson Welles's script. In this case, the broadcast sparked chaos. Quito emergency services rushed out of town to deal with the 'alien invasion'.

Subsequently, after the 'hoax' was revealed, there were riots in Quinto. The girlfriend and nephew of one of the producers, Leonardo Paez, were killed in the riot along with several other people. The offices of Radio Quito and the local newspaper El Comercio (who'd published false reports of UFOs to tie into the upcoming radio drama) were burned to the ground. The fires had a chance to spread so drastically because all the emergency services were still trying to make their way back into the city.

Why was this event so much worse? Unlike Orson Welles's production, the Radio Quinto production came with no warning at the top. There were far more people in Ecuador listening to the radio than America.

There's a fascinating article on the Huffington Post by Cecilia Alvear who remembers the event. She describes the mass panic, including how her older brother, a military cadet, and the rest of the military school was ordered to stand guard along the perimeter of the campus. Herself, six years old at the time and the rest of her family slept through it, only to wake up the next day to no radio and no paper.

Normal, rational people have a tremendous ability to delude themselves.

On a daily basis, we can convince ourselves that everything's fine. It's perfectly okay to have a misogynistic and chauvinistic leader of the free world. There's also no such thing as global warming so why bother recycling? And the classic, 'just one won't hurt'.

We have a fantastic ability to be blind to reality - is this why we're more suspectable to fiction?

I'm a massive fan of hoaxes and what they say about us. I've written about the Great Moon Hoax - but it might not be the one you're thinking of!

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