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Voice of Reason: 'War of the Worlds' Truths and Myths

The recent Hollywood movie War of the Worlds by Steven Spielberg is garnering much attention, but it's nothing like that accorded the 1938 radio version of H.G. Wells' novel. Although the extent of the panic that broadcast caused is still debated, along with the claim that it was intended to hoax the public, here are the essential facts.

On the night before Halloween, 1938, young Orson Welles and the older John Houseman (who later played Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase movie and TV series) broadcast the drama. The Mercury Theater on the Air was receiving poor ratings but -- in the first notable instance of "channel surfing" -- millions of listeners tuned in to the broadcast when the competitive and much more successful Chase and Sanborn Hour (featuring ventriloquist [!] Edgar Bergen) shifted to a musical interlude. Their attention was captured by a CBS correspondent stating:

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is Carl Phillips again, at the Wilmuth farm, Grovers Mill, New Jersey. . . .Well, I . . . hardly know where to begin, to paint for you a word picture of the strange scene before my eyes, like something out of a modern Arabian Nights. Well, I just got here. I haven't had a chance to look around yet. I guess that's it. Yes, I guess that's the . . . thing, directly in front of me, half buried in a vast pit. Must have struck with terrific force. The ground is covered with splinters of a tree it must have struck on its way down. What I can see of the . . . object itself doesn't look very much like a meteor, at least not the meteors I've seen. It looks more like a huge cylinder. . . ."

Soon "reporter" Phillips, with an "astronomer," Professor Pierson, described a hideous tentacled creature emerging from the capsule: "It's as large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. . . . I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The month is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate."

The play-by-play account continued with bulletins giving the death toll at the site, eventually followed by the announcement: "Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make. Incredible as it may seem, both the observations of science and the evidence of our eyes lead to the inescapable assumption that those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars. . . ."

The scene turned  from horrific to apocalyptic. The Martian invaders proceeded to New York, defeating the resisting U.S. Army, destroying communication lines, and sending toxic clouds of gas across the countryside. The "Secretary of the Interior" soon came on air to urge citizens not to panic (see Brian Holmsten and Alec Lubertozzi, The Complete War of the Worlds, 2001).

But panic they did. Some researchers now doubt the estimate of nearly one million hysterical listeners. And early reports of deaths from stampedes, traffic deaths, and suicides were false. Nevertheless, many were clearly frightened. "Fake Radio ?War' Stirs Terror Through U.S.," reported the next day's New York Daily News. For example, one college senior told how he had been on a date and returned to his girlfriend's place to rescue her: "One of the first things I did was to try to phone my girl in Poughkeepsie, but the lines were all busy, so that just confirmed my impression that the thing was true. We started driving back to Poughkeepsie. We had heard that Princeton was wiped out and gas and fire were spreading over New Jersey, so I figured there wasn't anything to do -- we figured our friends and families were all dead. I made the forty-five miles in thirty-five minutes and didn't even realize it. I drove right through Newburgh and never even knew I went through it. I don't know why we weren't killed. . . . The gas was supposed to be spreading up north. I didn't have any idea exactly what I was fleeing from, and that made me all the more afraid. . . . I thought the whole human race was going to be wiped out -- that seemed more important than the fact that we were going to die."

Robert E. Bartholomew and Benjamin Radford, in their book Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias (2003), term the broadcast "arguably the most widely known delusion in United States and, perhaps, world history." Moreover, they point out that a broadcast of the play adapted for a Chilean radio station, caused "a widespread panic" in Santiago on November 12, 1944. So did another in Quito, Ecuador, on February 12, 1949.

While the Welles broadcast is cited in various compendia of hoaxes, some would agree with Alex Boese in his The Museum of Hoaxes (2002) that it "was never intended to fool anyone." He explains that "At four separate points during the broadcast, including the beginning, it was clearly stated that what people were hearing was a play."

While that is certainly true, Orson Welles' subsequent claim that he had "anticipated nothing unusual" was almost certainly disingenuous. He noted that the technique had been used before, and so probably knew that a broadcast by the BBC in 1926, featuring a dramatized riot, had resulted in panic. Welles also changed the story's setting -- from England to the United States -- and added verisimilitude with a seemingly real news-flash technique and other elements.

H.G. Wells' tale and Orson Welles' dramatization each left much to the reader's or listener's imagination and thus fired public interest -- something Steven Spielberg has scarcely been able to do despite all the visual power of Hollywood special effects and the efforts of actor Tom Cruise.

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and "Investigative Files" columnist for the organization's science magazine, Skeptical Inquirer.