War of the Worlds and the Invasion of the American Psyche

The War of The Worlds mythos surrounding the events that transpired during the radioplay performance is as much a part of pop culture DNA as the laws that (attempt to) codify media etiquette today. As part of a mass media class assignment, I had the opportunity to learn more deeply about how the War of the Worlds broadcast began a public discourse on the ethics of media and scientific research. While hysteria is a word in itself steeped in malpractice and misogyny, here I use it as was deployed to describe the anxiety, fear and panic induced in some people who listened to the War of the Worlds broadcast and experienced it as live coverage of an actual alien invasion, which only occurred as a result of the misunderstanding and conflation of facts by the CBS Corporation and the willing participation of Orson Welles and his crew in an unethical experiment with their audience.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

In October of 1938, Orson Welles produced and performed a radio adaptation of the science fiction classic, The War of the Worlds. During this decade, America faced several challenges to its sovereignty. The broadcast seemed to be the ideal escapist entertainment that, to this day, fuels the debate as to how much of the mass hysteria and panic was real and what was perceived. During the Depression Decade, the United States remained in a process of recovery following the devastation of the stock market crash and the subsequent Dust Bowl. The Red Scare propaganda enveloped the American dream, bringing forth fears about communist, socialist, and anarchist values and propaganda in popular media directed at immigrants, foreign nationals (especially Germans), people of color, and others considered outsiders (Emlii.com). A combination of mass destitution, post-war existential fears, rapidly advancing technological developments, and an uncertain economic future led many to question their place in the cosmos. As technology advanced, the antics of entertainers rose to meet the growing expectations of the audience. In the 1930s, the Nazi (Nationalist Socialist) party of Germany was coming to prominence, and war was again in the minds of men. The weeks prior to the radioplay, Germany had signed the Munich Agreement which guaranteed Nazi control of Czech lands. European Allied powers gathered forces and intelligence as comical Anti-Hitler propaganda began to circulate. It is during this era of fear that Orson Welles and the Columbia Broadcasting System chose to do the unthinkable. This brew of political, technological, and economic uncertainties collapsed into an event of hysteria due to the expectations of listeners and their perceived danger of fictional alien invaders. Thanks to Welles, more people look to the sky in an ambiguous state of fear and wonder.

SCIENCE FICTION AS FACT

Science fiction, and in this particular case, the work of H.G. Wells, has inspired generations of people to challenge our preconceived notions about the universe. The 30s were a decade of science fiction gaining more basis in reality as the world entered the Atomic Age. In 1938, Hahn and Strassman were working in Berlin on what would become the source of the world’s greatest fears: nuclear technology. Whereas a radioplay about nuclear disaster would be considered unethical, perhaps the hysteria generated by Welles’ broadcast is thought to have served humanity better than if the Airforce decided to tell the world that alien invaders were coming to destroy us. Even if such were the case, the fear-impulse generated during the broadcast left many wondering why they were running away at all. A report conducted on New York and New Jersey listeners concluded that they ‘could not distinguish between states of disturbance, excitement, or panic’ (Campbell). Still, technology may be partially to blame for the ineffectiveness of warning the unknowing listeners. The replacement of print with radio as a national medium is essential to understanding why people reacted as they did to the broadcast of War of the Worlds. The intimacy of radio directly propelled the success of the radio drama with its star cast, realistic interpretation of actual neighborhood locale and effective sound effects (Lubertozzi). There is also the reported synchronicity of strange local events the night before the panic, including unexplained power outages, lights flickering, and poor radio reception reported across New York state (New York Times). Therefore, the synchronicity of these events during the War of the Worlds broadcast cannot be discredited from having a profound influence on the cognitive-behavioral and social effects of media on the listeners.

MEDIA EFFECTS AND DISTORTION

Of course, the effects of the media conflating the story may be greater than effects of the broadcast itself. The Times article is one mixed with many examples of real panic and several examples of the exaggerations brought on by the media. Many interviewees reported seeing others rushing out of their homes and into the streets to escape the poisonous gases released by the Martian invaders (New York Times). Other examples of real panic induced from performances of War of the Worlds, although not as dramatic as reported by the Times, do exist. According to KIRO, the station received about 250 calls during the hour of the broadcast (Skorheim). The Seattle scare does not even come close to compare in scale to the panic in New York. The time elapsed since the original reports and lack of corroborating evidence suggests that perhaps again the truth was conflated by the media. However, another account of a reenactment of the radio drama provides another warning of the dangers of perceived history. On Halloween Eve in 1974, radio station WPRO decided to adapt The War of the Worlds. The producers and performers substituted Rhode Island locations. In an attempt to ‘stay true to the original broadcast’, the station ran very few disclaimers (Emery). This was in contrast to the Orson Welles’ broadcast, in which it is reported that Welles’ War of the Worlds did in fact run frequent disclaimers throughout the performance (Campbell). In this case, the lack of consistent disclaimers in both New Jersy and Rhode Island led to real panic and damage. People gathered in the streets and ran to warn their neighbors. Some called the local armory and police stations, screaming for answers (Emery).

MYTH, HOAX, OR SOMETHING MORE?

The War of the Worlds mass hysteria is considered to be a hoax by many scholars. However, the social and political turmoil taking place during this historic broadcast can best be understood within its context as a social experiment. According to Prof. James F. Tracy, “The Rockefeller Foundation was the principle source for funding public opinion and psychological warfare research between the late 1930s and the end of World War Two”. Rockefeller’s roommate at Dartmouth College, Hadley Cantril, and his mentor Gordon Allport observed that radio is “preeminent as a means of social control and epochal in its influence upon the mental horizons of men.” (Tracy). Prof. Tracy describes here what can be clearly understood as intentional experimentation without consent of participants:

“The opportunity for such an analysis presented itself when CBS broadcast Orson Welles’ rendering of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds on October 30, 1938. Lazarsfeld saw the event as especially noteworthy and immediately asked Stanton for CBS funds to investigate reaction to what at the time was the largest immediate act of mass persuasion in human history. Over the next several months, interviews with War of the Worlds listeners were collected, provided to Stanton at CBS, and subsequently analyzed in Cantril’s 1940 study, The Invasion From Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic.”

The Rockefeller family had much to benefit from the research, and the fact that Nelson Rockefeller at the time supervised the Office of Inter-American Affairs (a cover agency for CIA intelligence operations) is confirmation that The War of the Worlds radioplay was a social experiment in psychological warfare… (but that’s a research topic for another time!) Of course, the broadcasters creatively inserted disclosure statements during breaks in the radioplay that therefore prevented CBS from being held accountable. The Rockefeller family involvement within the United States government was also openly shared with the public, serving to provide essential research and analyses to predict public opinion and behavior before, after, and during times of war. Therefore, there can be no question that gullible listeners became unknowing subjects in a psychologically cruel experiment to test the fears of the American public and to find the most effective methods of political persuasion.

CONCLUSIONS

According to author Ralph E. Hanson, there was far more perception of panic than real panic. In his textbook Mass Communication: Living in a Media World, the message and media effects explain the power of belief and presentation in the War of the Worlds mythos (pg. 30, 40). Welles’ The War of the Worlds broadcast is a timeless example of media propaganda, and the first experiment of its kind to learn about media effects and mass communication. Here, uncertain times are the medium and public hysteria is the message, providing the perfect canvas for research, experimentation, and data collection. The purposes of such research have since been made clear to the public, although the means and execution remain morally questionable. What can be made clear about 1930s America is the fact that America had become fully dependent on global resources and needed to find a new means of maintaining sovereign defense and control. The result was a well-thought-up, passive-aggressive way to both entertain and test the psyches of the American public in a decade following a national identity crisis and period of economic devastation. The question remains as to how governments and organizations can be held accountable for immoral experimentation and media distortion when people are unaware that they are the unwilling subjects of these conspirators.

You can listen to the remastered original 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds here:

References

Hanson, Ralph E. Mass Communication: Living in a Media World. CQ Press, 2014. Print.

The New York Times. Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama As Fact. October 31, 1938. Web. Published online 1992.

A. Lubertozzi, B. Holmsten. The War of the Worlds: Mars’ Invasion of Earth. Web. Sourcebooks Inc., 2001.

Campbell, Joseph W. Getting it Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism. Chapter, Fright beyond Measure? The Myth of the War of the Worlds. University of California Press, 2010.

Skorheim, J. KIRO Listeners responsible for most famous War of the Worlds panic. MyNorthWest. 31 October 2011. Web.

Emery Jr., C. Eugene. The night WPRO’s War of the Worlds shook up Rhode Island. Providence Journal. 30 October 2014.

Tracy, Prof. James F. Early Psychological Warfare and the Rockefeller Foundation. GlobalResearch. 29 April 2012.

“Most Powerful Propaganda”. Emlii.com.

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