Invaders in Our Living Room: Why We Love the Myth That Most Americans Believed the 1938 ‘War of the Worlds’ Broadcast - Pacific Standard

Invaders in Our Living Room: Why We Love the Myth That Most Americans Believed the 1938 ‘War of the Worlds’ Broadcast

The real legacy of the War of the Worlds is how we think about mass media.
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The Boston Daily Globe, October 31, 1938. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

At 8 p.m. on October 30, 1938, much of the American radio audience was listening to a ventriloquist. Charlie McCarthy was a puppet, Edgar Bergen his master, and together they hosted the Charlie McCarthy Show. That same night, at the same time, 77 years ago, Orson Welles staged the War of the Worlds, an adaptation of the 1898 novel by H.G. Wells, on his innovative CBS dramatic series, First Person Singular.

Typically, McCarthy out-performed First Person Singular by a ratio of approximately 10 to one listeners. The popularity of a radio show about a puppet that cannot be seen conveys the force of a 1930s imagination. The fact that most readers have heard about Orson Welles’ show, while practically none of us know about Charlie McCarthy, qualifies the significance of what happened later that night.

The popular myth is well known: Orson Welles’ broadcast of the Martian invasion was so realistic that America collectively panicked. The Martians landed in New Jersey and made their merciless way toward Times Square. To hear the 1930s sources tell it, across the country, priests’ telephone lines were tied up with last confessions. An Indianapolis woman burst through the doors of her church to announce the end of the world. In Newark, between Heddon Terrace and Hawthorne Avenue, over 20 families ran screaming from their houses breathing through wet handkerchiefs to keep from inhaling the gas. In Grover’s Mill—where the Martians had supposedly landed—a group of men opened fire on a water tower they had mistaken for a Martian. In Providence, Rhode Island, the electric company was bombarded with calls demanding that the power be cut in the hopes that the Martians would overlook the darkened city.

War of the Worlds and the panic about its panic are products of the moment when the young fields of social psychology and radio used one another to legitimize themselves.

It’s hard to know how seriously to take any of this. True or not, it was simply too good a story to pass up. The papers weren’t always the most trustworthy. A week later, on November 6, the Boston Daily Globe ran a follow-up story called “Why Earth Is Safe From Men of Mars: Scientists Now Doubt Earlier Theories of Advanced Martian Civilization—No Evidence of Life on Planet—But Venus May Be Inhabited by Superior Beings.”

If there were superior beings watching Earth, they were surely unimpressed by the coverage.

In recent years, some researchers, such as W. Joseph Campbell, John Gosling, and Michael J. Socolow, have even suggested that the hysteria has been overstated. It’s impossible to know the truth of a moment so ephemeral. Yet even if there were no panic at all, it would be even more stunning that we’re willing to believe, now as then, that a radio drama could cause a nation to lose its grip on reality. This is the legacy of that night. The way we think about media to this day is heavily indebted to the very ideas behind the broadcast and its reception—that radio, and media, can constitute a kind of invasive psychological experiment. War of the Worlds and the panic about its panic are products of the moment when the young fields of social psychology and radio used one another to legitimize themselves. Its significance to American history, panic or not, is bigger than even popular myth allows.

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Four days after the broadcast, a writer for the New York Times expressed concern about the “unconscious hypnotism” of listeners, and recounted Welles’ troupe’s response: “They confessed they were amazed at the reaction; they wonder if the psychologists can figure it out.”

The psychologists were trying. In 1938, an extremely ambitious social scientist named Hadley Cantril was teaching at Princeton, where he had founded the Office of Radio Research, the first major institution devoted to the scientific study of radio. He began work on a study the very next day.

Both the 23-year-old Welles and the 32-year-old Cantril were working with radio at a pivotal moment. Radio had become a national phenomenon in the decade before. From the beginning, it was invested with democratic dreams of mass education. Many felt that radio might usher in a “new enlightenment,” and a lot was riding on its ability to do so. The number of students enrolled in high school grew from 519,000 in 1900 to 5.7 million in 1950, doubling every decade after 1890 according to Robert Geiger and William Reese. The education of a large population of voting adults, then, was becoming outdated. Policymakers and journalists hoped radio would fill the gap. But they recognized a central tension: If it could enrich minds, then it could also control them.

There was reason to believe it could do either at scale. In 1935, there were twice as many radios in American households as telephones. By 1939, there were 63,794 radio stations authorized in the United States, broadcasting to the approximately 26,667,000 families who owned radio sets.

This meant that radio was seen as an essential bulwark in democratic society, but also as a threat. As David Goodman recounts in the excellent Radio’s Civic Ambition, the government required through the 1934 Communications Act that the networks do their best to realize radio’s public service potential. As part of their self-reforming efforts, the networks introduced the first so-called sustaining programs—public-spirited shows without commercial sponsors. The two most famous dramatic sustaining programs from the period were Irving Reis’ the Columbia Workshop, and, two years later, Welles’ First Person Singular, the program that aired the War of the Worlds.

Radio had the nation’s ear, and everything behind the ear was the social scientist’s domain.

The sustaining programs were a chance for the networks to pitch themselves as scientists, working to harness the utmost potential of radio. Douglas Coulter, the assistant director of broadcast for CBS, wrote that the Columbia Workshop had ushered “a new day for radio drama ... and that, with laboratory experimentation on the air, new techniques and ideas could be developed that would raise the standards of all radio programs.” As Welles told the Times in August of 1938, “Our idea ... is to bring not the theater to radio, but our own individual interpretation of radio to the listener.” Neil Verma notes in his Theater of the Mind that radio drama promulgated the social scientific ideas about its own influence on the air. In the early days of experimental radio, the subject of the radio play was always, on some level, radio as an experiment.

They weren’t the only ones who saw it that way. In the 1930s, members of the relatively young field of social psychology sought to pitch themselves as useful agents of democracy too. In 1935, according to Gustav Jahoda’s a History of Social Psychology, Carl Murchison, the head of undergraduate teaching at Clark University, wrote in his introduction to the Handbook of Social Psychology that, in contrast to the physical sciences, “the social sciences at the present moment stand naked and feeble in the midst of the political uncertainty of the world.” The lead-up to the war was an ideal opportunity to change that. The physicists could build the bomb; the social scientists would defend the American mind. Radio had the nation’s ear, and everything behind the ear was the social scientist’s domain.

Hadley Cantril was working hard to own that domain. Born in Hyrum, Utah, in 1906, he moved east to study under the famous social psychologist, Gordon Allport, with whom he later wrote the Psychology of Radio. Relevance was extremely important to him. He helped pioneer the study of radio; he was the president of the Institute for Propaganda Analysis. A colleague would later describe him as “pathologically ambitious,” but he knew how to show what the field could do. Leading social scientists studying public opinion sought not only to collect data, but also to make that data and their methods publicly visible. As Sarah Igo details in her sweeping the Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public, this is how ideas like the average American entered the public parlance.

The same year that Murchison bemoaned the “feeble” social sciences, Cantril and Allport wrote the Psychology of Radio in order to develop a conception of radio’s power by experimenting with its influence on the listener’s imagination, and warning of its potential to sway a mass audience. As Katherine Pandora notes in an article on the book, the text was published through a mainstream press and intended for the public too. The book posed radio as a seismic shift in public life: “Only kings, millionaires, and lucky adventurers were able to include within their mental horizons experiences that the average man has so long desired but never obtained,” Cantril wrote. “Now at last the average man ... may attend the best operas and concerts, may assist at important hearings and trials, at inaugurations, coronations, royal weddings and jubilees.”

But just as easily as the average man could penetrate a king’s halls, so too could a foreign leader enter the average American’s living room. One year earlier, in February 1934, Germans had begun broadcasting anti-American propaganda to Latin America from the German Short-Wave Station in Zeesen. According to Horst Bergmeier and Rainer Lotz’s Hitler’s Airwaves, the Reich program director called it “the strongest weapon ever given to the mind ... neither halting at city gates nor turning away from closed doors.” Dramatists, dictators, and radio scientists alike were aware of that potential. As Orson Welles said at the end of his own personal invasion, the radio was “the invader of your living room.”

That’s what Cantril found so seductive about War of the Worlds: It was about what radio could do to the mind. As he wrote his study, he was at work on a book called the Psychology of Social Movements, studying the rise of groups like the Nazi party. War of the Worlds, then, was “a semi-experimental condition for research” in which Cantril could study such mass movements as a form of mass delusion. Employing polling, content analysis, and in-person interviews with panicked listeners, he reported the results of his War of the Worlds research in 1940. The Invasion from Mars has since determined much of the scholarly and popular understanding of why the broadcast was believed. Cantril pointed to Americans’ anxiety about the war, their loss of certain critical thinking abilities, and their mental susceptibility to radio. He referred to the broadcast as “the stimulus.”

In a way, then, the broadcast was a feedback loop. Experimental radio drama like Welles’ play invoked the legacy of social psychological experiments on radio. The significance of dramatists’ interest in perception and imagination was that it encouraged the public to see themselves as easily manipulated by radio broadcasters. Ultimately, the reason people believed the broadcast panicked the country was not just that they heard about it; it was because radio drama and radio psychologists had disseminated notions of aural suggestibility that made an imaginative radio play the focus of extraordinary popular concern. War of the Worlds drew those worlds together. Then, using the ideas and tools that created the broadcast, Cantril studied it.

The ideas animating that intersection, to this day, determine how we think about media acting on the mind—whether enabling democracy, enforcing control, or failing its own democratic potential. If a million people panicked that night or not, it doesn’t matter. The true panic was longer and quieter. It surges, true or not, when we worry that our phones make us lonely; Internet reading makes us shallow; the liberal media is brainwashing us. The idea of the invader, in our living room or pocket, is with us still.

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Demon Week is Pacific Standard's series of essays exploring all things diabolical—from devils to dogs, monsters to mental illness.

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