Essential Pittsburgh
3:49 pm
Wed October 30, 2013

The Science of Fear & the 1938 War of the Worlds Broadcast

This sculpture by Michael Condron in Surrey, England was inspired by The War of the Worlds
Credit WarofDreams / Wikipedia

Seventy-five years ago today, a salivating, tentacled Martian slithered out of a deep hole in the ground of a New Jersey farm. 

Today, we know that this alien did not really incinerate the people of Grover’s Mill with its heat-rays. But after the 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast on CBS, many believed the country was under attack. The result was said to be mass hysteria.

The following day Orson Welles, the narrator and director of the broadcast, apologized to angry listeners, stating that it was not real, but a hoax. Some 12 million people listened in but to this day we are not sure how many actually believed it was true.

Nowadays, this mass hysteria caused by the media might be less likely to happen, but in 1938, there was a national anxiety brought on by the possibility of a second World War and a massive economic down turn.

“There was a fear that the world was going to be plunged into war, Hitler was making moves and there was the Hindenberg explosion the year before,” says Jeff Ritter, Chair of Communications, Media, and Technology at La Roche College.

These live actualities were being reported on radio, had never been done with earlier technology. People took all breaking news reported by the radio as fact, and the War of the Worlds broadcast was no exception.

According to Scare House scare specialist Margee Kerr, a University of Pittsburgh sociologist who studies fear, the degree of panic the nation experienced has actually been overblown. Nevertheless, there were reports of letters, calls to the police and testimonies from those who listened to it.

So what is it about War of the Worlds that makes it so scary? Kerr says it has a lot to do with our imaginations.

“We often can imagine much scarier things in our minds than what we will actually see in person,” she says.

When the reporter described the Martian figure, each person listening created their worst nightmare and believed it to be true.

Years later, Orson Welles reportedly said that his reason for producing the program was more than just Halloween fun, he wanted to make people question the stories they hear on the news.

“He said it was purposeful, and that he wanted the public to be more critical and analytical of what they were listening to on the radio,” says Ritter.