In Grover’s Mill, New Jersey

It was exactly eighty years ago today.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” came the voice from the radio, “we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the InterContinental Radio News.”

And within minutes, Grover’s Mill, New Jersey — a tiny unincorporated part of West Windsor Township in Mercer County — was permanently on the map as the site of something that never actually happened — the first alien invasion of Earth, as reported in the Mercury Theater’s broadcast of War of the Worlds.1

The program was performed in the guise of an evening broadcast of dance music, interrupted by news bulletins to give the story more of an emotional punch.2

War of the Worlds

And as the supposed news reporters in the broadcast told the story of Martian invaders using a heat ray to incinerate police, troops and bystanders alike, there were some who fell for it — and believed there really was an invasion going on.3

Or so the newspapers reported in the next days, along with demands for action to stop any future such broadcasts.

The New York Daily News splashed the story across its entire front page with the headline: “Fake Radio ‘War’ Stirs Terror Through U.S.”4 The next day, it did the same: “U.S. Bans Fake Radio Alarms.”5 It reported “coast-to-coast panic created among thousands who listened…”

The Detroit Free Press trumpeted: “Mass Hysteria Seizes East Coast After Fake Radio News Bulletins Report Chaos Following Invasion.”6

And the Washington, D.C., Evening Star then noted: “U.S. May Act to Control Horror Radio Plays After War Scare.”7

That was the focus the next day as well:

• The Camden, New Jersey, Morning Post headlined on page 1: “U.S. Launches Probe of Mars Radio Drama.”8

• The El Paso, Texas, Times, headline was: “Radio Faces Strict Rulings: Aftermath of Invasion Drama Includes Demand for Regulation.”9

• The Owensboro (KY) Messenger opened its coverage: “Bogey Broadcast Spurs Move for Control of Radio.”10

But don’t go looking for documentation for your family history about the panic that swept up your ancestors 80 years ago. The reality is… there wasn’t any panic.

First off, fewer than two percent of the radio audience was actually listening to that broadcast,11 few of the listeners were actually taken in by the news-broadcast format,12 there wasn’t actually any evidence of widespread panic:

Historical research suggests the panic was far less widespread than newspapers had indicated at the time. “[T]he panic and mass hysteria so readily associated with ‘The War of the Worlds’ did not occur on anything approaching a nationwide dimension”, American University media historian W. Joseph Campbell wrote in 2003. He quotes Robert E. Bartholomew, an authority on mass panic outbreaks, as having said that “there is a growing consensus among sociologists that the extent of the panic… was greatly exaggerated”.13

In fact, according to historians Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow, writing in Slate five years ago: “The supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast. Despite repeated assertions to the contrary…, almost nobody was fooled by Welles’ broadcast.”14

It makes a great story… and maybe our older relatives can tell us what they were doing then… but panic… um… no.

Happy Day-Before-Halloween…


SOURCES

  1. There’s actually a monument in Grover’s Mill today to the invasion that wasn’t, if you’d like to see it. A picture is online at Wikimedia Commons.
  2. Want to hear the whole broadcast? It’s online too, at YouTube, thanks to the Newseum.
  3. See generally Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “The War of the Worlds (radio drama),” rev. 30 Oct 2018.
  4. “Fake Radio ‘War’ Stirs Terror Through U.S.,” New York Daily News, 31 October 1938, p. 1; digital images, Newspapers.com (http://www.newspapers.com : accessed 30 Oct 2018).
  5. “U.S. Bans Fake Radio Alarms,” New York Daily News, 1 November 1938, p. 1; digital images, Newspapers.com (http://www.newspapers.com : accessed 30 Oct 2018).
  6. “Mass Hysteria Seizes East Coast After Fake Radio News Bulletins Report Chaos Following Invasion,” The Detroit Free Press, 31 October 1938, p. 1, col. 5; digital images, Newspapers.com (http://www.newspapers.com : accessed 30 Oct 2018).
  7. “U.S. May Act to Control Horror Radio Plays After War Scare,” Washington, D.C. Evening Star, 31 October 1938, p. 1, col. 2; digital images, Newspapers.com (http://www.newspapers.com : accessed 30 Oct 2018).
  8. “U.S. Launches Probe of Mars Radio Drama,” Morning Post, Camden, NJ, 1 November 1938, p. 1, col. 1; digital images, Newspapers.com (http://www.newspapers.com : accessed 30 Oct 2018).
  9. “Radio Faces Strict Rulings: Aftermath of Invasion Drama Includes Demand for Regulation,” El Paso, Texas, Times, 1 November 1938, p. 5, col. 2; digital images, Newspapers.com (http://www.newspapers.com : accessed 30 Oct 2018).
  10. “Bogey Broadcast Spurs Move for Control of Radio,” Owensboro (KY) Messenger, 1 November 1938, p. 1, col. 1; digital images, Newspapers.com (http://www.newspapers.com : accessed 30 Oct 2018).
  11. See “Did the 1938 Radio Broadcast of ‘War of the Worlds’ Cause a Nationwide Panic?,” Snopes.com (https://www.snopes.com/ : accessed 30 Oct 2018).
  12. See Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow, “The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic,” Slate, posted 28 Oct 2013 (http://www.slate.com/ : accessed 30 Oct 2018).
  13. Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com), “The War of the Worlds (radio drama),” rev. 30 Oct 2018.
  14. Pooley and Socolow, “The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic.”
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