Tonight, PBS airs a documentary about Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast and the resulting hysteria that swept America. The only problem? Many scholars contend that the program didn’t actually cause mass panic at all.
The story is burned into our national consciousness: Airing on October 30, 1938, the War of the Worlds broadcast was brilliantly directed by the not yet world famous “boy wonder,” Orson Welles. His expertly crafted show told the story of Martians invading New Jersey, leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake. We’re told millions of people took the fictional program as real, and thought that the end of the world had arrived. The program supposedly caused suicides, heart attacks, and any number of panicked people to get in their cars and flee for the hills.
This story of mass panic is the one that PBS tells tonight. The show cleverly utilizes modern actors to give reactions from people who heard the broadcast. The modern footage is even treated to make it look old, while the audio is distressed and tinny. Unfortunately, this device largely serves to perpetuate the myths surrounding the broadcast, rather than better our understanding of it.
Yesterday I spoke with Michael Socolow, whose 2008 article in The Chronicle of Higher Learning argues that claims of mass panic have been overhyped. According to Socolow, the anecdotal accounts run by newspapers of the time were deeply flawed and painted a skewed picture of how Americans (most of whom hadn’t even heard the broadcast first-hand) had responded to the now infamous program.
“The reason it becomes so big is that the press goes crazy for the story. And then people start thinking they’ve heard it,” Socolow says. “Memory and the media have an incredibly complex relationship.”
The surveys done immediately after the program illustrated that not only did very few people hear the broadcast, but that virtually no one thought it was real. Socolow co-wrote a piece forSlate that appears today and lays out many of the same arguments.
When I asked Socolow about his assessment, he was quick to rattle off four names of other researchers who had come to similar conclusions about the War of the Worlds broadcast, even before his first article on the topic appeared in 2008: Edward Jay Epstein, Robert Bartholomew, Jeffrey Sconce, W. Joseph Campbell. Socolow was far from the first to realize that this so-called panic broadcast wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
Socolow was interviewed for the PBS American Experience: War of the Worlds documentary that airs tonight, but as he puts it, “they left all of the scholarship out.” He’s seen an advance screener copy and has many issues with the program. To begin with, the film only devotes one line to the dissenting viewpoint that maybe the mass panic claims were a bit overblown.
“Ultimately, the very extent of the panic would come to be seen as having been exaggerated by the press,” the PBS show says late during the program in the lone hint that this might all be bullshit.
Socolow also takes issue with the way that the PBS documentary represents certain facts. The show uses modern actors to read portions of letters written by people responding to the broadcast in 1938, and they also use interview material that appears in the 1940 book The Invasion From Mars by Hadley Cantril. “I’m not sure why PBS would base a documentary on a piece of scholarship published in 1940,” Socolow says. “If they produced a new documentary on, say, the Civil War or the Jazz Age, one would assume they would reference more recent scholarship.”
Cantril’s 1940 book is flawed in so many crucial ways, as Socolow wrote in 2008:
Admitting that his interviews did not comprise an accurate sample of either the national population or the radio audience that evening, Cantril nevertheless filled his short volume with narratives of terror and fear.
Putting aside the fact that the source material is unrepresentative of the population that heard the broadcast — or at the very least, doesn’t prove any mass panic actually took place — there is the issue of how the testimonies were changed. As the filmmakers explain in the “making of” video: “One of the challenges of working with letters is that they’re written. And we don’t speak the way that letters are written. So, the letters had to be adapted a bit.”
“I think the decision to ‘interpret’ or ‘adapt’ the primary source material was a mistake,” Socolow contends. “I don’t think any of the characters are particularly memorable, or relatable.”
The issue is not only that these letters were “adapted,” but that they use fake names (like Sylvia Holmes in Newark, New Jersey) as though they were real. As the preface to the 1940 Cantril book lays out, “All names of respondents used in the text are fictitious and identifying characteristics are disguised, but the true flavor of the case studies is preserved.”
This perpetuation of the pseudonyms, in my mind, is a minor issue in the short term. But as we’ve seen with historical figures likeNikola Tesla, minor misrepresentations roll through history like a cartoon snowball growing in size. How many high school or college kids writing a paper on the War of the Worlds panic in the next few decades will quote the fictional Sylvia Holmes?
In the end, Socolow asks us to put ourselves in the shoes of people in 1938. Do we think so little of the people that came before us? Were they really any more gullible than the people of 2013?
“What bothers me the most about the panic myth in general, and the PBS documentary specifically, is that it demonstrates such condescension towards the radio listening audience of 1938,” Socolow says. “I honestly do not think those listeners were much more persuadable — or easily panicked — than we are today, and I don’t think most of us today would panic.”