The panic over Martians happened 75 years ago
Waynesburg professor chronicles wide impact of ‘War of the Worlds’
Brandon Szuminsky, an instructor at Waynesburg University, has written an essay included in an anthology marking the 75-year anniversary of “The War of the Worlds” broadcast. He said it was the first time mass media had a direct impact on a large number of people.
Tara Kinsell / Observer-Reporter
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Brandon Szuminsky, an instructor at Waynesburg University, has written an essay including in an anthology marking the 75-year anniversary of “The War of the Worlds” broadcast. He said it is the first time mass media had a direct impact on a large number of people.
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One can only assume that it was sleepy at The Washington Observer on the night of Oct. 30, 1938.
It was a Sunday, and a front page was being assembled for the next morning that included stories on a Finleyville church celebrating its 100th anniversary, a McDonald man dying in an auto accident and the midterm election campaign heading into its final week.
Then the phone rang. Someone called to see what the newspaper knew about a Martian invasion. Then more calls followed. The guffaws that surely greeted the first call might well have subsided by the second or third.
“Several persons called the Observer office last night to learn if there was any truth to what they said was a radio news broadcast that men from Mars had landed in the eastern part of the nation in a bloody military attack,” the newspaper reported. “Most of those who called said they had just turned on their radio and found (it) broadcasting a sensational account of the events. The majority indicated only a strong curiosity as to ‘what it’s all about,’ while two said, ‘Everyone here is scared to death.’”
Then, the story noted, “No calls were received by the Observer after the radio program ended with an explanation that it was a dramatization of an H.G. Wells story.”
The same hysteria – or, at least, puzzlement – was played out in hundreds of other communities that night as listeners tuned in to affiliates of the Columbia Broadcasting System and heard the Mercury Theatre on the Air’s adaptation of “The War of the Worlds.” The so-called “panic broadcast” has become the stuff of legend: By relocating Wells’ novel from London to New Jersey and New York, setting it in the present and telling the story in a series of mock bulletins from “Intercontinental Radio News,” many of those gathered around their boxy Silvertone, Philco or Delco radios believed that what they were hearing was not a drama, but the real McCoy.
“The War of the Worlds,” which aired 75 years ago tonight, helped make a household name of Orson Welles, the 23-year-old wunderkind at the helm of Mercury Theatre on the Air, and has become a historical landmark. It’s part of the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress, and has been the subject of scores of books and documentaries and much scholarly dissection.
According to Brandon Szuminsky, an instructor in the communications media department at Waynesburg University, it was the first time mass media “had such a direct impact on people.” The medium itself was still relatively young – the maiden broadcast from Pittsburgh’s KDKA had happened just 18 years before – and audiences were still getting accustomed to this new medium. If they casually turned the dial and heard news bulletins, they had every reason to assume they were authentic dispatches from afar, and not the pre-Halloween trickery of actors and scriptwriters.
And, as Szuminsky pointed out, the “media ecosystem” in those days was much more limited than it is today. Now, if someone falsely tweets that some celebrity or another has died, we can turn on the television and head to CNN, or check any number of other sources, to see if they are also carrying the story. Seventy-five years ago, they could switch to a few other radio stations or wait for the next day’s newspaper. If regional listeners decided to turn their dials from the “War of the Worlds” broadcast on WWVA from Wheeling, W.Va., or WJAS from Pittsburgh, their only other options were Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy yucking it up on WCAE or the radio drama “Out of the West” on KDKA.
Szuminsky, a columnist with the Herald-Standard in Uniontown and Ph.D candidate at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, has co-authored an essay, “Mediating Misinformation: Hoaxes and the Digital Turn,” in a freshly-published anthology of scholarly essays pegged to the “War of the Worlds” anniversary. It explores media hoaxes, from the 1835 “moon hoax” perpetrated by the New York newspaper The Sun, which deliberately published a false report that a civilization had been discovered on the moon in order to boost circulation, up to today’s digital frauds.
“The War of the Worlds” was the first time, though, that serious thinkers started to consider that “the mass media has an impact on us and it’s something worth paying attention to,” Szuminsky said.