Did Martians invade Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, on the evening of October 30, 1938?
Certainly not. But of greater importance, were millions of Americans actually thrown into a panic that night by a news-style radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ 1898 science fiction novel “The War of the Worlds,” as many histories still claim?
And what lesson does this famous broadcast have for us during the threat – and reality — of misinformation being spread via the Internet and social media?
West Windsor, Princeton, and neighboring communities are celebrating the 80th anniversary of what is arguably the most famous non-event in American history, the one that put nearby Grover’s Mill on the map. (Appropriately, a map led the show’s scriptwriter to select that quaint town for the fictional Martian landing.)
But along with the costume parties, art projects, and stage performances, there is a debate about the truth behind the alleged frenzy of 1938 and what it can teach us about the fears of 2018. That’s of special interest to Princeton University history graduate student A. Brad Schwartz, author of the acclaimed recent book “Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News.”
“Some sort of hysteria did happen,” Schwartz says. “You can’t dismiss the whole thing as a myth. But it wasn’t because ‘all-powerful’ radio was directing people to behave a certain way.”
He adds: “What ‘War of the Worlds’ really shows is that the media has a much more complicated effect. It has to do with people who are ready to be persuaded.”
Both the original book and its notorious radio adaptation are true classics, still thrilling today. Their intriguing origins deserve a brief retelling. Herbert George Wells (1866 – 1946) had already enjoyed huge success with his dystopian novel of the future, “The Time Machine.” When an older brother, Frank, suggested the idea of Earth invaded by beings from Mars — the Red Planet then very much the subject of scientific study — H.G. developed an equally dystopian story set in England of the present.
In addition to being a novelist and historian, H.G. Wells was a dedicated social reformer. A real and terrible tragedy informed his book about humans overwhelmed by technologically advanced invaders. In the first chapter, the narrator (looking back on the events to be revealed) pointedly comments: “The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of 50 years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”
Gas explosions seen on the surface of Mars are believed to be volcanic activity. But a huge metal cylinder lands on Horsell Common near the English village of Woking (a real place, where Wells lived and wrote). It soon becomes stunningly clear that an invasion has been launched at Earth. Repulsive, octopus-like Martians emerge from the cylinder and, in short order, incinerate a peace delegation and a company of soldiers with a heat ray. Next, they erect 100-foot-tall walking tripod machines. Reinforced by the denizens of subsequent cylinders, they march on London. Human resistance is eliminated by the heat rays and poison gas. The narrator, a learned gentleman, must hide like an animal before its hunters.
But in the end, Wells introduces a nick-of-time plot device (all the more wonderful for being totally believable) to save humanity from the Martian scourge.
Forty years later, legendary actor-director Orson Welles, then a brash and brilliant 24-year-old, was the talk of the New York performing arts scene. He had already staged powerful and controversial plays, while simultaneously leading the “Mercury Theatre on the Air” radio drama series for the CBS network. Its adaptations of famous novels earned critical praise and a loyal audience.
And the Mercury Theatre’s version of “The War of the Worlds,” broadcast live on October 30, 1938, earned it a place in American history — literally overnight.
Script writer Howard Koch (a future Academy Award winner for “Casablanca”) seamlessly adapted the book’s action from England to America. Koch’s propitious random poke at a road map landed on a New Jersey town with the irresistibly rustic name of Grover’s Mill. It stood in for Horsell Common. Woking became Princeton; the novel’s narrator became a university astronomy professor (portrayed, of course, by the sonorous-voiced Welles). And New York became the first major city conquered by the Martian fighting machines.
But a powerful source of the show’s power — and, later, controversy — was Koch and Welles’ device of structuring it as a standard musical entertainment disrupted by urgent news bulletins and on-the-scene reporting. (“We interrupt this program to …”)
Most residents of the real Grover’s Mill weren’t tuned into the broadcast. But some began receiving frantic phone calls from anxious friends and relatives who had missed the show’s opening — which clearly stated this was a “dramatization of H.G. Wells’ ‘The War of the Worlds’” — and thought the world was ending.
Local reaction was either courageous or curious. The New Jersey State Police were summoned, not to battle Martians but to control traffic jams caused by people arriving to help or simply to look.
But many listeners did misinterpret the show or were spooked by acquaintances who had. A notable few even took to their cars or boarded trains to flee the disaster or whatever they thought it was. (Some were panicked by “Martians,” but others thought an enemy nation had attacked or a catastrophic earthquake had struck.)
Citizens telephoned newspaper offices, urgently seeking information. The next day’s headlines were bold and dramatic: “Radio Play Terrifies Nation — Mars Invasion Thought Real,” declared the Boston Daily Globe. “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact — Many Flee Homes to Escape ‘Gas Raid from Mars’,” intoned the New York Times.
Princeton had other connections to the show, besides being the home of its protagonist. “The League for Interplanetary Defense,” founded at the university as a joke, sent Orson Welles a telegram after the broadcast. And enterprising young journalists from the Daily Princetonian student newspaper also telegrammed him, requesting an interview. Welles granted it backstage at “Danton’s Death,” the stage play he was then directing.
But of greater importance, Princeton psychology professor Hadley Cantril gave one of the first academic lectures about the event. Cantril was working on the Princeton Radio Project, an early research effort into the medium’s effectiveness in advertising and other forms of mass persuasion. The idea that Welles’ broadcast had been powerfully influential fascinated Cantril. And in view of radio’s recent successful use by German Nazis and Italian Fascists to undermine their nations’ democracies, it also frightened him.
In 1940 Cantril published the influential “The Invasion from Mars, a Study in the Psychology of Panic.” Brad Schwartz says that Cantril “overestimated how persuasive the media really is. He and a lot of scholars engaging with propaganda in that time were operating under this mistaken assumption — ‘the hypodermic model’ as they used to call it — that media can inject ideas into people’s minds.”
Meanwhile, some radio advocates (notably John Houseman, Welles’ producer on Mercury Theatre on the Air) insisted that the newspapers had gone into a feeding frenzy after the event, eager to depict their broadcast rival as a dangerous new medium needing government censorship.
If some people had a sleepless night because of “War of the Worlds,” 60 years later it was sleepless nights that first led Brad Schwartz to hear it.
Born in 1990, young Brad suffered from insomnia. His parents supplied him with tape cassettes of classic programs from the Golden Age of Radio, then being popularly marketed and thus re-entering American culture. Young Brad fell asleep listening to “The Lone Ranger,” “The Shadow,” and “The War of the Worlds.”
“I remember as a kid not liking it that much,” he says, “because I didn’t get what Welles was trying to do.”
Schwartz, now 28, grew up in East Lansing, Michigan. His father worked for an automobile trade association. His mother studied education at Michigan State and worked in the governor’s office. She later earned a graduate degree and worked at the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a nonprofit that improves teacher quality throughout America.
“They’ve always been phenomenally supportive of me doing what I wanted to do,” Schwartz says. They even drove him to book signings in Chicago by his favorite author, Max Allan Collins (with whom he collaborated on the just-published “Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago”).
In ninth grade Schwartz did a presentation on the “War of the Worlds” broadcast as part of a unit on the early 20th century, “about the panic it supposedly caused and what it said about the culture at that time, before the Second World War and after the Great Depression.”
For a history fair he created an interactive display, setting up a music stand with broadcast scripts and a microphone. “When students came around, I’d get them to reenact portions of the broadcast. So I think my real appreciation of the show comes from that time.”
He attended the University of Michigan. While taking a film class in his junior year, a librarian gave a presentation on resources available to students — and the university had just acquired a major collection of Orson Welles’ personal papers.
Included in this trove were numerous letters written by “War of the Worlds” listeners. Writing to radio personalities was a common pastime in the 1930s. Fortunately, Mercury Theatre co-producer Richard Wilson was its ad hoc archivist, preserving almost everything sent to Welles and company.
Schwartz says the university librarian “specifically mentioned these ‘War of the Worlds’ letters and that no one had gone through them yet. And that’s where hearing this show as a child and doing the project in high school lit a spark of recognition in my mind. I vividly remember having a thought in that class, ‘There’s a book in there!’”
Schwartz didn’t have an agent or even a college degree. But he was accepted into the history honors program that very week and needed a thesis topic. “I said, How about ‘War of the Worlds’? And they said great. And we were off and running.”
That honors thesis became the basis for “Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News.” Schwartz explains that his book’s subtitle “The Art of Fake News” was “kind of homage to John Stewart and Steven Colbert. That phrase had an entirely different meaning when I started than it has now. But I think I was on to something.”
He methodically examined some 2,000 surviving letters, many at Michigan and others in the National Archives and other collections. What he discovered in these first-person accounts staunchly confirmed what some revisionist scholars had already suggested: Instead of tsunamis of panic, there had been pockets of fear that spread viral-style when individuals contacted other groups.
“I started noticing that some of the most extreme examples of fright [came] from college campuses, from dormitories and fraternities. Why would this be? Then I read the letters more closely and found things like, ‘Someone rushed into the commons room and said, I just heard this show!’ So it was spreading virally. And once I realized that dynamic, I started seeing it in other places, [like] neighborhoods and apartment buildings.”
Brad concluded that such a viral dynamic is essential and that “the media has a complicated effect. It has to do with people who are ready to be persuaded.”
Schwartz entered the Princeton graduate program to study the intersection of politics and the media, and “because of the value many faculty in the history department place on writing for and engaging with the public.” And for today’s public, the implications of the “War of the Worlds” event are extremely serious.
“Now, in the era of social media [you have] narrow-casting, and you can target people with particular messages designed to resonate with whatever their situation is, their demographics, their political beliefs. You can have an immensely powerful impact. It’s exactly what Cantril was warning about, about media being used to attack and undermine American democracy.”
Schwartz believes there is “compelling” evidence that misinformation by Russian government-created social media sites influenced the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. “The more we’re learning about what the Russians did, the more it becomes clear that they were using these insights into how media persuasion actually works to influence voters in this very specific way.”
What can be done? Schwartz acknowledges that Facebook, Twitter, and other social media companies aren’t using a limited resource like the broadcast airwaves, so direct government regulation may not be appropriate. “But I do think if these companies, like broadcasters, could get people who are spreading false information off these platforms we’d be in a much better place.”
Meanwhile, Schwartz is working toward this better place. He has been consulting with the University of Michigan on a lesson plan that teaches students how to evaluate and resist fake news.
It has been tested at a Michigan high school, with promising results. Students hear an excerpt from the 1938 broadcast, then read some of the original newspaper stories. But they are also given digital copies of the letters to Orson Welles, revealing diverse reactions among listeners.
“You get them thinking about how news stories are reported and how sources are used — what gets picked, what falls through the cracks, how journalism can construct a story that’s based on facts but is misleading.” Then these lessons are applied to “something on the Internet which looks like a legitimate story but is not. How do you evaluate these sorts of things?”
But misinformation and conspiracy theories can be as tenacious as invading Martians.
As Schwartz recalls with a wry smile, “Somebody came up to me at a book signing and said, ‘You know ‘The War of the Worlds’ was a psychological experiment put on by the Rockefellers, don’t you?’”