ON THIS DAY: In 1938, Martians Invaded The U.S.A.

Actually, a radio broadcast got a bit out of hand

Picture: Wikimedia Commons
Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Nigel Watson, author of UFOs of the First World War, writes, 'Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre of the Air caused a sensation when they broadcast their version of the War of the Worlds on Halloween’s Eve, 30 October, 1938. Their radio show presented the story as an on-going news broadcast. They told listeners that spaceships were landing in New Jersey and that Martians were coming to get them.  After studying the panic psychologist Hadley Cantril thought that 1.2 million listeners had been frightened or excited by the broadcast. The reaction was so intense that a stunned and unshaven Orson Welles apologised before news reel cameras the following day.

'Although the show had been presented as fiction, many listeners apparently accepted it as fact. It has been noted that the worrying political frictions in Europe, that were leading up to World War II, had made them more responsive to stories of attack.

'People were also more likely to believe what they heard on the radio, however outlandish, if presented as news. The public had been accustomed to seeing and reading about spaceships and future weapons through the likes of Flash Gordon, so an attack from Mars only indicated that the foreseen ‘future’ had arrived.

'Cantril’s classic study of 1945 has been  used to show that the public would panic if extraterrestrials ever  made a mass landing or provided unequivocal proof of their existence. In the 1980s sociologists looked again at this panic and found that few listeners did more than feel worried about the broadcast.

'The masses did not run into the streets in blind panic, or hide in their basements in the manner suggested of a panic. Instead, it is suggested that this was really a product of mass delusion fuelled by the media and confirmed by Cantril.

'Since Welles was the supreme showman one wonders if he helped inflame the idea of a mass panic and that his apology the next day was just an act. Intriguingly, the film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (W.D. Richter, 1984), plays with the idea that this alien invasion really did happen in 1938 and that we were all implanted with false memories to make us believe it was all a hoax.