It couldn’t happen here?


If you go here, you can download a copy of one of the most famous radio broadcasts ever made: Orson Welles 1938 adaptation of ‘War Of The Worlds’, a drama that caused mass panic and hysteria when it was broadcast. Here’s what happened:

“On the evening of Sunday, October 30, 1938 – a month after the Munich – Orson Welles of the Mercury Theatre gave, over the Columbia Broadcasting System, a scheduled radio dramatization of an old fantasy by H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds. To make it vivid, he arranged it to simulate a current news broadcast. After an announcer had clearly explained the nature of the program, a voice gave a prosaic weather forecast; then another voice said that the program would be continued from a hotel, with dance music; shortly this music was interrupted by a “flash” to the effect that a professor at “Mount Jennings Observatory,” Chicago, reported seeing explosions at regular intervals on the planted Mars; then the listeners were “returned” in orthodox fashion “to the music of Ramon Raquello…a tune that never loses favour, the popular ‘Star Dust’”; then came an interview with an imaginary Princeton professor, with more information about disturbances on Mars – whereupon a series of further “news bulletins” described the arrival of Martians in huge metal cylinders which landed in New Jersey. The broadcast gathered speed, bulleting following bulletin. More Martians landed – an army of them, which quickly defeated the New Jersey State Militia. Presently the Martina attack was vividly described as being general all over the United States, with the population of New York evacuating the city and Martian heat-rays and flame-throwers and other diabolical devices causing terrific destruction, till all was laid to waste.”

“All over the country, people called up newspapers or police in wild panic to find out what to do. (The New York Times alone received 875 calls; the Associated Press had to send out an explanatory bulletin to its member papers.”) In many communities terror-striken people rushed out of their houses and milled about in the streets, not quite sure whether they were being attacked by Martians or by Germans, but sure that destruction was on the way and they must flee somewhere. In Newark, New Jersey, several families convinced that a “gas attack” had begun, put wet clothes on their faces and tried to pack all their belongings in a car; the traffic was jammed for blocks around. A woman in Pittsburgh prepared to take poison, crying, ‘I’d rather die this way than that!” A woman in Indianapolis rushed into a church screaming, “New York destroyed; it’s the end of the world. You might as well go home to die. I just heard it on the radio,” and the church service came to a hurried end. When a church service in New Jersey was similarly interrupted, the congregation prayed for deliverance from catastrophe. A man in the Bronx section of New York saw “the smoke from the bombs” drifting over the city. In a town in the State of Washington the electric-light service was interrupted during the broadcast, convincing listeners that the terror was close at hand, and women fainted.”

(source here)

So what happened there then? Which psychological concepts can help us explain the public’s response? Some kind of Freudian mass hysteria? Conformity? Deindividuation? Is it a child of it’s time? Would it happen today in our media-savvy age?