October 30

Orson Welles: Media and Mass Hysteria

On the 30th of October 1938, the U.S. radio network CBS broadcast an audio drama from the Mercury Theatre on the Air series adapted from English sci-fi writer H. G. Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds. This special Halloween edition was directed and narrated by a 23-year old Orson Welles, future Hollywood filmmaker.

Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. At twenty minutes before eight, central time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars…

Orson Welles, March 1, 1937

Orson Welles, March 1, 1937 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Sunday primetime show took the form of a 60-minute broadcast, most of which consisted of intermittent simulated news bulletins, which could be aired erratically in a musical slot totally uncontrolled by regular adverts, which made the whole experience more realistic.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make. Incredible as it may seem, both the observations of science and the evidence of our eyes lead to the inescapable assumption that those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars. The battle which took place tonight at Grovers Mill has ended in one of the most startling defeats ever suffered by any army in modern times; 7000 men armed with rifles and machine guns pitted against a single fighting machine of the invaders from Mars. 120 known survivors. The rest strewn over the battle area from Grovers Mill to Plainsboro, crushed and trampled to death under the metal feet of the monster, or burned to cinders by its heat ray. The monster is now in control of the middle section of New Jersey and has effectively cut the state through its center. Communication lines are down from Pennsylvania to the Atlantic Ocean. Railroad tracks are torn and service from New York to Philadelphia discontinued (…)Highways to the north, south, and west are clogged with frantic human traffic. Police and army reserves are unable to control the mad flight.. . .

After unmasking the hoax, the written media went to town with the story, describing it as cruelly deceptive and public figures called for the punishing of the broadcasters. Newspapers exaggerated the public’s panic, reporting many fleeing their homes, running into the streets, blocking telephone lines with excessive calls and even roads as they drove away in their cars, calling the police and radio for information etc. Nevertheless, it became the most famous radio transmission in history and it secured Welles’ fame. Together with his script writer Koch, he had timed these interruptions in the musical programme precisely so as to coordinate them with the breaks in a rival radio channel show. Therefore, most people did not hear its introduction and thus the effect of their reaction was carefully enhanced. “Radio is an altogether novel medium of communication, preeminent as a means of social control and epochal in its influence upon the mental horizons of men”, Hadley Cantril wrote in The Invasion From Mars: A Study In The Psychology Of Panic (1940). The Rockefeller Foundation was the main funding body for public opinion and psychological warfare research during the world wars. The Roosevelt government relied on them financially to support academics from major U.S universities in studies which scoped out the psychological pulse of a nation before entering WWI. But the Rockefellers used these studies also for their own benefit to suppress mass dissent in countries where they were doing major business such as in South America. Meanwhile, audience reaction statistics and polls helped in predicting voting patterns in U.S. politics. The Rockefeller Foundation offered fellowships to radio networks – its Humanities Division officer John Marshall was in charge of coordinating the educational programmes these introduced in the form of public awareness adverts. Hadley Cantril was sponsored to study the effect of radio on audiences. Together with colleagues Stanton, and Lazarsfeld they embarked on this major study involving public opinion and persuasion:

James F. Tracy wrote that, “The opportunity for such an analysis presented itself when CBS broadcast Orson Welles’ rendering of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds on on October 30, 1938. Lazarsfeld saw the event as especially noteworthy and immediately asked Stanton for CBS funds to investigate reaction to what at the time was the largest immediate act of mass persuasion in human history. Over the next several months interviews with War of the Worlds listeners were collected, provided to Stanton at CBS, and subsequently analyzed in Cantril’s 1940 study, The Invasion From MarsA Study in the Psychology of Panic (…) As the US entry into World War Two approached, Rockefeller provided $15,000 to Princeton for establishment of the Office of Public Opinion Research. OPOR was to systematically examine how public opinion is forged, the motivating factors behind mass public sentiment toward certain ends and, in Cantril’s words, ‘following the course of American public opinion during the war that had already started in Europe in which I felt the United States would soon be involved’.”  (Early “Psychological Warfare” Research and the Rockefeller Foundation, Global Research, April 29, 2012). Throughout the two world wars, Rockefeller via the C.I.A. funded numerous mass manipulation, attitude change or persuasion studies and behavioral modification programmes. For the most part, American philanthropy was dubiously motivated.

There were, then, far more serious, deeper-reaching implications to Welles’ cheery conclusion to the broadcast: 

“This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that The War of The Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo!

Happy Halloween!