(Photo: AP Photo)
"We know now that in the early years of the 20th century, this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man's, yet as mortal as his own."
With those words, Orson Welles launched his infamous faux-news radio adaptation of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, 75 years ago today. And, according to the legend that's grown up around the broadcast at least, the adaptation was so realistic that it convinced millions of Americans that the Earth was in the midst of a Martian invasion and caused widespread panic.
Would you have been spooked? If you've got a spare hour today (perhaps when you're cooking dinner?) take a listen:
The truth of the story, of course, is more complicated.
Michael Socolow, a professor of communication at the University of Maine, co-authored an article on Slate this week poking holes in the oft-repeated historical narrative. "I'm not denying at all that people weren't emotionally engaged," Socolow told National Geographic. "I'm not even saying they weren't scared—I'm saying the reports of panic or terror were enormously exaggerated.
According to Socolow and his co-author Jefferson Pooley, the story can be partially blamed on the U.S. newspaper industry, which he says hyped up the reaction to the broadcast to cast aspersions on radio, which was stealing advertising dollars from print. Editor and Publisher, a magazine covering the newspaper industry, wrote at the time, “The nation as a whole continues to face the danger of incomplete, misunderstood news over a medium which has yet to prove ... that it is competent to perform the news job.”
What's more, it turns out that the ratings for the broadcast, which has gone down in history as one of the most notorious of all time, weren't particularly good. As Pooley and Socolow write, "98 percent of those surveyed [by ratings service C.E. Hooper] were listening to something else, or nothing at all, on Oct. 30, 1938. This miniscule rating is not surprising. Welles’ program was scheduled against one of the most popular national programs at the time—ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s Chase and Sanborn Hour, a comedy-variety show."
Still, as National Geographic reports, it seems as though some people were definitely fooled. William Dock, a resident of Grover's Mill, New Jersey, was photographed in the New York Daily News holding a shotgun to ward off the invasion.