10 History Myths You Probably Still Believe

2. The War of the Worlds panic


As story has it, in 1938 there was an outbreak of hysteria across the States following Orson Welles’ CBS radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds by H. Wells. Emergency services received thousands of calls from panicked Americans convinced that Martians were invading Earth, and crowds filled the streets hoping to catch a glimpse of the space battle.

In reality, as you have probably already guessed, the panic was just as staged as the adaptation itself. To start with, only a small handful of people heard the broadcast: most of the households were tuned in to a competing radio station that ran a popular comedy show at the same time. Those who did listen to the broadcast were quite aware that what they heard was fiction. Admittedly, there had been some accidents of people freaking out, but it was far from the widespread hysteria reported by newspapers. And the reason newspapers blew the accident way out of proportion was to discredit radio, their newest and most serious competitor. We’ll let you be the judge on the success of that.

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