War of the Worlds: A Lesson in Preparedness from the 1938 Martian Invasion

· Reading Time: 4 minutes

On October 30, 1938, radio comedy ventriloquist Edgar Bergen was trying to tell a ghost story on NBC’s The Chase and Sanborn Hour as his wooden dummy, Charlie McCarthy, and the rest of the cast interrupted him. The comedy sketch ended, so some listeners twisted their radio dials to CBS just in time to hear a piano concert interrupted.

“We are bringing you an eyewitness account of what’s happening on the Wilmuth farm, Grovers Mill, New Jersey. (more piano) We now return you to Carl Philips at Grovers Mill. …

Crash landed UFO with Martians walking in the forest.

“Wait! Something’s happening! … A humped shape is rising out of the pit. I can make out a small beam of light against a mirror. What’s that? There’s a jet of flame springing from that mirror, and it leaps right at the advancing men. It strikes them head on! Good Lord, they’re turning into flame!”

Over the next 20 minutes, CBS listeners heard eyewitness reports as Martians destroyed the world from New Jersey to New York and beyond.

They were, of course, listening to the Mercury Theater on the Air’s dramatization of The War of the Worlds.

That is, if they bothered to listen to the whole thing. Radio stations, newspapers, and police offices were inundated with calls asking about the Martian invasion. Some people actually fled their homes, though not nearly as many as initially reported, and there were anecdotal accounts of attempted suicides. Fortunately, no one was injured because of this Halloween prank, though one woman sued CBS for “nervous shock.”

Why were people afraid?

Martians attack

The Invasion from Mars (1940), a study of peoples’ reactions to the broadcast by Princeton University professor Hadley Cantril and fellow researchers, suggested one main reason was insecurity. The U.S. was just beginning to come out of the Great Depression. War was raging in Asia and threatening in Europe. People weren’t prepared for another disaster.

“Being prepared can reduce fear, anxiety, and losses that accompany disasters,” a FEMA brochure said.

What preparation could have prevented people from being scared by a radio program that night?


First, education

Cantril’s study suggested people with more education – of any kind – were less likely to be fooled by the broadcast.

“Persons with higher education … had acquired more generalized standards of judgment which they could put their faith in. … The greater the possibility of checking against a variety of reliable standards of judgment, the less suggestible a person will be,” he wrote.

Consider learning additional skills that can translate into side jobs for additional income or to help get out of debt, like teaching piano, suggested Kayleen Chen, a peer mentor at the University of Utah’s Personal Money Management Center.


Second, corroboration

All people had to do to check if the broadcast was really true was turn the dial to another station. Yet many didn’t or they checked by other means: looking out the window, for example.

“No cars came down my street. Traffic is jammed on account of the roads being destroyed, I thought,” was the excuse one of Cantril’s interviewees used for their fear.

A battery-powered or hand-cranked weather radio can provide information from official sources, so you won’t have to rely on neighbors or window-watching for emergency information.


Third, financial and physical preparedness

The radio play’s Martian invasion condensed daylong events into minutes.

An attack of 7,000 National Guard troops advancing on the Martian cylinder became, within two minutes, “One hundred and twenty known survivors. …  Highways to the north, south and west are clogged with frantic human traffic.”

Patricia - Trees BlowingA study by Rice University educators showed that people who prepared for Hurricane Ike, which hit Houston in 2008, were calmer and less likely to evacuate in advance of the storm. Those who lived outside the recommended evacuation zone stayed off the road, allowing those at greater risk to leave more quickly and reducing auto accidents, the study’s authors wrote.

Cantril’s study suggested much of the anxiety that caused people to overreact to The War of the Worlds broadcast came from their financial insecurity.

“The depression had already lasted nearly 10 years. People were still out of work. Why didn’t somebody do something about it? … Again, what would happen, no one could tell. Again, a mysterious invasion fitted the pattern of the mysterious events of the decade,” he wrote.

So, be prepared. And, as Orson Welles said at the end of the broadcast, “That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian. It’s Hallowe’en.”


Other sources:

Koch, Howard. The Panic Broadcast. Avon Books, New York, N.Y., 1970.

Maltin, Leonard. The Great American Broadcast. Dutton, New York, N.Y. , 1997.

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