Halloween's Media Myth: Did the War of the Worlds Lead to Mass Hysteria?

The War of the Worlds dramatization that aired October 30, 1938 has been called “the most famous radio show of all time.”

The War of the Worlds dramatization that aired October 30, 1938 has been called “the most famous radio show of all time.” It was a vivid, clever, fast-paced broadcast that told of an invasion of Earth by Martians wielding deadly heat rays.


The program was an adaptation of H.G. Welles’ famous 1898 science fiction work, The War of the Worlds, which was set in England. The 1938 radio dramatization was directed by 23-year-old Orson Welles, who placed ground zero of the Martian invasion in rural New Jersey, not far from Princeton.

Welles’ dramatization supposedly was so alarming—and so realistic in its use of simulated news bulletins telling of the alien attack—that listeners by the tens of thousands, or even the hundreds of thousands, were convulsed in panic and mass hysteria.

They fled their homes, jammed highways, overwhelmed telephone circuits, flocked to houses of worship, set about preparing defenses, and even contemplated suicide in the belief that the end of the world was at hand.

Or “so the media myth has it,” W. Joseph Campbell writes in Getting It Wrong, his new book that debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths. Getting It Wrong offers compelling evidence that the panic and mass hysteria so readily associated with The War of The Worlds program did not occur on anything approaching nationwide dimension.

While some Americans were frightened by what they heard, Campbell writes, “most listeners, overwhelmingly, were not: They recognized it for what it was—an imaginative and entertaining show on the night before Halloween.”

Getting It Wrong is Campbell’s fifth book, all of them published since 1998. Campbell is a full professor in the School of Communication at American University. Before entering journalism education, he was a newspaper reporter and wire service correspondent for 20 years, in a career that took him across North America to Europe, Asia, and West Africa.

Here he describes the media-driven myth of The War of the Worlds radio program and at the end of the interview you can watch a YouTube clip of Campbell discussing the case.---Matthew Nisbet

How do you define “media-driven myths”?

Media-driven myths” are prominent stories about and/or by the news media that are widely believed and often retold but which, under scrutiny, prove to be apocryphal or wildly exaggerated. Media-driven myths are dubious tales masquerading as factual that often promote misleading interpretations of media power and influence.

They can be thought of as the “junk food of journalism.” They can be too good to resist, but they’re not terribly healthy, not terribly nutritious.

What drew your attention to the War of the Worlds as a possible example of a media myth? What were the claims about this event?           

Like many media-driven myths, claims about the 1938 radio dramatization seemed too good, too delicious, to be true. Those claims, essentially, were that Americans by the tens of thousands—even the hundreds of thousands—were pitched into panic and mass hysteria by listening to the radio show.

But think about it: Tens of thousands? Even hundreds of thousands? That sounded to me quite unlikely and highly improbable. Especially given that mass panic is such a rare phenomenon.

As a historian and veteran journalist, how did you research this case?

 I examined many sources, including dozens of news accounts published the day after The War of the Worlds program. And I found that those reports were largely anecdotal and emphasized breadth over depth. Close reading of contemporaneous news reports made clear that no persuasive case can be made that tens of thousands of Americans were convulsed in panic that night. As I write in Getting It Wrong, “U.S. newspapers reached indefensible conclusions that panic and mass hysteria prevailed in the aftermath of The War of the Worlds broadcast.”

I also scrutinized the research reported by Hadley Cantril, a Princeton University psychologist who studied public reaction to The War of the Worlds program and published his results in 1940 in The Invasion From Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic. Cantril’s work is sometimes regarded as a landmark in mass communication research. He estimated that at least 6 million people listened to the program that October night. Of those, at least 1.2 million were “frightened,” “disturbed,” or “excited” by what they heard. Cantril did not operationalize those terms which, in any case, are hardly synonymous with panicked or hysterical.

Cantril’s own calculations, then, indicated that most listeners were neither panic-stricken nor fear-struck. They presumably recognized and enjoyed the program for what it was—an entertaining and imaginative radio show which, by the way, aired on CBS in its regularly scheduled time slot of 8 to 9 p.m. on Sunday.

A couple of articles also were helpful in my research. They were a short article by Michael Socolow, and an essay by Robert E. Bartholomew, both of whom expressed skepticism that the program caused widespread panic.

In evaluating the War of the Worlds claims, what evidence led you to classify it as a media myth?

The anecdotal news reports simply did not rise to the level of nationwide panic and mass hysteria.

Had there been widespread panic and mass hysteria that night, newspapers for days and even weeks afterward would have been expected to have published details about the upheaval and its repercussions. But as it was, newspapers dropped the story after only a day or two.

Moreover, there were no deaths, serious injuries, or even suicides associated with the program. Had there been widespread panic and hysteria, surely many people would have been badly injured and even killed in the resulting tumult.

Cantril and other have pointed to the surge in the volume of telephone calls that night as evidence of panic and hysteria. But call volume scarcely is a revealing measure of panicked reactions. It’s true that calls surged in many parts of the country, especially in metropolitan New York and New Jersey, but many of the callers were seeking confirmation or clarification, which is an altogether rational response. Also, newspapers reported that some callers volunteered their services to confront the invaders. These callers may have been confused, but they were necessarily panic-stricken.

And more than a few callers called to compliment CBS and to urge the network to rebroadcast the show.

Of everything you have read and evaluated about this case, what did you find the most interesting?

 It’s the willingness to believe that Americans in 1938 were so gullible and so credulous as to be panicked by a radio show.

Also interesting is what I call in Getting It Wrong the “would-be Paul Revere effect.” This was when well-intentioned people possessing little more than an incomplete understanding of The War of the Worlds broadcast, set out to warn others of the sudden and terrible threat. These would-be Paul Reveres burst into churches, theaters, taverns, and other public places, shouting that the country was being invaded or bombed, or that the end of the world was near. A false-alarm contagion took hold in a number of places that night, mostly in New York and New Jersey.

The unsuspecting recipients of what were typically jumbled, second- and third-hand accounts had no immediate way of verifying the troubling news they had just received so unexpectedly. Unlike listeners of the radio show, they could not spin a dial to find out whether other networks were reporting an invasion. This second- and third-hand fright didn’t last long. It was evanescent. But it is interesting that the show caused some level of apprehension among many people who had not heard one word of the program

This would-be Paul Revere effect is a little recognized subsidiary phenomenon of the broadcast.

What accounted for the spread of the War of the Worlds myth?  Why does the myth persist today?

 Newspaper accounts published the day after the radio dramatization laid down what has become the dominant narrative that the show created mass panic and hysteria. This notion was solidified by newspaper editorial commentary published in the days immediately following the broadcast. For newspapers, Welles’ radio spoof offered an irresistible opportunity to rebuke radio as an unreliable, untrustworthy, and immature medium.

The New York Times said, for example: “Radio is new but it has adult responsibilities. It has not mastered itself or the material it uses. It does many things which the newspapers learned long ago not to do, such as mixing its news and advertising.”

And the Chicago Herald-Examiner said: “Radio news is frequently unreliable, and often sensational and alarming. Radio news ought to be presented with the same restraint that is exercised by newspapers….”

The newspaper-radio rivalry certainly was not new in 1938. It had taken shape during the 1920s. But by 1938, radio’s immediacy in bringing news to Americans had become very apparent—and was troubling to newspapers. Radio was becoming the principal medium for reports of breaking news. It was an increasingly important rival medium to newspapers. And newspapers seized the occasion to bash radio in the aftermath of the show. This unrelievedly negative commentary reinforced the notion that The War of the Worlds program had sown panic and mass hysteria among Americans.

Are there contemporary claims about media impact that are similar?          

 Interestingly, a couple of fairly recent cases have evoked the supposed reaction to The War of the Worlds program. In March 2010 in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, a privately owned television station broadcast a phony report that Russia was invading the country. The station used to dramatic effect taped footage of Russia’s incursion into Georgia in 2008, passing it off as a new assault. The phony report caused and, reportedly, a brief spasm of confusion and consternation in Georgia.

It was supposed to have political satire of some sort, but it really backfired on the station.

The episode reminded many people of The War of the Worlds broadcast.

So did a phony report on state-run television in Belgium in 2006, which told of the sudden abdication of the royal family and the unilateral claim of independence by the Dutch-speaking half of the country. The television network, RTBF, said the program demonstrated the importance of debating the country’s future. But few people agreed; nor were they much amused.

How do you use this case in the courses that you teach in journalism?

I use it eagerly, around Halloween time, in classes in which the subject is relevant. I play a portion of a recording of the program— usually the first 20, 25 minutes—and pass around Halloween candy as the dramatization unfolds.

Supposedly, it was about 20 to 25 minutes into the show when listeners in 1938 began panicking. I lead a discussion among students about what internal clues listeners could have detected to confirm that it was a dramatization and not an alien invasion. Events moved far too quickly, for example. That’s a pretty obvious clue: In less than 30 minutes, the Martians blasted off from their planet, traveled across space to Earth, landed in New Jersey, set up their heat rays, and launched their devastating attack. We also discuss external evidence that listeners could have checked, too. Such as consulting the day’s newspaper listing of scheduled radio programs.

I have taught an honors colloquium three times that draws specifically on the myths debunked in Getting It Wrong. In those classes, I have required students to visit the Library of Congress to research newspaper coverage of The War of the Worlds show. It’s been a very successful assignment in that it introduces students to the resources of the Library of Congress and requires them to scrutinize microfilmed issues of a newspaper published long ago.

In the YouTube clip below, you can watch W. Joseph Campbell discuss the War of the Worlds media myth:

See Also:

W. Joseph Campbell's blog and web site Media Myth Alert.

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Why compassion fades

A scientific look into a ubiquitous phenomenon.

Photo credit: Adrian Swancar on Unsplash
Sex & Relationships

One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?

Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."

Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.

Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.

The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."

That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"

The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.

Some back story

Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.

The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.

Lapses

Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.

There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.

A Dunbar Correlation

Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?

"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.

I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.

Professor Dunbar's response:

"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."

I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:

"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."

In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.

Friendship, kinship and limitations

"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."

These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.

"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.

As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."

We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.

Emotional regulation

In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."

This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.

If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.

Gray matter matters

One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."

It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷

It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.

Rabbit holes

There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:

(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."

(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.

In the end

Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.

Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.

Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.