In 1938 Orson Wells spooked the American nation with his classic War of the Worlds broadcast. A psychology study of the event makes me wonder if we
could be hoodwinked again.
On October 28, 1938 many Americans believed they were being invaded by Martians. This was the result of a Halloween stunt orchestrated by Orson Wells
in which he adapted H. G. Wells' 'War of the Worlds' to the radio and broadcast the play as though it was actually happening.
It is estimated that of the 6 million people who heard the broadcast, fully 1.7 million thought it was the news, not a play, while a further 1.2
million were frightened. A few even bought train tickets or drove off in the opposite direction to New York, the supposed epicentre of the alien
For Professor Howard Cantril of Princeton University and colleagues, this provided the perfect opportunity to investigate the anatomy of panic
(Cantril, Gaudet & Herzog, 1940). Shortly after the event he interviewed 135 people in New Jersey to try and understand how they had reacted and what
might have affected how they reacted.
Broadly he found people could be categorised in four ways:
• Those who rejected the Martian story from internal evidence. E.g. people questioned the story's claim that military units had arrived as rapidly
• Those who checked up on the story and found it was false. E.g. they turned to another radio station and found no panicking voices.
• Those who unsuccessfully checked the story.
• Those who made no attempt to check the story.
The most surprising category of people are those who failed to check the broadcast. Cantril found that those who fell into this category were also
those who were most fearful.
Probably the most interesting results from the research were the stories people told about how they interpreted the invasion. One very religious woman
saw the invasion as divine retribution against what she believed was a disgusting and morally corrupt society. Meanwhile, a student at Princeton
University, despite his intelligence and education, was convinced it was impossible for the authority figures in the broadcast to have lied. As a
result he accepted every word.
All this sparks the question of whether this trick would work again today. The temptation is to think that people are more hardened and cynical to
this sort of media manipulation. We're all used to questioning the 'truth' as it is presented to us. We also have many more channels of information
to go on. It's not just the radio nowadays, it's TV and the internet. Could you really ever convince a substantial group of people we were about to
be invaded by some foreign power?
It has been suggested that War of the Worlds was a psychological warfare experiment. In the 1999 documentary, Masters of the Universe: The Secret
Birth of the Federal Reserve, writer Daniel Hopsicker claims the Rockefeller Foundation funded the broadcast, studied the panic, and compiled a report
available to a few. A variation has the Radio Project and the Rockefeller Foundation as conspirators. In a theatrical trailer for his film F For Fake,
Welles joked about such theories, jesting that the broadcast indeed "had secret sponsors".
While Mercury Theatre had no sponsor, CBS and the Rockefeller Foundation were contracting the leading crowd psychology researchers of the time; CBS
had Edward Bernays, the Rockefeller Foundation had Ivy Lee. With the involvement of Frank Stanton in the Radio Project and his position in the CBS
research department, it is possible the "creative curiosity" of Orson Welles came from conversations within these business circles. A detailed
documentary on these circles and the ideas behind social manipulation was made by the BBC, called The Century of the Self.
There has been continued speculation that the panic generated by War of the Worlds inspired officials to cover up unidentified flying object evidence,
avoiding a similar panic. U.S. Air Force Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, the first head of UFO investigatory Project Blue Book wrote, "The [U.S.
government's] UFO files are full of references to the near mass panic of October 30, 1938, when Orson Welles presented his now famous The War of the
So if this was to happen tomorrow how do you think the general public would react?
I know of Project Blue Beam and all the theories that surround it, this is not a discussion of that conspiracy theory.
This is a discussion of how people would react if such a thing were to happen.
Are the public in general too savvy to fall for this?
Or are we too dependent on authority and too accepting of the media to disbelieve it?