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May 18, 2024 46 mins

On Halloween 1938 young radio star Orson Welles scared the pants off of America with a fictional news bulletin claiming Martians had landed and were destroying the country. People across the nation ran wild with panic in the streets – or did they? Listen to this classic episode to find out.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Hi there, everyone, It's me Josh. For this week's select
I've chosen our episode on the War of the World's
myth from November twenty twenty. One of the great myths
of the twentieth century is that Orson Wells nineteen thirty
eight War of the World's broadcast set off a mass
panic in the United States, as roobs from all corners
of the country grabbed their shotguns and ran senselessly through

(00:21):
the streets and prayed death would be swift. Well, it
turns out America is less gullible than that. Instead, we're
gullible about the idea that we're gullible. Think about that
one as you enjoy this episode.

Speaker 2 (00:38):
Welcome to Stuff you should know, a production of iHeartRadio.

Speaker 1 (00:47):
Hey, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh Clark. There's
Charles w Chuck Bryan over there. It's just the two
of us batching it up without you.

Speaker 3 (00:59):
Oh man, I.

Speaker 4 (01:00):
Think Jerry's inclusion. We're still batching it up. How do
you mean, I mean, does she really ruin the batch
scene for us?

Speaker 3 (01:09):
Sure? She's very maternal and Judge's true.

Speaker 4 (01:13):
Oh yeah, you were headed down a kind road for
a second.

Speaker 1 (01:17):
I was with Jerry. Yeah, that doesn't sound like me.
So for all of you who are just tuning into
the first time Welcome, this is stuff you should know.
To everybody else who's tuning in for the multiple times Welcome,
this is stuff you should know.

Speaker 4 (01:35):
Yeah, we never do that.

Speaker 3 (01:36):
Some shows do that what they welcome new listeners.

Speaker 4 (01:40):
Yeah, and kind of say what they do. And I
mean we've literally never done that.

Speaker 1 (01:45):
That's fine, that's lame. Hi wis who does that? Any
friends of ours?

Speaker 4 (01:49):
Yeah? I mean the guys on the Flop House. They've
been podcasting as long as we have. In every single episode,
they say who they are and what they do.

Speaker 3 (01:57):
No, okay, well do you want to do that this
one time?

Speaker 4 (02:00):
Well, I'm Chuck Bryant and this is Josh Clark, and
this is a podcast where we explain things in a
lighthearted and fun and sometimes even funny way.

Speaker 3 (02:09):
I disagree with all of it.

Speaker 1 (02:12):
Oh boy, So what we're going to talk about today
because I think we need to talk about this one
in a slightly somber tone. Chuck, it's a blemish in
the history of America really, if you think about it.

Speaker 4 (02:26):
Well, yeah, and you know what, I've never actually had
listened to it until this week, same here, and it was.
It's a lot of fun to actually listen to. I
would recommend it.

Speaker 1 (02:37):
Yeah, especially in a dark room where that's all you're
concentrating on, not like a second screen kind of thing,
like where you're really listening to this radio play.

Speaker 4 (02:46):
Yeah, and try to put yourself there a little bit
like what it must have been like in well, not
eighteen ninety eight, that's when the book came out.

Speaker 3 (02:54):
Yeah, but in nineteen thirty eight.

Speaker 1 (02:56):
I mean what forty years later, Just in that forty
year stretch, I mean, think about the difference between nineteen
eighty and twenty twenty. Not ridiculously different periods, it's just
gotten eighteen ninety eight exactly. Oh yeah, it's gone downhill.
And don't think that had nothing to do with Reagan's
election in nineteen eighty. But the difference between eighteen ninety

(03:19):
eight and nineteen thirty eight, yeah, are It's just like
two different worlds, man, two different worlds. Comma War of the.

Speaker 4 (03:29):
So, I guess we should start with the book written
by the great HG. Wells. It was the very first
alien invasion story to hit the bookshelves, and that's a
pretty remarkable thing. It was a serialized thing at first
in magazines and Pearson's and the UK, and then Cosmo

(03:49):
here in the US, and then they finally slapped all
those serialized versions together into a book and it sold
pretty well.

Speaker 1 (03:58):
Yeah, it's never been out to print since that first
edition in eighteen ninety eight. That's pretty respectable. I expect
that as much for our book as well.

Speaker 4 (04:06):
Yeah, I'm sure it'll be still being published in forty
years or one hundred years. Yeah, one hundred and forty years.

Speaker 3 (04:13):
Yeah, well, let's hope.

Speaker 1 (04:15):
So in this book, and like you said, first alien
invasion story ever published, which is you know, just the
fact that this is a completely new premise, new conceit
made it, you know, kind of scary.

Speaker 3 (04:28):
But in the book, HG.

Speaker 1 (04:30):
Wells describes like this, this alien invasion, and part of
the thing that was so scary about it, at least
at the time, from what I can gather, is that
it was about like the breakdown of society. And we're
talking like Victorian era England society, where like rigid social
rules and customs and mores and guidance for all behavior

(04:52):
at all times was like the norm. So the idea
of that breaking down was scary on in and of itself.
I think that made the book kind of scary to
contemporary readers. Would that be right readers back then? And
that was one big theme that Wells explored. Another one
that he explored in that at least I think whoever
wrote the Encyclopedia Britannica article on it said that the

(05:16):
main point of this, the main subtext, was learning how
humans dominion over animals can be, you know, cruel and thoughtless,
because all of a sudden, with these alien invaders who
were just wiping us off the map, we were like,
you know, domesticated animals to them.

Speaker 4 (05:36):
Yeah, so the shoe was on the other hoof, and
sure it caused or at least it was intended to
cause people to take kind of a hard look at
pre animal farm to make sort of a social statement
about how we treated animals. Yeah, And so that was
in eighteen ninety eight. If you flash forward to Orson
Wells and his Mercury Theater version, he this is, you know,

(06:02):
like you said, we're right in the middle or we're
in the Great Depression and we're headed towards war, and
it's sort of an uneasy feeling in the United States
as a whole. So he thought, perfect time to go
in there, put a fresh coat of pain on this
thing and scare the bejeebis out of the American public

(06:22):
by doing really something that they had never heard before,
which was sort of a Verita style production.

Speaker 1 (06:30):
Yeah, and I mean it's easy to overlook today, but
radio was still rather new at the time in nineteen
thirty eight. It was like a you know, cutting edge
technological medium, and it was not fully defined. So the
idea of creating this, I guess hoax broadcast is the

(06:50):
best you can call it. This fictionalized version that was
what would you call it? Man, I hate that word
so much.

Speaker 4 (07:00):
I know it's really taken on a bad tang here lately. Yeah,
I mean it's verite. It's, you know, of a faux
documentary style, right, thing that no one had ever heard. Like,
there's no way when people heard this they would think, oh,
this is you know, I know, Christopher, guess this is

(07:21):
sort of a scary version. I've seen Blair Witch. I
know what's going on here.

Speaker 3 (07:25):
I recognize Lenny from Laverne and Shirley anywhere. I know
that's not real.

Speaker 4 (07:30):
Yeah, So they weren't prepared for this in nineteen thirty
eight when orson Wells, he was already a big name
in radio as the voice of the Shadow, which was
big hit, and his Mercury Theater was pretty pretty well
respected at the time.

Speaker 1 (07:45):
Yeah, it's like a live stage theater. So they'd only
had this show for a few months by the time
October nineteen thirty eight rolled around. But their whole jam
was they were on CBS, and CBS had them do
our long radio adaptations of class like novels like Treasure Island.
They did around the world in eighty days, and so

(08:06):
since it was October, they wanted to do something spooky
around Halloween something, so they decided Yeah, so they were like, well,
what's the most boring scary book there is? And they said, HG.
Wells War the Worlds. So they decided to adapt it.

Speaker 4 (08:19):
Yeah, so they got together, they're rehearsing. We'll talk a
little bit more about that in a sec. But there
wasn't a strong feeling among the cast and crew and
the production group that thought it was going to be
awesome because I think probably because they had never done
anything like this, they had never heard anything like this.
They thought, is this even going to be any good.

(08:40):
And a couple of different sources in the production went
to a radio critic ahead of time, it's like thanks
a lot, and they said, by the way, this is
going to be a real stinker.

Speaker 1 (08:52):
They said, Apparently two different people in the production said
that this will put everyone to sleep. And I don't
have the impression that it's strictly because they didn't have
any frame of reference to judge it against, because no
one had done this before. From what I can gather,
the originally it was going to be really bad and
really terrible, and the production and the cast and crew

(09:15):
knew this. They knew that they were marching toward embarrassment
with the early versions of the of the script.

Speaker 4 (09:23):
Yeah, so orson, he's sort of distracted. He's got a
stage production going on. He's got his partner in his group,
the great John Houseman you all know from the paper Chase,
kind of a legendary actor. He was one of his
original partners, and he got together with Howard is it Kotch.
I never know if it's going to be a Cotra

(09:44):
Coke doesn't matter, all right, koc h. And he was
the writer who was adapting the novel and they were like,
we got to make this thing better. And one thing
I think we can do this was Houseman talking, I'm
not going to do with John Houseman, but everyone knows
how he's out right.

Speaker 1 (10:01):
When I came across Shawn house and being involved, he
was like, I can't wait.

Speaker 4 (10:05):
I don't even remember. I mean, he was just very
serious and sort of all I can think of his
paper chase and what was the TV commercial was it?

Speaker 3 (10:14):
I want to say it was like Schwab or no,
Merily Lynch.

Speaker 4 (10:17):
I think it might have been Merrill Lynch Maybe I
don't know. But one of those finance firms he did
he voiced for, well.

Speaker 1 (10:22):
Yeah, he was very famous for having a very high pitch,
squeaky falsetto voice, and he talked very very fast.

Speaker 3 (10:29):
And actually I know who it was. It was FedEx
and Dunkin Donuts. He was well known for.

Speaker 4 (10:33):
It, right, he was the time to make the donuts
guy right with the mustag. So Houseman and Cotch Coke
went in there and he said, one of the things
we should do, probably to make this a little more
scary and a little more believable that it's an actual broadcast,
is you know time passes in the book, and we

(10:53):
can't do that here, so let's just get rid of
all that stuff so it gives the appearance that it's
going down right now.

Speaker 1 (11:00):
Yeah, that was enormously a huge change. And I don't
know if he did that to help the pacing move
a little faster or what, but that would pan out
to be a really important difference in the original script
that Howard Kay turned in and the one that they
ended up doing. And then even beyond that, some of

(11:22):
the other changes came just hours before broadcast, because apparently,
if you worked with Orson Wells, you should be on
the lookout for him to come in at the last
minute and be like, all the stuff we've been practicing
for a week or two, forget all of that, we're
doing this instead. And part of that, from what I
can tell, is that he was trying to shake up
the actor, shake them out of whatever complacency they'd work

(11:45):
themselves into with rehearsal, and to get this raw, more
terrified performance. And apparently it worked. I mean, I can't
imagine I didn't hear any rehearsals or anything like that.
I would have loved to have compared, you know, the
week before to you know, the actual podcast, but that
everyone delivered these really great, really great performances, and they

(12:05):
really nailed by showtime the realism in a lot of ways,
not just in the performances, but also in just little
details like they you know, they were they were doing
a mock radio program, which we'll talk about a little
more in detail in a second, but they were they
were pretending to have news bulletins break and so they

(12:28):
were they were doing the things that news bulletins did.
One of the things that stuck out to me was
one of the eyewitnesses. So it's an actor, but one
of the eyewitnesses is like being interviewed by a news
reporter on the scene and they started to talk, and
the news reporter goes, can you can you speak loud?
Speak more loudly and move into the microphone please, and
that the I think the actor actually says, how's that,

(12:51):
and the guy repeats himself, and then the actor has
to repeat himself what he was originally saying. So it
has like that veneer of you know, authenticity, just from
little details like that that, you know, really it stood
out to me when I was listening for him. But
if you're if you're not listening for him, you you
just it makes you buy into the whole thing that
much more.

Speaker 4 (13:10):
Yeah, and the other big change that Wells brought along
was stretching out the first two halves of the thing
such that it went past it went forty minutes, and
radio at the time, every thirty minutes, like on the
half hour, they would check in with a station id check,
and listeners, even though radio was new, were well honed

(13:35):
to this station break every thirty minutes. And so when
ten minutes passed, the half hour go by and there
ain't and there ain't no station break, that really makes
people kind of buy in to what they're listening to
is possibly real. And then you add to the fact
that there were no sponsors for this show. Yeah, so
they weren't cutting to a Casper or or me Undy's

(13:59):
as right, all of a sudden, they can't remember any sponsor.

Speaker 3 (14:03):
Can you imagine John Housman saying made with Modall.

Speaker 4 (14:07):
No, I thought it'd be made with Modell.

Speaker 1 (14:10):
That's right, that's a much better Housman. I had something
in my threat.

Speaker 4 (14:13):
So yeah, there were no sponsors. So basically it really
came across as something that was super, super realistic sounding.

Speaker 1 (14:21):
Right, So all that is to say that they had
really by the time this broadcast aired at eight pm
on Sunday, October thirtieth, nineteen thirty eight, they were not
going to be the laughing stock and this is not
going to be embarrassing. It was going to be pretty awesome.

Speaker 4 (14:37):
Actually, should we take a break?

Speaker 1 (14:39):
I think so, Chuck, and then we'll come back and
we will reveal the broadcast after this. Okay, so we've

(15:15):
reached showtime. Airtime, eight pm, Sunday, October thirtieth, nineteen thirty eight,
Mercury Theater on the Air began broadcasting its adaptation of HG.
Wells War of the World, and at the very beginning
it's introduced as much. There's an announcer who says that.

Speaker 4 (15:31):
I think that's loss is probably to time somewhat, because
everyone probably thinks that they just tried to trick everyone.
But no, they actually introduced it as what they're doing.
And you know that this is a radio place at
one year in the future.

Speaker 1 (15:45):
Right, right, And yeah, Orson Wells. So it's introduced by
an announcer. Orson Wells comes in, does the introductory essay,
and then they did something really smart and interesting, especially
for the time they went to a musical program that
was supposedly being broadcast from the Meridian Room in the
hotel Park Plaza. So if you were just tuning in

(16:08):
right then, you would have no idea that this was
Mercury Theater on the air. You'd have no idea that
this was a teleplay. You would think that you were
listening to something that was pretty regularly broadcast, which was
live music at some like ballroom in a hotel somewhere
in New York that they set up like a radio
transmitter to transmit out over the radio.

Speaker 3 (16:27):
That was pretty frequent. But this was part of the show.

Speaker 4 (16:30):
Like if you hadn't paused it, that is right right.

Speaker 1 (16:33):
Exactly so, but that was a huge part of the
show because that lulled listeners into kind of complacency, and
listeners who tuned in late and missed that introduction thought
that this is what they were listening to. And then
the first news bulletin.

Speaker 4 (16:48):
Hits yeah, and that's where things start to get really interesting.
They break in, you know, one of these interrupt your
previously scheduled programs kind of things, right, right, and they
come in and with these bulletins but they're not super
long at first because they treat it kind of how
it would be in real life. It's just sort of
a breaking story. Something's going together. It was fairly obtuse,

(17:12):
and they didn't like, you know, say, Martians are attacking
us right now everyone from the get go. I sort
of left it up to the listener to kind of
piece it together. Little by little. They would go back
to the Meridian room for a bit, and it wasn't
for very long, but because you know, they couldn't waste
too much time, but it was long enough. It wasn't
for like ten seconds. They did it for like a minute,
minute and a half, right.

Speaker 1 (17:33):
It made it seem right then, like that was what
you were listening to, that that was the program, and
the bulletin was in fact the bulletin rather than the
opposite being true.

Speaker 4 (17:41):
Yeah, So eventually you start to piece together what's going on,
and you have this attack in New Jersey of all places,
and Princeton University they had like a Princeton astronomer on.
They have government officials, and they kind of dole it
out a little by little until about the seventeen minutes

(18:03):
seventeen and a half minute mark, and then that's when
it really kind of gets super scary and people really
see the full picture of what's going on.

Speaker 3 (18:12):
So, Chuck, I feel like we should read a little
bit of the script.

Speaker 1 (18:15):
There's this one part starting about the seventeen thirty minute
market think you said, where they as I like to say,
they tore the lid off the sucker.

Speaker 4 (18:23):
Do you want to be announcer or Phillips?

Speaker 1 (18:28):
I'll be the announcer, all right, okay, but I want
you to do Phillips as Sammy Davis Junior.

Speaker 3 (18:37):
So here's the announcer.

Speaker 4 (18:38):
Wait, hold on, I'm getting all my tap shoes.

Speaker 3 (18:40):
Okay, Okay, you ready, canty ma'am uh.

Speaker 4 (18:43):
Huh sure, bab, I'm not gonna do it that way.

Speaker 3 (18:47):
Okay, all right, So.

Speaker 1 (18:49):
Let me give you a little bit of background real quick.
So these news bulletin's up to this point have basically
said there's some weird thing that landed. They thought it
was a meteorite at first, that landed in Grover's Mill,
New Jersey, and then later bulletins said that, oh, actually
there's some weird technical like weird things emerging from this
thing we thought was a meteorite. So now we're back

(19:11):
at Grover's Mil. So I'm the announcer. We are bringing
you an eyewitness account of what's happening on the Willmuth Farm,
Grover's Mill, New Jersey. And that was kind of like
they were breaking in to let you know that. And
then they go back to more piano for some reason.
And then we now return you to Carl Phillips at
Grover's mil.

Speaker 4 (19:30):
Ladies and gentlemen, am I am I on, ladies and gentlemen.
Here I am back up a stone wall that adjoins
mister Wilmo's garden. From here I get a sweep of
the whole scene. I give you every detail as long
as I can talk, as long as I can see.
More State police have arrived. They're drawing up a cordon
in front of the pit, about thirty of them. No
need to push the crowd back now, they're willing to

(19:51):
keep their distance. The captain is conferring with someone we
can't quite see who. Oh, yes, I believe it's a
professor Pearson. Yes it is. Now they've parted. The professor
moves around one side, studying the object, while the captain
and two policemen advance with something in their hands. I
can see it now. It's a white handkerchief tied to
a pole, a flag of truce. If those creatures know

(20:12):
what that means, what anything means? Wait, something's happening.

Speaker 5 (20:16):
Sh you can cut in anytime. Who can take a rainbow?

Speaker 4 (20:28):
Oh wait, sorry, a hump shape is rising out of
the pit. I can make out a small beam of
light against a mirror.

Speaker 2 (20:36):
What's that?

Speaker 4 (20:36):
There's a jet there's a jet flame springing from the mirror,
and it leaps right at the advancing men. It strikes
them head on. Good lord, they're turning into flame.

Speaker 2 (20:45):
Go go.

Speaker 4 (20:49):
Now. The whole field's caught fire, the woods, the barns,
the gas tanks of automobiles, spreading everywhere. It's coming this
way about twenty.

Speaker 2 (20:58):
Yards to my right.

Speaker 3 (21:04):
Very nice and scene.

Speaker 1 (21:07):
Okay, that was great, Chuck. So they they you mentioned,
or I should say Phillips. The reporter on the scene
mentioned Professor Pearson, and he's this he ends up being
the main character, and he's, uh, he's an interview he's
in an astronomer I's interviewed earlier on and then he's
on this scene as it happens, and the program just

(21:28):
keeps going like that like, there's another there's a main
announcer who I played. I thought rather well, thank you
and same to you.

Speaker 4 (21:37):
But the future as a folly artist, if I may say.

Speaker 1 (21:39):
So, thank you very much. I've been practicing. You want
to hear my machine gun? I've been doing that one
since I was like six.

Speaker 4 (21:46):
All right, how about walking through the forest? All right? Now,
how about a good punch to the face. Oh wow,
that was good.

Speaker 3 (21:59):
Thank you. I punched myself in the thing. I'm dedicated.
That's how dedicated to the art of folly.

Speaker 4 (22:07):
Yeah.

Speaker 1 (22:08):
So the announcer just keeps bringing in more and more
news as this thing goes on and unfolds of like,
now these things aren't just in New Jersey, They're in Chicago.

Speaker 3 (22:17):
They're like out west.

Speaker 1 (22:18):
They're starting to invade everywhere, and they're killing people left
and right. That you said there was a government official
that reads a statement is actually that they say that
it's the Secretary of the Interior, which I thought was
particularly genius because I mean, probably not that many people
were familiar with the Secretary of the Interior.

Speaker 3 (22:37):
It's on Harold.

Speaker 1 (22:38):
Ix, but they had him sound like FDR so that
it would kind of play on everyone's I guess unconscious
or I'm sure there were people who are like the
sounds just like FDR. But at the very least, it
would kind of evoke that government authority, the reality of
like a government figure.

Speaker 3 (22:58):
You know.

Speaker 4 (22:59):
Yeah. So meanwhile, on the other stations, there's one that's
running opposite, which is a really really popular radio show
at the time, probably the most popular, Chase in Sanborn Hour,
which had the very very famous ventriloquist Edgar Bergan and
his dummy Charlie McCarthy.

Speaker 1 (23:18):
And we talked about that on our Ventilaquism episode. Remember
that they started out on radio.

Speaker 4 (23:23):
Yeah, which is hysterical. I don't even know why they
would even bother with the dummy part, just due.

Speaker 3 (23:30):
To you wouldn't even know that's what he did.

Speaker 1 (23:32):
You wouldn't even have to wear pants, No, sit around
in your spaghetti stained undershirt and yeah, naked from the
waist down, maybe some socks. Doing a couple of voices
is your contract?

Speaker 4 (23:46):
Edgar Bergen, what do you think about that? Charlie, don't
get me started, like that's it. I could be a
famous vinchiloquist on the radio.

Speaker 3 (23:54):
You just you just did it. I think I think
Hollywood's going to come with calling.

Speaker 4 (23:58):
But the real sort of interesting factoid here, I think,
is that people were channel surfing back then when you
cut to commercial, just like we used to do when
we didn't have pause buttons and fast forward buttons.

Speaker 3 (24:11):
And what is this pause button? You keep mentioning, I've
never heard of this.

Speaker 4 (24:16):
You've never paused television? No, wow, you need to.

Speaker 3 (24:20):
I don't believe I've ever paused anything in my life.

Speaker 4 (24:24):
It's funny. We were Emily and I have been watching
that German sci fi series Dark, which is very challenging
to follow. And uh, there's a lot of rewinding like wait, wait,
who is that? What did they just say? And we
rewinded a bit and do that again, and or you know,
of course I got to go to the bathroom. Let
me just pause it. And I was thinking about how,
not too long ago, you just if you missed something,

(24:47):
you missed it.

Speaker 3 (24:48):
You just peed the count, or you ped yourself on
the couch.

Speaker 4 (24:51):
Yeah, there was no clear like, let me go back
and clear this up. It's like, what did he say?
I have no idea. I guess we'll never know. There's
no internet ended up.

Speaker 1 (25:00):
I guess I should probably stop watching this show altogether
and you go walk up to the VCR and presson Jack.

Speaker 4 (25:06):
But at any rate, back then, let's say Charlie McCarthy
goes to break and now I'll word from Mark Doncher
and they flip it over to War the Worlds. At
this point in the broadcast, when the s is hitting
the fan and it's going to scare the pants off
of people in nineteen thirty eight.

Speaker 1 (25:24):
Well, yeah, even more than I think that they would
have dialed over even before that, so they might have
caught like a news bulletin and then maybe some of
that music from the Meridian Room, so it really would
have caught them. And there were supposedly a substantial number
of people who did dial over and were like, wait, wait,
what is going on here? And now we come to

(25:46):
the reaction, the response, because if you picked up the
paper the next day in America, just about anywhere in
any major city, you're going to find huge, blaring headlines
like the one that the New York Daily News printed
in tall bold letters. Fake radio war stirs terror through

(26:07):
the US.

Speaker 4 (26:09):
Yeah, stories of shock in hysteria, stories of people taking
their own life, stories of people dying from heart attacks.
The API said a man in Pittsburgh found his wife
with poison in her hand and said, I'm gonna I'd
rather die this way than like that. And you know,
talking to Wells afterward, in the aftermath of this, he

(26:32):
apologizes publicly says they didn't intend to do this, we
didn't know it was going to cause a panic. And then,
you know, if you look over the years more interviews,
it sort of seems like Wells is a little more like,
you know, we thought it would be pretty fun to
scare people, and I didn't know if it was going
to cause a panic, but we definitely intended it to

(26:52):
have this effect on people, whereas Houseman and Kotch were like, no,
we really didn't mean it. So it of conflicting reports
from the production on what they thought was going to
be the result.

Speaker 1 (27:05):
Right, And I read an interview with John Landis, the
great director who worked with Wells on a project that
never got made towards the end of Well's life, and
he didn't say that Wells admitted to him that he
meant to, but he got to know him enough that
he was like, yes, if you watch this initial press
conference where he's apologizing, because the whole country was ripped

(27:26):
apart in chaos, and we're running wild in the streets
and like nearly rioted because of his broadcast.

Speaker 3 (27:34):
He is not at all.

Speaker 1 (27:36):
He's just as happy as a lark that this all happened,
even though he's pretending to apologize, and he said that
was just that's his source of wells.

Speaker 4 (27:45):
Did you just say apologize.

Speaker 3 (27:48):
It's a new version I'm testing out. I like it.

Speaker 1 (27:51):
It's kind of yeah, it's at least as good as apologize.

Speaker 4 (27:57):
So this was just a couple of days in the news.
It wasn't the biggest deal in the world, even though
it was fairly sensational story writing for newspapers. And it
might have just gone that way had it not been
for a Princeton University social psychologist a couple of years
later named Hadley Cantrell. And Cantrell released a book on

(28:21):
the real effects of this thing and basically said that
you know, people were praying, crying, they were frantically trying
to escape death from the Martians. Six million people listen
to this thing, and at least one six of them
were frightened or disturbed. And I have the evidence right here.

Speaker 1 (28:40):
Yeah, the evidence that he had was based on a
series of interviews with one hundred and thirty five people.
Almost all of them were in New Jersey, which remember
that's where the crux of the invasion and destruction being
described took place. Because Grover's Mille, New Jersey, is actually
a real town in Jersey. So he went to Jersey

(29:01):
because he was in Princeton. So he went where he
was and interviewed one hundred and thirty five people, and
he said, were you scared by this broadcast? And the
participant would say yes, and he'd say, you're in my study.
And he'd ask the next one, were you scared? Were
you scared by this broadcast? And they would say no.
He'd be like, you're not in the study.

Speaker 3 (29:22):
That's crazy.

Speaker 1 (29:22):
And so yeah, he said in the in the methodology
that he selected one hundred out of the one hundred
and thirty five because they had been scared by the broadcast.
And so he took this, these interviews of people in
New Jersey and he extrapolated it to the rest of
the country and he said, yep, this is this is real.
This is a really great example of people being fooled

(29:46):
into terror and panic. And you know the response is
when this happens, like we saw after the World that
we're the world's broadcast. People will run out into the street,
they will flee the city, They will call their friends
and neighbors. They may attempt suicide, they may die of
a heart attack, like the New York Times reported twenty

(30:10):
or so people in New York alone needed to be treated.

Speaker 3 (30:12):
For shock in hysteria.

Speaker 1 (30:14):
This is what happens when somebody toys with the public trust.

Speaker 3 (30:19):
And yeah, it's pretty nuts. The end. Yeah, that was
the end of Hadley's Headley's book.

Speaker 4 (30:27):
Right, Yeah, not the end of this episode. So this
is what this specific study is. What if you've ever
taken a mass media or a communications college class, you've
probably studied War of the Worlds largely because of this study. Basically,
it might have just come and gone if it weren't

(30:48):
for this academic paper that were put out and all
of a sudden. For decades and decades, it's reported on
as like a cautionary tale almost of responsibility and meet
even fictional media. And you know, as recently as twenty
thirteen PBS American Experience documentary said this was the case.

(31:08):
Our old pals at Radio Lab in two thousand and
eight did an episode about this where that was the case.
But there were a few problems with this paper. Beyond
the supremely bad methodology behind just getting scared New Jersey
people to go in there and give their report. Was
they found up that they ended up finding real ratings

(31:31):
for this thing, and not a ton of people even
heard it.

Speaker 3 (31:35):
It turns out, so his six million estimate was way.

Speaker 4 (31:39):
Off, way way way off. And they did a survey
during the program that said two percent of respondents said
that they were listening. And some markets, like big cities
like Boston even preempted this thing for local programming. So
it wasn't a ton of people. It wasn't a ton
of people being scared and like literally losing their minds

(32:01):
with fear and panic and things swing so far the
other way that the narrative became. You know what, no
one was really scared at all, And what newspapers really
did was they put out hit pieces on a competing
medium like radio and how you shouldn't trust it anymore.

Speaker 1 (32:20):
So what happened over the last within sometime within the
twenty first century, but sometime in the twenty tens, the
myth that America lost its mind went bonkers and ran
wild in the street because they were panicked by the
War of the World's broadcast was shown to be a
myth that it didn't happen, And that was the new

(32:43):
understanding for a little while, just a few years, until
another guy came along and said, you know what, they
actually both both are right and both are wrong in
a lot of ways.

Speaker 4 (32:57):
Should we take a break and talk about the truth
always being somewhere in the middle? Mm hmm.

Speaker 2 (33:09):
To still all.

Speaker 4 (33:32):
Right, I said, the truth is always somewhere in between.
That's not always the case with everything in life, obviously,
but that's that's a saying for a reason.

Speaker 2 (33:41):
Uh.

Speaker 4 (33:41):
And that's definitely seems to be the case, uh, in
this case with a gentleman named a Brad Schwartz, he's
a probably the leading War of the World scholar. And
he went back and he went and investigated the letters
and the cables that came in. They were at the
University of Michigan archives and these are the letters that

(34:04):
actually came in to Wells and the Mercury Theater in
the days after the broadcast. And what he contends, and
I agree, is that this is what you need to
be reading, is what people were really thinking at the time,
that weren't just cherry picked in the town that got
attacked in New Jersey who were obviously they were going
to be freaked out more than anyone in the country.

Speaker 3 (34:24):
Right.

Speaker 1 (34:24):
So one of the things that he points out is,
you know, everybody been, you know, since around twenty ten
or maybe a little earlier. Everyone had been wailing on
Hadley Cantrell for his terrible, terrible methodology, but they, the revisionists,
were also kind of doing the same thing. They were

(34:45):
making all sorts of suppositions, like the idea that the
newspapers had basically conspired to target radio its rival to
show how irresponsible it was and how it shouldn't be
trusted with the news. There's really newspaper that should be
handling the news, and maybe you can listen to little
Orphan Annie on the radio. But that's about it. That

(35:05):
that was all supposition. That was as much supposition as
Hadley Cantrill extrapolated his findings in New Jersey to the
rest of the country. And a Brad Schwartz one of
the reasons I think he's doing in good jobs because
he's saying, no, if you actually sit down and read
these letters and these cables that were coming in in

(35:26):
the days after. They really probably paint the most accurate
picture anyone's ever found to this point of how it
was actually received. Like you can see almost in real
time at the time, what people were saying about this
by in their letters to orson wells, into the Mercury Theater,
on the air.

Speaker 4 (35:46):
Yeah, and it was a range of feelings. It was
everything from people who said, you know what, we knew
it wasn't real, but it was really scary and super awesome.
I don't know if they said things like super awesome.
He said that number people wrote in who actually made
fun of the people who fell for it and said that,

(36:07):
you know, they're gullible, they're rubes. And one writer even
said they should be sterilized and disenfranchised.

Speaker 1 (36:14):
Yeah, because they'd shown that in an actual emergency they
were undependable. They would just run around like chickens with
their heads cut off in the streets.

Speaker 4 (36:22):
Yeah. And Swartz sort of draws a line between what
was going on back then to us today with this
whole fake news hoax garbage that we have to listen
to day in and day out, and basically said this
was the first viral phenomenon in media was the War
of the World's broadcast, and it was a mixed bag.

(36:43):
Some people loved it, some people did think it was
real and panicked, but it certainly was not this widespread
panic across the country like you were talking about.

Speaker 1 (36:53):
Yeah, he said, less than a quarter of the letters
described what he would consider panic. But even most of
those weren't actually angry when they were writing the letter.

Speaker 3 (37:01):
A lot of them are thrilled he did, right.

Speaker 1 (37:05):
But he did say that, yes, there are cases that
you see in these letters and cables that describe people panicking.
So that did happen in some cases. Most of it
seems to have been isolated in New Jersey. So if
Hadley Cantrill had not extrapolated his findings and had you know,

(37:27):
interviewed more people who had different reactions to the broadcast.
But if it had just been like an investigation into
the reaction in New Jersey, that study or that book
would have been much more useful. But the fact is,
he just screw the methodology up so badly that it's
it's basically useless. But he wasn't. He didn't make up

(37:48):
the panic that he described necessarily he may have exaggerated it, who.

Speaker 3 (37:52):
Knows, but it did.

Speaker 1 (37:54):
It does seem to have actually happened in some cases,
but it was sporadic, fume far between, certainly not organized,
and certainly not seen across the rest of the country
like it was reported on by the papers the next day.

Speaker 4 (38:06):
Yeah, which sort of leads us to the story of
the poor pulses of Manhattan. This Manhattan couple, they did
fall for it. They were very scared. Apparently, as the
story goes, they got their last six dollars together and
got on a train to get the heck out of
New York. Assuming not going west into New Jersey, they

(38:28):
went north toward Connecticut, got as far as they could
on what little money they had, get off the train,
and you know, there's a bunch of other passengers that
they're telling, you know, they're warning everybody of what's happened, right,
And this one guy there goes over and gets there,
and a just picture of this in the movie is like,
no one's listening to this guy. And he picks up

(38:50):
the newspaper basically the TV guide.

Speaker 3 (38:52):
It's the dunkin Donuts guy.

Speaker 4 (38:54):
He says, hey, guys, it says right here, war the
world's broadcast is supposed to be on at that hour,
Like it just says right here in the newspaper, it's
a it's a radio play. Everyone no one, everyone, no one, nobody, okay.
And then he just goes and gets on a train
and leaves. But they feel bad for them that the

(39:14):
other people that were you know, that had gathered together,
they loaned them or gave them I guess some money,
and she chipped in and got them back to New
York City. And then later Estelle Paltz wrote a fifteen
page letter the next day to Orson Wells that was
very admiring and said how thrilled she was. But I

(39:36):
can't imagine what else is in that fifteen page letter.
It's a lot of page.

Speaker 3 (39:39):
Yeah, I know.

Speaker 1 (39:41):
Hell of a story, I think, is what whis kept
just over and over and over all. Right, So so
that was one of the letters that Abrad Schwartz turned
up in that trove, and like it very clearly describes
a couple panicking because they mistook the War of the
World broadcast. But again, the this was not like across

(40:01):
the nation like the papers reported, and Schwartz actually explains
to the papers basically as a combination of a couple
of things. One is a bias. I can't tell if
it's selection bias, volunteer bias, or confirmation bias, but the
bias is as follows. If you're in a newsroom and

(40:21):
all of a sudden, your phone starts ringing off the hook,
and you're getting one hundred and fifty percent more calls
that night, and all of them are people asking about
this Martian invasion and what's going on and is this
real or is this a hoax? Or have you guys
heard anything about this? And some of those calls are
even from the local police who are also getting similar calls,
and now they're calling you to find out. Then it

(40:43):
seems like there's a lot of people calling and freaking
out about this Martian thing. But if you step back,
if you zoom out and look at that number of
people that actually called the newsroom, it's just this minute
fraction of the population of whatever town it is, So
it wasn't a bunch of people freaking out. But to
the people answering the phone in the newsroom, who are
getting swamped with calls, way more calls than usual, it

(41:05):
did seem like that. So that combined with anecdotal reports
that no one followed up followed up on from the
wire services that people were attempting suicide or having heart
attacks or whatever.

Speaker 3 (41:18):
That just being.

Speaker 1 (41:19):
Reported and relaid as fact led everybody to believe that
this was actually happening out there in the country, that
people were running. Well, maybe not my town, because I
stuck my head outside of the newsroom and I didn't
see anything. But I hear they're going crazy in Chicago
right now, or I hear they're really going nuts in
Milwaukee or whatever. And that's how it got reported, and
that's what everyone thought happened. People who lived through this

(41:42):
thought that this happened the next day. Orson Wells thought
his career was in jeopardy the next day because he
accidentally made America go berserk. And that's how that myth began,
and that's how it stood. And A Brad Schorts basically
traced it back to lazy, lazy reporting.

Speaker 4 (42:00):
So myth busted thanks to A. Brad Schwartz and US.

Speaker 3 (42:06):
And US for sure, I'm glad you included us.

Speaker 4 (42:08):
So there's an interesting footnote here, though, because this actually
did kind of play out that way. Eight years later
and night. Was it eight years later? Yeah, nineteen forty
eight in Ecuador, So this is in Quito, Ecuador. These
broadcasters recreate the orson Wells radio play, and they did

(42:30):
a version that went a lot further than his did
and got other radio stations to join in and add
to the reporting, which really pretty brilliant move there to
increase like you turn the station and it's happening over
there too. And this really did scare people. They really
did take to the streets and panic. There was, you know,
public panic going on. And then the crowd finds out

(42:52):
that it's fiction and they get angry and actually turned
into an angry mob and burned down the local newspaper
building that had the radio station inside of it, killing
six people.

Speaker 1 (43:04):
Yeah, six people died, fifteen people were injured. Like they
knew that the staff was in that building, and they
set the building on fire to try and kill them.
A bunch of people escaped out the back, but a
lot of people didn't escape, and the two people who
were responsible for the broadcast, including Ecuador's most beloved and
trusted presenter, were indicted for it. Like they're more safer basically, yeah, exactly,

(43:31):
and they were. They were indicted for their role in this,
like people died because of it. And this actually does
seem to have happened in Ecuador.

Speaker 4 (43:39):
Amazing.

Speaker 3 (43:40):
Yeah, so there you go.

Speaker 1 (43:42):
The idea that America fell into chaos and panic after
the war the world's broadcast in nineteen thirty eight is
largely myth. Go forth and spread the gospel everybody, unless
you're an Ecuador and then you're like, no, it's actually
happened here. And since I said that actually happened here,
I think Chuck is for this to mo mat.

Speaker 4 (44:03):
So this is from Tom in the UK.

Speaker 3 (44:07):
Did you see this email? I don't think so.

Speaker 4 (44:10):
It's great. It's one long sentence and I'm going to
try and read it in how I think Tom speaks
as as Tom from the UK, because just the way
he wrote it, I think Tom probably talks a little
bit like this.

Speaker 1 (44:26):
This isn't Tom from the UK, who was our tour
manager when we did our UK tour, is it now?

Speaker 3 (44:32):
Well, shout out to that Tom.

Speaker 2 (44:33):
Yeah in the UK.

Speaker 4 (44:34):
This is an engineer and this is what you have
to say, all right, Suck, Josh and Chuck Tom engineer
from the UK. Stoke on Trent, big fan of the show.
Been binging for about two years and got through all
of them. All of you lot, even Jerry, have got
me through a lot these last couple of years, and
I put a few people onto your podcast. Wanted to

(44:56):
email you lot for a while, and finally managed to
get right to emailing a load of things to people
about stuff that really doesn't matter. Emailed a TV show
about one of their actors, a particle physicist, about using
a light year of lead as a frame of reference.
The company Supernoodles for the excellent job they've done with

(45:20):
their supernoodle pot, but I'm not much for the peas.
And I just wanted to say, I know you like
the Japanese mayo, but you really need to try the
Polish mayo. Spot on all the best.

Speaker 1 (45:33):
Tom boil Boy, Tom, that was great, And Chuck, that
was a fantastic stoke on trent accent, the most accurate
I've ever heard.

Speaker 3 (45:42):
And the first Tom that was a great email. You're right, Chuck,
I love that email so much.

Speaker 4 (45:48):
I had so much fun.

Speaker 1 (45:49):
You were right to choose that one, So thanks Tom,
Thanks for writing in. Thank you for including us in
your list of people you harass via email, and keep listening.

Speaker 3 (45:59):
Okay, keep writing in. Maybe we'll make this a regular thing, Chuck.

Speaker 4 (46:03):
I would love that.

Speaker 1 (46:04):
Yeah, So Tom, write in again. And if you want
to write in too, we want to hear from you.
You can send us an email to Stuff Podcasts at
iHeartRadio dot com.

Speaker 2 (46:17):
Stuff you Should Know is a production of iHeartRadio.

Speaker 4 (46:20):
For more podcasts my heart Radio, visit the iHeartRadio app,
Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

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