#3 America Goes Crazy Over War of the Worlds
In 1938, Orson Welles’ radio production of the H.G. Wells novel War of the Worlds played out as a massive prank on the nation, reporting a Martian invasion as if it were real. The broadcast plunged millions of Americans into mass hysteria, as frightened listeners overloaded phone lines, fled cities, rushed to warn their loved ones, rioted and even attempted suicide for fear of the alien attack.
Life Magazine even ran a photo of a farmer defending his land against the Martians, shotgun in hand:
Newspapers happily jumped on reporting the panic in the days and weeks afterward, and even Adolf Hitler commented on the supposed hysteria. Something to the effect of, “An army of futuristic war machines trying to take over the planet?! Ha! You people are crazy to think such a thing could happen. If it did, you’d damn well know about it.”
But in Reality…
That photo up there, of the farmer with the shotgun? Life Magazine just had the guy pose for it. Most of the War of the Worlds freak-out was exactly as fake as that photo.
There’s no doubt that some people thought the broadcast was real. Radio was still new and a fake news broadcast had literally never been done before. But virtually all of them reacted in exactly the way you would have: flipped to another station, or called somebody to ask what was going on.
Reports of people immediately flying into a panic–attempting suicide, hallucinating alien death rays or fleeing to the countryside with guns in hand–were almost all anecdotal stories told second hand with no names attached. And although the phone lines to the studio were unusually busy that night, mixed in with the people asking for information, were people praising or complaining about a show that seemed like it was clearly designed to create a mass panic.
There were also the people who tuned in late, and only caught the part about an “invasion” and “poison gas” (the Martians’ main weapon) and assumed they were hearing reports of the Nazis invading, which wasn’t ridiculous at all in 1938.
It’s true that a few people probably actually did stupid shit, but keep in mind there were six million listeners that night. In any group of six million people, you’ll find a certain number of them doing stupid things anyway, probably because they’re stoned.