America's original fake-news outrage: How Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" made parents lose their minds

Parents in the 1930s thought the radio was a grave threat to their children's wellbeing. Enter: Orson Welles...

Published May 31, 2015 6:00PM (EDT)

Orson Welles      (AP/<a href=''>boscorelli</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
Orson Welles (AP/boscorelli via Shutterstock/Salon)

Excerpted from "Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News."

The story of the nationwide mass panic caused by Orson Welles’s 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast is as famous as it is inaccurate. The nearly two thousand letters ordinary Americans wrote to Welles and the Federal Communications Commission in the days after the show prove what some scholars have long argued: That mass panic was largely a myth, a newspaper exaggeration that’s taken on a life of its own. But even though Welles’s broadcast only frightened a small fraction of its audience, the newspaper reports that it panicked the country set off a much larger panic by themselves. In their letters, and on editorial pages coast-to-coast, many Americans fiercely debated whether democracy had any hope of survival in an age when the mass media could deceive people so easily by rehashing a forty-year-old science-fiction novel.

This debate took many forms, but perhaps the strangest and most relevant to our own time was a different kind of panic—a “moral panic”—over the influence of radio on American society, and particularly on the minds of children. This important aspect of the War of the Worlds controversy, which greatly and falsely magnified public outrage caused by the show, has essentially been forgotten. But the substance of that debate lives on in similar controversies over the alleged effects of violent media on young minds, despite decades of research suggesting that media effects are much more limited than many people assume. The belief that movies, video games, and other media are a dangerous, corrupting influence is not a new thing; Americans once felt the same way about Little Orphan Annie.

As defined by the sociologist Stanley Cohen in his classic text Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers, “moral panics” occur when a society perceives a threat to its established value system. Usually, that threat is a new behavior or technology believed to corrupt the young. Society then rushes to defend itself in a disorganized, disproportionate, and often hysterical manner. Cohen wrote about youth culture in 1960s Britain, but his definition of moral panics applies just as well to the way parents and reformers reacted to radio in the 1930s.

One of the leading voices of this moral panic was U.S. Senator Clyde L. Herring, a Democrat from Iowa. The day after War of the Worlds, newspapers around the country quoted Herring’s vow to pass a law “controlling just such abuses as was [sic] heard over the radio tonight.” Herring argued that the FCC should establish an office to review radio scripts for violent or indecent material. They would not have direct censorship power, but they would inform the FCC if any station aired something “contrary to the public interest, convenience or necessity.” It would then be up to the FCC to decide whether that station deserved to keep its license. “There is no freedom of the press or radio involved at all,” Herring told reporters. “It is merely a move to tell radio what we want to come into our homes.”

Herring had no intention of censoring fake news or broadcast hoaxes. Instead, he wanted to ban what he called “sleepy-time nightmares,” radio shows that excited children with scenes of horror, bloodshed, or suspense. “Some of the bedtime stories which are supposed to put children to sleep—but involve murder and violence—are an outrage and should be stopped,” he told the press soon after War of the Worlds. Like many parents, he worried that such programs harmed children, wrecking their nervous systems, interfering with their sleep, and creating a generation of mental cases. Even worse, in Herring’s view, were crime melodramas, such as Gang Busters, a thirty-minute show that dramatized real police cases. Herring believed that these “air racketeers,” as he called them, inspired countless youngsters to take up a life of crime. The alleged results of War of the Worlds supported Herring’s belief that radio could compel those with weak and developing minds to behave irrationally or immorally.

Many of these charges were identical to those lobbed for decades at the movies. Almost since its introduction, film had been decried as a corrupter of youth. Parents worried that by making sex and crime seem appealing, film would inevitably draw kids down the path to immorality. Henry James Forman’s 1933 book Our Movie Made Children called Hollywood movies “a veritable school for crime,” and cited one neurologist who said that the thrills kids experienced in horror films were “virtually the same as shell-shock”—what today we would call PTSD. Forman’s book became a bestseller, reinforcing what many Americans already believed about motion pictures.

Inevitably, this outsized view of the mass media’s impact on children was applied to the radio as well. Reform groups and parent-teacher associations argued throughout the 1930s that kids’ shows were “making neurasthenics of their youngsters,” as the New York Times reported in 1933, and prompting them to commit innumerable crimes. In 1937, for example, a twelve-year-old boy shot first his teacher and then himself at an Ohio school. The incident was immediately blamed on a radio show, The Green Hornet, even though the Times later reported that the connection was false.

Many adults found violent and horrifying radio programs even more worrisome than the movies. As Herring put it in H.B. Summers’ 1939 book Radio Censorship, “Radio invades the sanctity of the home,” making it difficult for parents to monitor what their kids were being exposed to. “We do not permit our children to attend ‘horror’ movies,” wrote one New Jersey man to the FCC after War of the Worlds. “The radio obligingly barges into our homes, without at least giving us a warning… What is radio trying to do to America?”

As with the movies, children tended to like best the shows that frightened and thrilled them. These were the kinds of programs that parents hated but advertisers loved. Companies selling breakfast cereals and other children’s products knew their audience. They made sure to sponsor programs that were violent and exciting, so more kids would listen in and send in box tops to get the decoder rings and other toys promised on air. The radio show most popular with children was also the one most disliked by parents groups: Little Orphan Annie. Its suspenseful cliffhangers, which routinely left kids dying to know how Annie and her dog Sandy would escape from mortal peril, were believed to cause “unnatural over-stimulation and thrill,” according to Summers’ Radio Censorship. Furthermore, the show’s advertising was so effective that it made youngsters nationwide indignantly demand that their mothers buy them Ovaltine.

In many ways, Orson Welles’s radio series, The Mercury Theatre on the Air, was the exact antithesis of the programs believed to harm children in the 1930s. It was an unsponsored show featuring great works of literature—about as far from Gang Busters or Little Orphan Annie as one could possibly get. Rather than making children crave Ovaltine, it inspired them to read. And yet, Senator Herring was far from alone in lumping War of the Worlds in with the crime and horror programs so controversial at that time.

“Children insist on listening to that variety of shock and are being developed into a race of morons and jitter bugs,” wrote one Missourian to the FCC. Others suggested that the government should use this controversy to make radio safe for young ears. A woman from Washington state described War of the Worlds as too “harrowing. And that is the word that describes many, many such broadcasts (beginning with ‘Orphan Annie,’)—harrowing,” she wrote. “Anything to keep suspense alive and at topmost pitch, and little or nothing to make one happy, and this writer is no Pollyanna either.” Despite the broadcast’s scary subject matter, more letters refer to crime shows like Gang Busters than horror series like Lights Out. “We wonder why this world is becoming corrupt,” wrote one Vermonter to the FCC. “There is no question in my mind! Some of the programs our children listen to are making criminals of the present generation.”

Similar sentiments can be found in press coverage of War of the Worlds. Some newspapers, including the New York Times, compared the fright caused by the broadcast to the “creeps” Welles had given kids as the star of the popular crime drama The Shadow. The Detroit Free Press applauded Herring and called for a general cleanup of children’s shows. “If thousands of grownup men and women could be thrown into panic…what must be the effect on millions of boys and girls in America…of tales of disaster and crime which greet their ears daily and nightly…?” they asked. “The radio simply must be cleansed of its evil sensationalism, and if there is no other way to perform the job, it must [be] through some sort of government action.”

Behind this outrage lay a generation gap. As the “theatre of the mind,” radio particularly fascinated young imaginations. Parents who grew up in the age of print struggled to understand its appeal. One Ohio father wrote with dismay to the FCC of how his son loved “some of these wild, shrieking mystery stories” so much “that he gets up in his sleep and walks around the room, dreaming about the thrills he has heard on the radio.” The father found these youthful displays of imagination so worrisome that he had the child “regularly examined by the doctor,” and gave him his own radio so he could listen to those “disgusting” programs on his own. As with several like-minded letters, there is no indication that this man actually heard War of the Worlds. He referred to it as the “Martian Adventurers” program, as if it were a science-fiction serial for children. But that did not stop him, and others, from using the controversy to attack a medium that they knew next to nothing about. Their misdirected anger made it seem that the broadcast upset more people than it actually did.

This overly protective attitude toward children may have done more than just inflame the controversy surrounding War of the Worlds. Orson Welles later claimed that it indirectly caused the panic itself. He told The Saturday Evening Post in 1940 that “mistaken theories of education” had led too many parents to shelter their children from stories of terror and bloodshed. These tales, Welles argued, “used to be a part of the routine training of the young,” helping them build up resistance to real-life horrors. Without them, Welles believed that “most of the population” had grown up “without any protection against the fee-fi-fo-fum stuff.” Welles was speaking of the current generation of adults, most of whom had not grown up with the radio. But broadcasters had eagerly taken up the mantle of sharing violence and horror with children, and it seems that, as Welles suggested, this left some kids less susceptible to panic than adults.

Very little evidence survives as to how children actually perceived War of the Worlds. Of the nearly two thousand listener letters that are known to exist, only twenty-four are definitely from people under the age of eighteen. But there are tantalizing indications that, if anything, children were better able to understand War of the Worlds than their elders were. Most letters written by children approved of the broadcast, and the vast majority, nineteen, show no evidence of fright. Only five letters came from kids who believed that the show was real. One schoolteacher in Illinois gathered the reactions of some of her students to War of the Worlds and sent them to the FCC. “The twelve-year-olds seem to be able to take it,” she wrote. “I wonder if nature is going to supply them a set of cast iron nerves.”

Credit was due, perhaps, not to nature, but to all those thrilling radio programs that parents hated so much. Because kids knew the medium better than adults they would have been more likely to pick up on cues that War of the Worlds was fiction. For instance, social psychologist Hadley Cantril, in his 1940 book The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic, reports the case of an eleven-year-old girl who did not believe in the show because she recognized Welles’s voice from The Shadow. Children also knew more about the broadcast’s science-fiction subject matter than their elders did. Comic-strip heroes like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon regularly took youngsters to Mars and beyond. And, of course, the broadcast was a Halloween prank, something many children knew very much about. “Didn’t any of our so called adults realize that Sunday night was Halloween and that is the night for scary things?” wrote a fourteen-year-old girl from New York City, in a letter to Orson Welles.

Even at the time, some observers suspected “that the children would have understood the fantasy if their parents hadn’t gone off the deep end,” as Variety put it three days after the broadcast. “By the way, the paper tells about adults who were scared, but nothing about kids,” wrote one New Yorker to the FCC. “The kids probably remembered Buck Rogers. Maybe they have more sense than we have, after all.”

Excerpted from "Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News" by A. Brad Schwartz, published by FSG/Hill & Wang. Copyright © 2015 by A. Brad Schwartz.

Quotes from letters to the FCC courtesy General correspondence 1927-1946, records of the Federal Communications Commission, Record Group 173, file 44-3, National Archives, College Park, Maryland. Quote from letter to Orson Welles courtesy University of Michigan, Special Collections Library, Richard Wilson-Orson Welles Papers.

By A. Brad Schwartz

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Books History Media Criticism Orson Welles War Of The Worlds