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Cantril’s numbers are dubious, and the people interviewed in his book were not a representative sample of the population. “Nobody died of fright or was killed in the panic, nor could any suicides be traced to the broadcast,” the media scholar Michael Socolow noted in a 2008 essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Hospital emergency-room visits did not spike, nor, surprisingly, did calls to the police outside of a select few jurisdictions. The streets were never flooded with a terrified citizenry.…Telephone lines in New York City and a few other cities were jammed, as the primitive infrastructure of the era couldn’t handle the load, but it appears that almost all the panic that evening was as ephemeral as the nationwide broadcast itself, and not nearly as widespread. That iconic image of the farmer with a gun, ready to shoot the aliens? It was staged for Life magazine.”
Of the people who did mistake the fake news bulletins for real reports, a portion were under the impression that the invaders were not extraterrestrials but Germans, a less implausible scenario. Even the spikes in telephone calls didn’t necessarily represent public panic. The press critic W. Joseph Campbell has pointed out that the calls could be “an altogether rational response of people who neither panicked nor became hysterical, but sought confirmation or clarification from external sources generally known to be reliable.” Campbell added that the call volume must also have included “people who telephoned friends and relatives to talk about the unusual and clever program they had just heard.”
If Welles’ broadcast derived some of its impact from Americans’ anxieties about international tensions, the exaggerated reports about the response have persisted because they speak to another set of fears. After the play aired, the prominent political commentator Walter Lippmann took the opportunity to warn against “crowds that drift with all the winds that blow, and are caught up at last in the great hurricanes,” adding that those “masses without roots” and their “volcanic and hysterical energy” are “the chaos in which the new Caesars are born.” As Socolow wrote, the legend of the Mars panic “cemented a growing suspicion that skillful artists—or incendiary demagogues—could use communications technology to capture the consciousness of the nation.”
To capture consciousness: what a chilling image. It’s an idea that appears when dissidents warn that our leaders are using the mass media to brainwash us. But you can also find the fear among those leaders themselves, who have a long history of fretting over the influence of any new medium of communication. If Orson Welles was cast as a wizard with the power to cloud men’s minds, his listeners were imagined as a mindless mob easily misled by a master manipulator. The social order is disrupted; riots are sparked from afar.
The War of the Worlds story is usually told as a parable about popular hysteria—of a sudden spike in the sort of fear that Hofstadter’s essay decried. But at least as much, it is a parable about elite hysteria—of the anti-populist anxiety that Hofstadter’s essay exemplified. No account of American paranoia can be complete unless it includes the latter.
This article is adapted from The United States of Paranoia, by Jesse Walker.