For a few moments between 8:00 and 9:00 p.m. eastern on 30 october 2013, an “old-time radio play” was officially trending on twitter. It wasn’t just any radio play, of course, but the most famous dramatic audio ever created—indeed, the most famous ever likely to be created: Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater on the Air production of Howard Koch’s script of “The War of the Worlds,” based on the novel by H. G. Wells, which first aired on ninety-two stations of the Columbia Broadcasting System exactly seventy-five years earlier. Ever since then, the play has been regarded as the pinnacle of an all-but-abandoned expressive form of sound art, its aftermath a pivotal moment in the history of mass media.1
The size of WOTW’s 1938 audience is often exaggerated, but it is plausible that the broadcast caused a million or more to fear for their lives, with its tale of a Martian invasion narrated like breaking news. Was the mistake planned? We don’t know; those involved told conflicting stories at different junctures in their careers, and it’s nice to be able to entertain the idea that Welles and company accomplished by accident what no dramatist could have done by design.2 The event inspired some two thousand stories in papers across the country and became known as the “Panic Broadcast,” the “Night America Trembled,” and one of the most fascinating events of all time, with many sure that the hysteria had something to do with public nervousness incited by the war crisis overseas.3 WOTW also triggered a new era in mass media studies as the case study for Hadley Cantril’s famous Invasion from Mars (1940), which gave the play an aggrandized afterlife in academic circles, even if it sapped the hoax of some of its impish fun.4
Today, many know enduring folk tales of the aftermath: motorists tearing up and down New Jersey; terrified sorority girls in huddles; car accidents, heart attacks, miscarriages, and suicides; refugees lost in the Dakota hills; listeners treated for shock in Newark; pandemonium outside Trenton; looting and mass prayers in the South; a police raid on CBS.5 Most of these sensationalist stories have been debunked over the years, although many writers still cling to them wishfully.6 Ironically, the lesson of this historical episode about the perils of the radio is proselytized by those who perilously heed the yellow press, leaving a perfect symmetry between hoax and metahoax—an early line in Citizen Kane famously reminds us not to trust what we hear on the radio, but much of the film reminds us not to trust what we read in the paper. And let’s not be so hard on hysteria history. To believe in the panic is, after all, to believe in the power of media to make reality, and that’s not something to disabuse people of lightly. Joy Elizabeth Hayes and Kathleen Battles have argued that the panic was more about communication—between listeners, from listeners to the broadcaster—than it was about human susceptibility.7 In the way it quickly generated powerful responses, the broadcast embodied a rich tension between one-way and two-way communicative relationships characteristic of the radio age.
And why look for heavy-handed “lessons” at all? Perhaps the play caused a hoax, perhaps it’s the hoax that’s the hoax, but either way, “The War of the Worlds” has a surfeit of thrill of [End Page 80] which neither the truth-hunters nor the mythbusters can adequately dispose. As Paul Heyer has observed, the miracle of the event isn’t that many lives were irrevocably disrupted by the play but that the disruption seemed to emanate from the imagination.8 My view is that the “War of the Worlds” aftermath is best approached as neither a fact nor a myth but as an allegory, one dense with questions of time and space, scale and pace, that are also thematized at every level of the narrative—from Welles’s opening monologue on the “ethereal gulf” of space and the clockwork...