Why Did the Original War of the Worlds Frighten So Many People?

1938 was a unique year in the history of the world. The Nazi regime was slowly extending its grip across Europe. The United States was still in the throes of the Great Depression. Technologies such as radio and television were firmly rooted within the public culture. Another milestone for this year involved the original “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast. Although this fictional drama only lasted for one hour, it led millions of Americans to believe that the nation was being invaded by nefarious aliens from Mars. While such a concept is obviously ludicrous in this day and age, it was indeed very real at the time. Why were so many listeners duped by this radio drama? Let’s take a look at the psychological reasons behind such short-term panic. 

The Power of Radio

Radio was the most important form of entertainment during the 1920s and 1930s. As the majority of Americans could not afford a television, radio waves served as a crucial means to keep updated in regards to the latest news and current events. There were countless programmes to be enjoyed at the time and families would normally spend the evening propped up in front of this apparatus.

However, radio also served to heighten the imagination of the listener. As there were no pictures or videos, individuals constructed stories within the mind’s eye. Thus, there was arguably much more free thinking involved when compared to modern technology. This also signified that horror stories took on a decidedly personalised flavour; listeners had to imagine their worst fears as opposed to having them displayed by a film director. It therefore stands to reason that The War of the Worlds was essentially viewed from a very personal perspective.

What About Mars?

While astronomy had advanced in leaps and bounds during the first half of the 20th century, there were still many unknowns when it came to Mars. What we now understand to be natural gorges on the surface were thought to represent artificially constructed “canals” at the time. Even famed inventor Nikola Tesla believed that he had received intelligent transmissions from the red planet. So, it was not entirely out of the question that Martians could very well exist and choose to invade earth.

In fact, the notion of life on Mars has existed in one form or another since ancient times. It would not take much to convince radio listeners that this life was far from friendly. When we then consider that the original script was written by famed author H.G. Wells, it is clear to appreciate why it had such an effect across the nation.

Unfortunately, the halcyon days of radio are long since past; having been nearly entirely replaced by the digital media. This is why it is not likely that such a terrifying broadcast will ever take place in the future. It would nonetheless be very interesting to travel back in time in order to truly appreciate just how much of a stir this narrative actually created.