BROADCAST HYSTERIA: Orson Welles's War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News by SAC Alumnus '13, A. Brad Schwartz
The enthralling and never-told story of the War of the Worlds radio drama and its true aftermath
On October 30, 1938, families across the country were gathered around their radios when their regular programming was interrupted by an announcer delivering news of a meteor strike in New Jersey. With increasing intensity, the announcer read bulletins describing terrifying war machines moving toward New York City. As the invading force approached, some listeners sat transfixed before their radios, while others ran to alert neighbors or call the police. Some even fled their homes in panic. But the broadcast was not breaking news—it was Orson Welles’s adaptation of the H. G. Wells classic The War of the Worlds.
In Broadcast Hysteria, A. Brad Schwartz (SAC ’13) examines the history behind the infamous radio play. Did it really spawn a wave of mass hysteria? Schwartz is the first to examine the hundreds of letters sent directly to Welles after the broadcast. He draws upon them, and hundreds more sent to the FCC, to recapture the roiling emotions of a bygone era, and his findings challenge conventional wisdom. Relatively few listeners believed an actual attack was under way. But even so, Schwartz shows that Welles’s broadcast prompted a different kind of “mass panic” as Americans debated the bewitching power of the radio and the country’s vulnerability in a time of crisis. Schwartz’s original research, gifted storytelling, and thoughtful analysis make Broadcast Hysteria a groundbreaking work of media history.
Published by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux