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Saturday, 31 October, 1998, 09:18 GMT
No panic when Martians invaded
by our Science Editor David Whitehouse

On the 60th anniversary of one of the most famous radio broadcasts in history - Orson Welles' War of the Worlds - new evidence suggests that America did not panic as is commonly believed.

Millions tuned in 60 years ago to hear Orson Welles' adaptation of the HG Wells science fiction classic.

Set in 1938, the American broadcast presented the Martian invasion as if it was really happening.

Although a warning was broadcast at the start of the radio play, many missed it. Later, while listening to dance music they heard, "Ladies and Gentlemen, we interrupt this broadcast... " and the invasion was underway.

An explosion on the surface of Mars; gas clouds heading for Earth; cylinders land at Grovers Mill, New Jersey; Martians stride over the landscape destroying the US Army with their heat rays.

The following days' newspapers said many panicked but a new assessment of what happened that night suggests the hysteria has been exaggerated.

According to Robert Bartholomew of James Cook University in Australia, panic was the exception and not the rule.

"People were concerned," he says, "but there is very little evidence that they actually did anything."

"The supposed panic was put down to the power of the media. The fact that many believe a panic took place, when it did not, is also testimony to the power of the media."

Still vulnerable

Listening to the play, some people thought they could hear the Martians and smell their poison gas. Others believed that it was not the Martians but the Germans who were invading America in a surprise attack with a secret weapon.

"Human perception is unreliable," says Robert Bartholomew. "Some people saw what they believed was happening. It shows that believing is seeing."

He also believes that something like it could happen again.

"It is not a question of if but when there will be another scare like it. It will take a different form but we are still vulnerable. We have to learn the lessons of the War of the Worlds."

See also:

07 Apr 98 | UK
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