The myth of mass panic re: The War of the Worlds was promulgated right from the jump. In spite of having a rather small audience, and even fewer of that small number being fooled so badly they went into panic, the media ran with a sensationalised story.
During the Depression, newspapers lost a lot of popularity as radio came to the fore (similar to how TV caused the popularity of movies to sink in the Fifties). Thus, journalists seized on the chance to paint radio as unreliable, untrustworthy, and irresponsible.
The very day afterwards, Halloween 1938, many newspapers began running fake stories about this panic that never was, and taking radio officials to task for letting this show air.
Following these early phony stories, a growing number of people began claiming they listened to the show, when they’d done no such thing. Soon, popular mythology had it that most of America was listening that fateful night.
The night of the broadcast, the C.E. Hooper ratings service phoned 5,000 households for a survey. A mere 2% gave responses indicating they were listening to Mercury Theatre. Hence, the other 98% were listening to something else, or nothing. Many were tuned in to the hugely popular Chase and Sanborn Hour on NBC.
While it’s impossible to ascertain how many people switched stations when the first musical interlude on C&S began, it certainly wasn’t millions, as the mythology claims.
Several important CBS affiliates pre-empted Mercury Theatre for local programming. The day after, CBS commissioned a national survey, and discovered most people never heard it. Those who did understood it was a dark Halloween prank.
Additionally, it was listed in radio guides for the week, day, and month! People who read those magazines and newspaper sections knew what would be on tap.
Six weeks later, the American Institute of Public Opinion issued a report claiming about a million people were frightened by the show. In 1940, Prof. Hadley Cantril of Princeton published a summary of the findings, The Invasion from Mars (which is still in print). He claimed 6,000,000 people tuned in, and that 1.7 million believed it was legit.
Cantril himself admitted the findings were heavily skewed and biased, since they primarily came from NY and NJ (the states the Martians attacked), and AIPO offered an audience rating “over 100 percent higher than any other known measure of this audience.”
Cantril also had a very élitist attitude towards people who weren’t highly-educated and from at least a middle-class background (i.e., a good portion of Americans at the time). Finally, he conflated descriptors like frightened, excited, and disturbed with a state of panic. Many people in the late Thirties felt frightened and excited by radio dramas.
Orson Welles telling reporters no one in his theatre company thought their show would cause mass panic, Halloween 1938
All the rumours spread in the wake of the broadcast turned out to be 100% false. There were no suicides, panic-related deaths, hospital treatments for shock, calls to join the military because of the show, car crashes, riots, fleeing crowds. A single listener tried to sue CBS for $50,000, claiming they caused nervous shock, but her lawsuit was quickly thrown out.
Many of the people who believed the story was legit thought the invaders were really Nazis. Welles tapped into very real fears about the threat of war and fascism. This was also an era where authority figures were overwhelmingly, automatically, unquestioningly believed.
In 2003, the show was one of the first 50 additions to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.