The Attack (and subsequent panic) That Never Was

Today marks the 80th anniversary of the infamous radio broadcast of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds–a story of aliens invading the earth. The telling of the story was so real that mass panic ensued as people feared it was an actual news broadcast telling people that aliens were indeed running amuck on earth. Stories abound of people running through the streets, men calling the police to volunteer to fight the aliens and women weeping hysterically.

Except that, like the alien invasion, all that panic didn’t really happen either. Though the myth of the hysteria has grown over the years, as folks have begun to dig more deeply into the story, they’ve discovered that the whole thing was overblown by the media in order to sell papers and exaggerate the influential power of radio.

How has the story of mass hysteria and nationwide panic persisted over the years? It’s a good story. And like many good stories, it grows and changes in the retelling.

This anniversary is a good reminder to us all that how we tell (and retell) stories matters. Fiction can be taken for the truth. Reactions can be misrepresented. And if any story gets told for long enough and often enough, it can become truth by virtue of the fact that everyone believes it.

May we put our doubting skills to use to question the stories we are told, and may we insist on truth telling from our elected officials, our media and ourselves.


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