‘War of the Worlds’ anniversary a timeless reminder of fact vs. fiction, according to UMaine media historian 

It’s about that time again. The anniversary of the classic radio broadcast of the Orson Welles drama “War of the Worlds.” 

Halloween eve 1938, 23-year-old Welles took to the airwaves for an hour to describe a martian invasion in such detail that it caused nationwide hysteria. That was according to newspaper headlines the next day. And to urban legend.

That’s until media scholars Jefferson Pooley at Muhlenberg College and Michael Socolow at the University of Maine wrote a seminal article for Slate that helped set the record straight. Three-quarters of a century later.

In their article, “The Myth of the War of the World Panic,” Pooley and Socolow documented that the reports of mass hysteria following the broadcast were greatly exaggerated. Newspaper reports claiming panic in the streets were created in an attempt to discredit radio and win over advertisers.

The 2013 article ignited its own media frenzy. This time on an international scale, with interviews with the two scholars by media worldwide that October. And nearly every year since. 

Socolow, a UMaine associate professor of communication and journalism, is a sought-after, widely published, nationally recognized media historian. But this time of year, it’s “War of the Worlds” that continues to capture imaginations and is seemingly more relevant than ever.

In their 2018 Washington Post op-ed, “Unraveling the myth of ‘War of the Worlds,” Pooley and Socolow argued that instead of spreading hysteria, reports about the broadcast spread fake news, and racial and gendered stereotypes.

And now, the “War of the Worlds” scholarship of Pooley and Socolow is immortalized in an SAT practice test, in the writing and language section.

Oct. 27, an episode of the Professor Buzzkill History Podcast will feature an interview with Pooley and Socolow about “War of the Worlds” and mass panic.

The legend continues.