Families were gathered around in their living rooms listening to the radio programs crossing the telephone wires, laughing with Charlie McCarthy, and relaxing after a long week. It was a normal Sunday evening until Orson Welles and the cast of Mercury Theatre on the Air presented their weekly adaptation of a classical work. This week it was War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells. By 8:25 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, the peaceful evening had been shattered by riots, panicked citizens, and the threat of Martians invading the country.
The hysterical flight of millions of Americans was not caused by their own gullibility, but rather the misapplication of broadcasting styles, the manipulation of the American psyche, the appropriation of a political tool, and the relevance of the historical timing. Without the unique combination of these four aspects, Welles and his crew would never have succeeded in their holiday stunt and frightened the nation.
Listeners of that night were labelled uneducated and gullible. Rather than this, they were educated in the medium through which the message was presented. Without their knowledge of the variety of broadcast styles announcers used to deliver information (be it news, comedy, or simply music), the listening audience might not have reacted in such a drastic manner. By mixing broadcast styles, the radio audience received the program at face value.
Outside factors can also be included in the panic equation, but these only served to heighten the effect already achieved by the radio. Come, explore that night.