The Orson Welles radio broadcast of October 30th 1938 presented the first opportunity in
modern history to apply psychology and scientific analysis in the rigorous investigation
of an actual mass panic. Luckily, a Princeton University professor by the name of Hadley
Cantril was in the right place at the right time to make this invaluable effort, producing
reams of data based on interviews with those who experienced the panic firsthand.
Princeton (or its observatory) had actually figured in the broadcast and was located
not far from Grover's Mill, the epicentre of the seismic shocks that rocked America
that Halloween night.
Cantril's book, subtitled "a study in the psychology of panic" is an exhaustive study
of the events of October 30th 1938 and the days following, and attempts to place the
events of that night into context with the large political and social upheavals of the
times. Cantril looks at a wide variety of subjects, including the conditions that might
have inhibited critical ability, the way the play was perceived and its historical setting.
It is a rewarding read, liberally sprinkled with first hand accounts to illustrate each
stage of the argument and with fascinating tables of statistics that further illuminate
our understanding of that extraordinary night.
You will note that Cantril's research did not extend into very high figures (less than 50
in this sample) and while this has somewhat blunted his findings, the fact that he was
able to begin his research so soon after the broadcast and to speak to people with fresh
memories, means that as a piece of critical evidence, this remains second to none. Much
for instance has been made over the years of the idea that many people seemed to tune in
late to the Welles broadcast, having switched channels from a rival, and this is clearly
supported by Cantril's findings. There is much more in the book like this, and for those
wanting to make an in-depth study of the events that night, this remains an indispensable
addition to your library.
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