In perhaps the most notorious event in American broadcast history, on 30 October 1938, 23-year-old Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air performed a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. They converted the novel into fake news bulletins describing a Martian invasion of New Jersey, which some listeners actually mistook for the real thing.
Anxious calls to police, newspaper offices and radio stations ensued, prompting many journalists to believe the programme had caused nationwide hysteria. The following day, newspapers across America contained headlines about the ‘mass panic’ the broadcast had allegedly inspired. The network, CBS, hastily arrange a press conference to explain what had really happened, with journalists unanimously asking Welles the same question: Had he intended, or did he anticipate, that War of the Worlds would make its audience panic?
So how did the broadcast come about, and did Welles indeed intend for this to be the reaction?
Relatively few Americans were listening to CBS and heard the announcement that Welles and his cast members were presenting an original dramatisation of the science fiction novel. Channel-surfing listeners stumbling across the programme without having heard the disclaimer at the start were therefore thrust into the drama, leaving some believing America was under attack.
The broadcast opened serenely with the dance music until an actor portraying an announcer broke-in with a fake news report that several explosions had occurred on Mars. A series of increasingly alarming newsflashes in quick succession culminated with Martian spacecrafts crashing into a farm in Grovers Mill, New Jersey. Breathless reporters then detailed an extraterrestrial army that killed thousands with heat rays and black clouds of poison gas as they steamrolled their way into New York City.
Welles and the rest of the cast impersonated astronomers, state militia officials and even the ‘Secretary of the Interior’ (an actor was hired who ‘coincidentally’ sounded like President Roosevelt, despite this being forbidden to avoid misleading audiences). Ultimately human germs thwarted the mythical Martian invaders, and at the end of the hour the radio drama closed with Welles, now out of character, assuring the audience that the drama had simply been a Hallowe’en offering.
The ensuing national ‘panic’
Fear and anxiety were prevalent in the 1930s, following the impact of the Depression, the gathering crisis in Europe and the Hindenburg disaster, broadcast over the airwaves just one year before. Despite the programme stating that it was a dramatisation, thousands of anxious and confused listeners believed it to be real.
Police departments, newspapers and CBS were besieged with phone-calls, and in New Jersey, where the fictitious invasion took place, national guardsmen were said to have asked where to report for duty. The Trenton police department fielded 2,000 calls in under 2 hours, and in Providence, Rhode Island, hysterical callers begged the power to be cut to keep the city safe from the invaders.
But was there as much panic as is thought?
Newspapers’ role in the panic
During the Depression, radio had diverted advertising revenue from print, damaging the newspaper industry. Seeing a chance to strike back and discredit their growing rival source of news, the newspaper industry gleefully collected the sporadic reports of confusion, suicide attempts, heart attacks and exoduses from major metropolitan areas generated by the broadcast and created a frenzied narrative of ‘mass hysteria’.
By sensationalising the panic, they hoped to prove to advertisers and regulators that radio management was irresponsible for approving the interweaving of ‘blood-curdling fiction’ with newsflashes. Indeed, the newspaper industry’s trade journal, Editor and Publisher, claimed that ‘The nation as a whole continues to face the danger of incomplete, misunderstood news over a medium which has yet to prove …that it is competent to perform the news job’.
Where did the idea come from?
Welles’s CBS series Mercury Theatre on the Air was low-budget without a sponsor. It broadcast fresh adaptations of literary classics, but for Halloween week in 1938, Welles came up with the idea of doing a radio broadcast where it would seem that a crisis was actually happening, “broadcast in such a dramatised form as to appear to be a real event taking place at that time, rather than a mere radio play”.
Without knowing which book he’d adapt, Welles discussed his idea with his producer, John Houseman, and Paul Stewart, a veteran radio actor who co-directed the Mercury broadcasts. They settled on H.G. Wells’s 1898 novel, The War of the Worlds. In the story, Martians invade Britain at the turn of the 20th century, easily defeating the British army due to their ‘heat ray’, poisonous black smoke and other advanced weaponry – yet ultimately are defeated due to their lack of immunity from earthy diseases.
Whilst the novel satirises British imperialism, its premise was not that implausible to its original readers. In 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli had observed a series of dark lines on Mars’s surface that he called canali, Italian for ‘channels’. This got mistranslated to ‘canals’ in English, implying that these had been built. Astronomer Percival Lowell later popularised this misconception in a series of books, helping inspire H. G. Wells to write his alien invasion story – the first of its kind.
Ways the broadcast seemed convincing
Welles considered the rehearsals a disaster, believing the only way to save the show was to lengthen the fake news bulletins in its first act. Consequently, the station break in War of the Worlds would come about two-thirds of the way through.
No-one picked up on the fact that listeners who tuned in late would have to wait nearly 40 minutes to hear a disclaimer. Fictional programmes were typically interrupted on the half-hour for station identification unlike breaking news, thus people were even more convinced when the station break failed to come at 8:30pm.
Other references that helped highlight the invasion was fake were deleted, and actors suggested ways of reworking the dialogue to make it more convincing (e.g. listening to real recordings of the Hindenburg disaster reporting to replicate the emotions).
No-one involved with War of the Worlds expected it to deceive any listeners, because they all found the story too silly and improbable for it to be taken seriously. Even CBS’s legal department had demanded only minor script changes.
Amongst threats of lawsuits, CBS hastily arranged a press conference the next morning, where Welles put on a display of remorse and shock at the public reaction. He repeatedly denied that he’d ever intended to deceive his audience, stating “I can’t imagine an invasion from Mars would find ready acceptance” and claimed that The War of the Worlds had “become familiar to children through the medium of comic strips and many succeeding novels and adventure stories”.
However, hardly anyone believed him, with his behaviour at the press conference seeming too contrite. He allegedly told several people at the time that “If I’d planned to wreck my career, I couldn’t have gone about it better”, yet decades later, Welles admitted:
The kind of response was merrily anticipated by us all. The size of it, of course, was flabbergasting.
Did Orson Welles intend the broadcast to be so realistic?
Instead of ending his career, War of the Worlds catapulted Welles to Hollywood, where he went on to make Citizen Kane. Given the benefits Welles gained, many found it hard to believe that he regretted the broadcast and his resulting celebrity.
His response to questions over his intentions changed over time, from claims of innocence to playful hints that he knew exactly what he’d been doing. Indeed in later years, Welles claimed in several interviews that The Mercury had always hoped to fool some of their listeners in order to teach them a lesson about not believing whatever they heard over the radio. However, none of his collaborators ever endorsed this.
Whilst Orson Welles and his colleagues had struggled to create the show, they ended up writing pop-culture history.