Radio Play About Martian Invasion Causes Widespread Panic, as Listeners Mistake it for Real News
In the 1930s, the Columbia Broadcasting System’s radio network hosted The Mercury Theatre on the Air – a live radio drama series created by Orson Welles, which presented classic literary works. On Sunday, October 30th, 1938, Welles directed and narrated an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds as a Halloween special. It ended up causing widespread panic when many listeners mistook the radio play about a fictional alien invasion for a news broadcast describing an actual alien invasion.
H.G. Wells’ original War of the World describes a Martian invasion of Victorian Britain, in which the aliens swiftly crush humans with advanced technology such as unstoppable death rays and lethal poison gasses. Orson Welles’ adaptation converted the novel into a series of news bulletins, describing an alien invasion of 1938 New Jersey.
Welles’ broadcast made it clear at the beginning that it was a radio play. However, many listeners tuned in mid-broadcast, and thus missed the notification that what they were hearing was a play, not actual news. For such listeners, what they heard was alarming, as Welles, playing the part of a news announcer, fired off a series of news bulletins describing the arrival of Martians in New Jersey.
Alarm turned into panic for many, when the Martians demonstrated their hostile intent by falling upon the good people of New Jersey with a ferocious and seemingly unstoppable attack. Soon, an actor who sounded like President Franklin Roosevelt was telling America: “Citizens of the nation: I shall not try to conceal the gravity of the situation that confronts the country, nor the concern of your government in protecting the lives and property of its people. . . . we must continue the performance of our duties each and every one of us, so that we may confront this destructive adversary with a nation united, courageous, and consecrated to the preservation of human supremacy on this earth.” That was followed by reports that the US Army was engaged, then by news bulletins announcing that New York City was being evacuated.
Although the broadcast was interrupted at intervals with notifications making it clear that it was just a play, many listeners had not lingered by their radios long enough to hear such clarifications. Soon as they heard that Earth was under attack by unstoppable alien invaders who were slaughtering all and sundry, many panicked and ran out of their homes screaming, or packed their cars and fled into the night.
All across the country, telephone operators were swamped as thousands of frightened listeners called radio stations, police, and newspapers. Some people rushed to churches to pray, others donned improvised gas masks, and others simply ran around like chickens with their heads cut off. The following morning, Orson Welles woke up to discover that he was the most talked about man in America. Once it became clear that Martians were not actually invading, public panic was replaced by public outrage at Welles for fooling them, and many accused him of causing the panic on purpose.