How Orson Welles freaked out the country with ‘War of the Worlds’ in 1938

Orson Welles freaks out the country with 'War of the Worlds' (1938)

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Columbia apologizes for ‘mass hysteria’ caused by broadcast of H. G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast

‘War of the Worlds’ depicted invasion of Martian army

H G Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” was published in 1898. It depicted an invasion of Martians who landed in Wales inside “space capsules,” and immediately proceeded with superior weapons, including a death ray, to devastate the earth.

Unfortunately, they came from a planet where germs were unknown, and their invasion ended when they were laid low by the earth’s microbes.

Playwright Orson Welles said he had given his radio adaptation an American locale to “make it more interesting” to American listeners.

Orson Welles freaks out the country with 'War of the Worlds' (1938)

Radio drama gives the nation a bad case of war jitters

Skilled word-craftsman that he is, author H G Wells ran second to reality when the panic that followed an Orson Welles broadcast of his book “War of the Worlds” far outdid in speed and scope his descriptions of mass fear. His books were noted for their imaginative pictures of interplanetary drama.

Orson Welles - War of the Worlds radio

War of the Worlds

The play was “The War of the Worlds,” originally written by H G. Wells, who has a pretty good imagination himself, and done into a radio script by Orson Welles.

After an introductory explanation by Welles at 8 p. m. (EST), an announcer gave a commonplace weather forecast. Then, in standard fashion came the words: “We take you now to the — hotel, where we will hear the music of… etc.”

After a few bars of dance music, there came “a bulletin from the intercontinental radio news bureau” saying there had been a gas explosion in New Jersey.

After that, the bulletins came more and more rapidly with “Professor Pierson,” played by Welles, explaining about the attack by Mars and the little men who were popuring out of their meteor-like airplanes.

For some time, the Mars warriors drove everything before them. Mere armies and navies were wiped out right and left and the real radio audience was frightened as the actors pretended to be. But then the little men acquired a lot of germs to which we men-of-the-world are virtually impervious. So the little men died, and everybody lived happily ever after.

MORE: Scientists agree: Martians are a super-race (1920)

The action revolved around what might happen if monsters from Mars boarded flying machines which resembled meteors and called upon the earth with malice aforethought. The whole thing was done realistically and in present tense. Before it reached its climax, with the monsters picking up germs and, very satisfactorily, dying, late tuner-inners were getting pretty upset.

The switchboard operator at New York police headquarters said his exchange was jammed by people who wanted to know “about the 40 killed by a meteor exploding in Jersey.”

New York Daily News - War of the Worlds radio broadcast headline - October 31 1938

Seek refuge in subway

James Powers of the Brooklyn police telephone bureau said several had asked him if it was safe for them to stay in their homes near their radios — and one woman asked if she should seek refuge in a subway.

Right in the center of the warfare — with every trunkline on the switchboard lighted — sat L. W. Smith and S. M. Zimmerman of the fire and police dispatchers’ office, Trenton, Mercer County, N.J.

They were answering all kinds of calls, local and long-distance, assuring everybody concerned that Trenton was as calm as could be expected.

It seems that the first arrivals from Mars had just landed at a hypothetical city called Grovers Mill, which sounded to listeners like Groveville, another community in Mercer County.

New York police were unable to contact the CBS studios by telephone, so swamped was its switchboard, and a radio car was sent there for information.

A woman ran into a church in Indianapolis screaming “New York destroyed; it’s the end of the world. You might as well go home to die. I just heard it on the radio.” Services were dismissed immediately.

Five boys at Brevard, N. C., college fainted and panic gripped the campus for half an hour with many students fighting for telephones to inform their parents to come and get them.

San Francisco Chronicle - War of the Worlds panic - 1938

Columbia radio responds

In later broadcasts, the Columbia system announced:

“For the listeners who tuned in to Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre of the Air broadcast from 8 to 9 p. m. eastern standard time, tonight, and did not realize that the program was merely a radio adaptation of H. G. Wells’ famous novel, ‘The’ War of The Worlds,’ we are repeating the fact, made clear four times on the program, that the entire contents of the play was entirely fictitious.”

MORE: Life growing harder for the people on Mars (1922)

The Columbia system later issued a formal statement, which said in part:

“Naturally, it was neither Columbia nor the Mercury theater’s intent to mislead anyone, and when it became evident that part of the audience has been disturbed by the performance, five announcements were made over the network later in the evening to reassure those listeners.”

New York Daily News - War of the Worlds radio broadcast headlines - November 1 1938

Listen to the War of the Worlds original broadcast

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