This dramatization of H.G. Wells’ classic science fiction novel, adapted by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air, not only showcased the power of storytelling, but also revealed the fragility of public trust in media.
For one fateful evening — as headlines of the day would have it — the chilling tale of a Martian invasion had a nation on edge, and the line between fiction and reality became frighteningly blurred.
Were these claims of mass hysteria real or sensationalized?
While the panic was indeed real, it is important to recognize that the extent of the hysteria was likely sensationalized by media outlets. Newspapers, eager to sell more copies, exaggerated the impact of the broadcast. They published stories highlighting the fear and chaos, which helped to create the enduring myth of a nationwide panic.
In reality, the actual number of listeners who were genuinely frightened was relatively small compared to the overall audience. Many listeners understood the program to be a fictional dramatization and not an actual news broadcast. However, the incident did expose the vulnerability of the public to potential misinformation and the influence of mass media — a relevant topic of discussion even today!
Here, we’ve collected some of those next-day headlines, as well as a text excerpt and full video of the broadcast.
Columbia apologizes for ‘mass hysteria’ caused by broadcast of H. G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast
News-Press (Fort Myers, Florida) October 31, 1938
“War of the Worlds” depicted invasion of Martian army
H G Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” story 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
Listen to the War of the Worlds original broadcast
A text excerpt from the beginning of the original “War of the Worlds” broadcast
ANNOUNCER: The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air in The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells.
(MUSIC: MERCURY THEATRE MUSICAL THEME)
ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen: the director of the Mercury Theatre and star of these broadcasts, Orson Welles . . .
ORSON WELLES: We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century, this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own.
We know now that as human beings busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.
With infinite complacence people went to and fro over the earth about their little affairs, serene in the assurance of their dominion over this small spinning fragment of solar driftwood which by chance or design man has inherited out of the dark mystery of Time and Space.
Yet across an immense ethereal gulf, minds that to our minds as ours are to the beasts in the jungle, intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. In the 39th year of the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.
It was near the end of October. Business was better. The war scare was over. More men were back at work. Sales were picking up. On this particular evening, October 30, the Crosley service estimated that thirty-two million people were listening in on radios.
ANNOUNCER: . . .for the next twenty-four hours not much change in temperature. A slight atmospheric disturbance of undetermined origin is reported over Nova Scotia, causing a low-pressure area to move down rather rapidly over the northeastern states, bringing a forecast of rain, accompanied by winds of light gale force. Maximum temperature 66; minimum 48.
This weather report comes to you from the Government Weather Bureau… We now take you to the Meridian Room in the Hotel Park Plaza in downtown New York, where you will be entertained by the music of Ramón Raquello and his orchestra.
(MUSIC: SPANISH THEME SONG [A TANGO]… FADES)
ANNOUNCER THREE: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. From the Meridian Room in the Park Plaza in New York City, we bring you the music of Ramón Raquello and his orchestra. With a touch of the Spanish. Ramón Raquello leads off with “La Cumparsita.”
(PIECE STARTS PLAYING)
ANNOUNCER TWO: Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. At twenty minutes before eight, central time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the earth with enormous velocity.
Professor Pierson of the Observatory at Princeton confirms Farrell’s observation, and describes the phenomenon as (quote) like a jet of blue flame shot from a gun (unquote). We now return you to the music of Ramón Raquello, playing for you in the Meridian Room of the Park Plaza Hotel, situated in downtown New York.
(MUSIC PLAYS FOR A FEW MOMENTS UNTIL PIECE ENDS… SOUND OF APPLAUSE)
ANNOUNCER THREE: Now a tune that never loses favor, the ever-popular “Star Dust.” Ramón Raquello and his orchestra . . .
ANNOUNCER TWO: Ladies and gentlemen, following on the news given in our bulletin a moment ago, the Government Meteorological Bureau has requested the large observatories of the country to keep an astronomical watch on any further disturbances occurring on the planet Mars.
Due to the unusual nature of this occurrence, we have arranged an interview with noted astronomer. Professor Pierson, who will give us his views on the event. in a few moments we will take you to the Princeton Observatory at Princeton, New Jersey. We return you until then to the music of Ramón Raquello and his orchestra.
(MUSIC . . .)
ANNOUNCER TWO: We are now ready to take you to the Princeton Observatory at Princeton where Carl Phillips, or commentator, will interview Professor Richard Pierson, famous astronomer. We take you now to Princeton, New Jersey.
PHILLIPS: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. This is Carl Phillips, speaking to you from the observatory at Princeton. I am standing in a large semi-circular room, pitch black except for an oblong split in the ceiling. Through this opening I can see a sprinkling of stars that cast a kind of frosty glow over the intricate mechanism of the huge telescope.
The ticking sound you hear is the vibration of the clockwork. Professor Pierson stands directly above me on a small platform, peering through a giant lens. I ask you to be patient, ladies and gentlemen, during any delay that may arise during our interview.
Besides his ceaseless watch of the heavens, Professor Pierson may be interrupted by telephone or other communications. During this period he is in constant touch with the astronomical centers of the world… Professor, may I begin our questions?
PIERSON: At any time, Mr. Phillips.
PHILLIPS: Professor, would you please tell our radio audience exactly what you see as you observe the planet Mars through your telescope?
PIERSON: Nothing unusual at the moment, Mr. Phillips. A red disk swimming in a blue sea. Transverse stripes across the disk. Quite distinct now because Mars happens to be the point nearest the earth… in opposition, as we call it.
PHILLIPS: In your opinion, what do these transverse stripes signify, Professor Pierson?
PIERSON: Not canals, I can assure you, Mr. Phillips, although that’s the popular conjecture of those who imagine Mars to be inhabited. From a scientific viewpoint the stripes are merely the result of atmospheric conditions peculiar to the planet.
PHILLIPS: Then you’re quite convinced as a scientist that living intelligence as we know it does not exist on Mars?
PIERSON: I’d say the chances against it are a thousand to one.
PHILLIPS: And yet how do you account for those gas eruptions occurring on the surface of the planet at regular intervals?
PIERSON: Mr. Phillips, I cannot account for it.
PHILLIPS: By the way, Professor, for the benefit of our listeners, how far is Mars from earth?
PIERSON: Approximately forty million miles.
PHILLIPS: Well, that seems a safe enough distance.
(OFF MIKE) Thank you.
PHILLIPS: Just a moment, ladies and gentlemen, someone has just handed Professor Pierson a message. While he reads it, let me remind you that we are speaking to you from the observatory in Princeton, New Jersey, where we are interviewing the world- famous astronomer, Professor Pierson…
One moment, please. Professor Pierson has passed me a message which he has just received… Professor, may I read the message to the listening audience?
PIERSON: Certainly, Mr. Phillips.
PHILLIPS: Ladies and gentlemen, I shall read you a wire addressed to Professor Pierson from Dr. Gray of the National History Museum, New York. “9:15 P. M. eastern standard time. Seismograph registered shock of almost earthquake intensity occurring within a radius of twenty miles of Princeton. Please investigate. Signed, Lloyd Gray, Chief of Astronomical Division.”
Professor Pierson, could this occurrence possibly have something to do with the disturbances observed on the planet Mars?
PIERSON: Hardly, Mr. Phillips. This is probably a meteorite of unusual size and its arrival at this particular time is merely a coincidence. However, we shall conduct a search, as soon as daylight permits.
PHILLIPS: Thank you, Professor. Ladies and gentlemen, for the past ten minutes we’ve been speaking to you from the observatory at Princeton, bringing you a special interview with Professor Pierson, noted astronomer. This is Carl Phillips speaking. We are returning you now to our New York studio.
(FADE IN PIANO PLAYING)
ANNOUNCER TWO: Ladies and gentlemen, here is the latest bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. Toronto, Canada: Professor Morse of McGill University reports observing a total of three explosions on the planet Mars, between the hours of 7:45 P. M. and 9:20 P. M., eastern standard time.
This confirms earlier reports received from American observatories. Now, nearer home, comes a special announcement from Trenton, New Jersey. It is reported that at 8:50 P. M. a huge, flaming object, believed to be a meteorite, fell on a farm in the neighborhood of Grovers Mill, New Jersey, twenty-two miles from Trenton.
The flash in the sky was visible within a radius of several hundred miles and the noise of the impact was heard as far north as Elizabeth.
We have dispatched a special mobile unit to the scene, and will have our commentator, Carl Phillips, give you a word description as soon as he can reach there from Princeton. In the meantime, we take you to the Hotel Martinet in Brooklyn, where Bobby Millette and his orchestra are offering a program of dance music.
(SWING BAND FOR TWENTY SECONDS… THEN CUT)
ANNOUNCER TWO: We take you now to Grovers Mill, New Jersey.
(CROWD NOISES… POLICE SIRENS)
PHILLIPS: Ladies and gentlemen, this is Carl Phillips again, at the Wilmuth farm, Grovers Mill, New Jersey. Professor Pierson and myself made the eleven miles from Princeton in ten minutes.
Well, I… I hardly know where to begin, to paint for you a word picture of the strange scene before my eyes, like something out of a modern “Arabian Nights.” Well, I just got here. I haven’t had a chance to look around yet. I guess that’s it. Yes, I guess that’s the… thing, directly in front of me, half buried in a vast pit. Must have struck with terrific force.
The ground is covered with splinters of a tree it must have struck on its way down. What I can see of the… object itself doesn’t look very much like a meteor, at least not the meteors I’ve seen. It looks more like a huge cylinder. It has a diameter of… what would you say, Professor Pierson?
PIERSON (OFF-MIKE): What’s that?
PHILLIPS: What would you say… what is the diameter?
PIERSON: About thirty yards.
PHILLIPS: About thirty yards… The metal on the sheath is… well, I’ve never seen anything like it. The color is sort of yellowish-white. Curious spectators now are pressing close to the object in spite of the efforts of the police to keep them back. They’re getting in front of my line of vision. Would you mind standing to one side, please?
POLICEMAN: One side, there, one side.
PHILLIPS: While the policemen are pushing the crowd back, here’s Mr. Wilmuth, owner of the farm here. He may have some interesting facts to add… Mr. Wilmuth, would you please tell the radio audience as much as you remember of this rather unusual visitor that dropped in your backyard? Step closer, please. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Mr. Wilmuth.
PIERSON: Well, I was listenin’ to the radio.
PHILLIPS: Closer and louder please.
PIERSON: Pardon me!
PHILLIPS: Louder, please, and closer.
PIERSON: Yes, sir — while I was listening to the radio and kinda drowsin’, that Professor fellow was talkin’ about Mars, so I was half dozin’ and half . . .
PHILLIPS: Yes, yes, Mr. Wilmuth. Then what happened?
PIERSON: As I was sayin’, I was listenin’ to the radio kinda halfways . . .
PHILLIPS: Yes, Mr. Wilmuth, and then you saw something?
PIERSON: Not first off. I heard something.
PHILLIPS: And what did you hear?
PIERSON: A hissing sound. Like this: sssssss… kinda like a fourt’ of July rocket.
PHILLIPS: Then what?
PIERSON: Turned my head out the window and would have swore I was to sleep and dreamin.’
PIERSON: I seen a kinda greenish streak and then zingo! Somethin’ smacked the ground. Knocked me clear out of my chair!
PHILLIPS: Well, were you frightened, Mr. Wilmuth?
PIERSON: Well, I — I ain’t quite sure. I reckon I — I was kinda riled.
PHILLIPS: Thank you, Mr. Wilmuth. Thank you.
PIERSON: Want me to tell you some more?
PHILLIPS: No… That’s quite all right, that’s plenty.
PHILLIPS: Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve just heard Mr. Wilmuth, owner of the farm where this thing has fallen. I wish I could convey the atmosphere… the background of this… fantastic scene. Hundreds of cars are parked in a field in back of us. Police are trying to rope off the roadway leading to the farm. But it’s no use. They’re breaking right through.
Cars’ headlights throw an enormous spot on the pit where the object’s half buried. Some of the more daring souls are now venturing near the edge. Their silhouettes stand out against the metal sheen.
(FAINT HUMMING SOUND)
One man wants to touch the thing… he’s having an argument with a policeman. The policeman wins… Now, ladies and gentlemen, there’s something I haven’t mentioned in all this excitement, but now it’s becoming more distinct. Perhaps you’ve caught it already on your radio. Listen:
(LONG PAUSE) . . .
Do you hear it? It’s a curious humming sound that seems to come from inside the object. I’ll move the microphone nearer. (PAUSE) Now we’re not more then twenty-five feet away. Can you hear it now? Oh, Professor Pierson!
PIERSON: Yes, Mr. Phillips?
PHILLIPS: Can you tell us the meaning of that scraping noise inside the thing?
PIERSON: Possibly the unequal cooling of its surface.
PHILLIPS: I see, do you still think it’s a meteor, Professor?
PIERSON: I don’t know what to think. The metal casing is definitely extraterrestrial… not found on this earth. Friction with the earth’s atmosphere usually tears holes in a meteorite. This thing is smooth and, as you can see, of cylindrical shape.
PHILLIPS: Just a minute! Something’s happening! Ladies and gentlemen, this is terrific! This end of the thing is beginning to flake off! The top is beginning to rotate like a screw! The thing must be hollow!
VOICES: She’s movin’! Look, the darn thing’s unscrewing! Keep back, there! Keep back, I tell you! Maybe there’s men in it trying to escape! It’s red hot, they’ll burn to a cinder! Keep back there. Keep those idiots back!
(SUDDENLY THE CLANKING SOUND OF A HUGE PIECE OF FALLING METAL)
VOICES: She’s off! The top’s loose! Look out there! Stand back!
PHILLIPS: Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed… Wait a minute! Someone’s crawling out of the hollow top. Someone or… something. I can see peering out of that black hole two luminous disks . . are they eyes? It might be a face. It might be . . .
(SHOUT OF AWE FROM THE CROWD)
PHILLIPS: Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now it’s another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing’s body. It’s large, large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face, it… Ladies and gentlemen, it’s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it.
The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate. The monster or whatever it is can hardly move. It seems weighed down by… possibly gravity or something. The thing’s raising up. The crowd falls back now. They’ve seen plenty.
This is the most extraordinary experience. I can’t find words… I’ll pull this microphone with me as I talk. I’ll have to stop the description until I can take a new position. Hold on, will you please, I’ll be right back in a minute.
(FADE INTO PIANO)
ANNOUNCER: We are bringing you an eyewitness account of what’s happening on the Wilmuth farm, Grovers Mill, New Jersey. (MORE PIANO) We now return you to Carl Phillips at Grovers Mill.
PHILLIPS: Ladies and gentlemen (Am I on?). Ladies and gentlemen, here I am, back of a stone wall that adjoins Mr. Wilmuth’s garden. From here I get a sweep of the whole scene. I’ll give you every detail as long as I can talk. As long as I can see.
More state police have arrived. They’re drawing up a cordon in front of the pit, about thirty of them. No need to push the crowd back now. They’re willing to keep their distance.
The captain is conferring with someone. We can’t quite see who. Oh yes, I believe it’s Professor Pierson. Yes, it is. Now they’ve parted. The Professor moves around one side, studying the object, while the captain and two policemen advance with something in their hands.
I can see it now. It’s a white handkerchief tied to a pole… a flag of truce. If those creatures know what that means… what anything means!… Wait! Something’s happening!
(HISSING SOUND FOLLOWED BY A HUMMING THAT INCREASES IN INTENSITY)
PHILLIPS: A humped shape is rising out of the pit. I can make out a small beam of light against a mirror. What’s that? There’s a jet of flame springing from the mirror, and it leaps right at the advancing men. It strikes them head on! Good Lord, they’re turning into flame!
(SCREAMS AND UNEARTHLY SHRIEKS)
PHILLIPS: Now the whole field’s caught fire. (EXPLOSION) The woods… the barns… the gas tanks of automobiles… it’s spreading everywhere. It’s coming this way. About twenty yards to my right…
(CRASH OF MICROPHONE… THEN DEAD SILENCE)
ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, due to circumstances beyond our control, we are unable to continue the broadcast from Grovers Mill. Evidently, there’s some difficulty with our field transmission. However, we will return to that point at the earliest opportunity.
In the meantime, we have a late bulletin from San Diego, California. Professor Indellkoffer, speaking at a dinner of the California Astronomical Society, expressed the opinion that the explosions on Mars are undoubtedly nothing more than severe volcanic disturbances on the surface of the planet. We now continue with our piano interlude.
(PIANO… THEN CUT)
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