Orson Welles’ Halloween Prank – The War of the Worlds on Radio

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In the summer of 1938, the CBS Radio Network began broadcasting the hourly anthology series Mercury Theatre On the Air, a creation of the brilliant 22 year-old writer-actor-director Orson Welles. Despite its often clever innovations, the program in the following months drew only a small audience, very few sponsors, and was apparently doomed to obscurity. Instead, Mercury Theater is remembered today for one of the most noted programs in radio history, an adaptation of H. G. Wells’ tale of a Martian invasion.

The War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast

Although Welles updated the original story and location from Victorian England to the 1930s’ U.S., he kept many features of the story – meteor-like spaceships, leathery aliens, fighting tripods, deadly heat rays, and poisonous gas. He also chose to tell the first half of the story through a clever series of “news bulletins” that interrupted “regularly scheduled” programming.

This “breaking news” technique proved so realistic that an unknown number of Americans honestly believed that New Jersey and New York City were under Martian attack. “Eyewitnesses” claimed that they could see fire on the New Jersey skyline from their homes in New York; or mysterious aircraft crossing the Hudson River; or, poison gas creeping along the ground.

By the next morning, some newspapers, particularly those along the Eastern seaboard, were running accounts of people fleeing for safety, some seriously injured in the panicky crowds. Others reported attempted suicides, people rushing to buy guns and ammunition, or that mass hysteria had swept the country. Eventually over the years almost all of these reports would prove to be unfounded.

The Aftermath of the Broadcast

Radio in the 1930s had become a threat to print journalism as a source of news and more importantly, was draining advertising dollars from papers, a condition that was worrisome to newspaper publishers across the country. Thus, The War of the Worlds broadcast gave newspapers an opportunity to bash the relatively new medium.

After reporting their many anecdotal accounts of what the broadcast had allegedly caused, newspaper editorials spent the following days heavily criticizing radio, and particularly CBS, for allowing hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Americans, to fall victims to a “hoax.”

Just as the “old media” of today (print and broadcast journalism) often attacks the “new media” of Internet journalism and bloggers for unreliability, so did the newspapers of 1938 attack radio on the same grounds. Radio, the editorialists wrote, were incapable of separating fact from fiction. And, when they did report actual news they lacked the resources to verify their stories.

This journalistic argument was ironic since most newspapers had themselves initially failed to verify the reports that they were hearing. The broadcast was late on a Sunday evening, a time when most papers were operating with skeleton crews. Rather than do any investigative reporting of their own, papers relied on wire services such as the Associated Press for their stories, most of which were based on rumor.

The next day a contrite Orson Welles apologized to those who were frightened by his “Halloween treat,” but, overall, did not suffer from the aftermath. Instead, he may have actually benefited from it. He became a “known” name and soon went to Hollywood where he starred in and often directed such movie classics as Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, A Touch of Evil, and The Third Man.

Looking Back From Today

For many years, a legend grew around the “widespread panic” caused by The War of the Worlds. However, in recent years, social historians, such as W. Joseph Campbell in his book Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism (2010), have debunked most of the legend.

Yes, many people, hundreds or perhaps even thousands did overreact. Due to the rapidly deteriorating political situation in Europe that would lead to war in less than a year, an economic crisis at home, and other factors, many Americans were apprehensive and it took little to capitalize on their fears. But, the number was nowhere near the hundreds of thousands or even millions as reported.

And, yes, some highways and switchboards did become jammed, but as Campbell points out, most of it was caused by curiosity seekers as opposed to panicked citizens. More cars went into Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, the “site” of the Martian landing, then were fleeing from it, and most of the calls to newspapers and law enforcement agencies were to find out simply if there was any truth to the crazy rumors that they were hearing.

Most of the little actual panic that was caused was due to people hearing second and third hand stories. Contrary to contemporary accounts, most in the small listening audience, estimated to be less than a million, knew that the program was fiction. An announcement at the beginning of the program and at the forty minute mark stated it as such.

Even those who missed the initial announcement were not fooled. Too many events were simply happening in too short a time span to be plausible. Others quickly discovered that the “invasion” was not being reported on other networks.

Instead, most of the problem was initially caused by people practicing what was then called “dialitis,” comparable to channel surfing today. As such, some people were only hearing bits and pieces of the story. Others were informed of the “unfolding events” by relatives, friends, or neighbors who were only repeating what they had heard, in turn, from other relatives, friends, or neighbors.

Today, the events surrounding Welles’ program are simply an interesting and entertaining footnote in U.S. history. They are also an example of how journalism does not always get a story right thereby creating media myths.