Orson Welles Unleashes Panic – 10/30/1938

US History |


There’s a special feeling in the air come late October, a mysterious, otherworldly vibe. It is a time for scary movies, ghost stories told ‘round roaring fires, and reflection on the macabre and the supernatural. In Old Ireland, Halloween (October 31) marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, the darker, more shadowy half of the year. It was believed that at this time, the veil between this world and the next was thin, and thus spirits were more able to cross. The superstitious left offerings such as food and drink outside their homes as a sort of appeasement. Some people would dress as the dead and claim these offerings themselves. Others would dress that way as a form of protection against them.

Halloween, then, has always been a time for all things spooky. In 1938, things went from spooky to downright terrifying.

That year, Orson Welles, a 23-year-old radio personality who would go on to earn undying fame with his films, most notably Citizen Kane (1941) hatched the novel idea of broadcasting a “live” performance of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, a 19th century science fiction novel in which aliens invade planet earth. Produced by Welles’ The Mercury Theater on the Air, which ran on CBS radio from July to December 1938, The War of the Worlds would be framed as a faux newscast interrupting another program, with the setting of the novel changed from Victorian London to present-day New Jersey. Welles was inspired by several earlier radio dramas with a similar premise, including Broadcasting the Barricades, a 1926 BBC program about massive riots overwhelming London. Says Welles: “I had conceived the idea of doing a radio broadcast in such a manner that a crisis would actually seem to be happening.”

The show began at 8pm on Sunday, October 30, 1938, the primetime of golden age radio. It began with a short introduction, and then moved onto a weather report and a dance routine before the first “newsflash” reported strange explosions on Mars and an interview with a professor of astronomy at Princeton. The newsflashes become more and more frequent, finally describing a cylindrical craft landing in rural New Jersey. From there things deteriorate as a tripod rises from the crater and attacks elements of the New Jersey National Guard. Martial law is declared and the announcer describes the Martians as “an invading army.” More crafts are said to have landed in the Midwest, and New Jersey is said to be in a state of panic as thousands of refugees try to escape the Martian onslaught.

A majority of Americans were listening to ventriloquist Edgar Bergen on NBC, and only switched over to ABC after his act was over. By that time, The War of the Worlds was in full swing. Panic, real panic, broke out shortly afterwards. Residents of New Jersey flooded the highways in a desperate effort to flee, while some people called their power company to turn off their electricity, lest the Martians see their lights. Many people believed that Martians were really invading, while more level-headed listeners believed that the United States was being invaded by Germany.

Phone calls flooded the theater. When Welles realized that chaos was breaking out, he went on air as himself to remind Americans that the play was a work of fiction and that Martians weren’t actually invading.

The damage had been done, though. The FCC investigated but brought no charges. However, networks promised to be more careful with their programming in the future. Welles worried that the controversy would end him, but it had the opposite effect. He was a household name and went on to spend 45 years in Hollywood before dying in October 1985 at the age of 70.

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