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It was meant to be a special Halloween night episode of the American radio program, Mercury Theatre on the Air. Directed by 23-year old Orson Welles, the program was an adaptation of H.G. Wells' classic novel The War of the Worlds. The screenplay for the show introduced an unprecedented innovation for American radio: use of a fake newscast to provide listeners with the experience of actually living through an alien invasion.
Broadcast from a studio in New York City on October 30, 1938, the program was presented as an ordinary music program that was frequently interrupted by news bulletins. After first describing strange explosions on Mars (Welles played a prominent astronomer), listeners were then told of the landing of a strange "meteorite" in Grover's Mills, New Jersey. The meteorite turns out to be a Martian capsule which then destroys hundreds of onlookers with "heat rays." As the episode continued, more Martian ships land and devastation is unleashed across the entire United States.
Despite military resistance, the Martian invaders prove too strong and unleash terrible weapons including "poison gas" sprayed into the air. New York City is invaded by "great machines" wading across the Hudson River. Coverage of the invasion is provided by a "news reporter" who describes "people dropping like flies" until he is killed by the poison gas himself. The broadcast ends with Welles (in his role as the astronomer) telling listeners about the devastation and how the Martians were destroyed by Earth's bacteria.
Later reports came out about the"panic" the resulted from the broadcast but there is still debate over how widespread it really was. Although disclaimers that the invasion was fictional were inserted at several points in the program, many listeners were still convinced that the invasion was real. Later estimates placed the number of listeners at six million with 1.2 million believing it to be "genuinely true." Incidents of actual panic remain scarce although reports of people fleeing their homes or hiding in their cellars to avoid the "poison gas" came out afterward.
Grover's Mill was largely deserted when the broadcast began but this changed rapidly as people rushed to the area. Police needed to be called in to control the crowds and reinforced the impression that something catastrophic was happening. In the town of Concrete, Washington, there was a power failure that occurred during the broadcast plunging almost all of the town's 1,000 residents into darkness. While there were reports of mass panic due to the blackout, actual incidents were limited. Police in cities across the country were swamped with calls from worried listeners trying to get more information. Given the tense international situation of the time with the rising Nazi threat in Europe, the idea of Martians invading didn't seem so farfetched. As one witness stated afterwards, "if the Germans could invade, why not Martians?"
Hours after the program ended, the public outcry began. Newspapers across the country carried headlines such as "Mars Invasion in Radio Skit Terrifies U.S." and "Radio Fake Scares Nation". Thousands of protest letters were written to CBS and the Mercury Theater and over six hundred complaints were made to the newly-formed Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Millions of other listeners however enjoyed the program. Most of the letters sent to CBS and the FCC were complimentary and some expressed amazement that anyone could have been fooled. None of the other radio stations carried reports of an invasion and most of the actors participating in the broadcast were already well-known (younger listeners had no problem recognizing Orson Welles from his other radio work as the voice of The Shadow).
One week after the show aired, Hadley Cantril, a media psychologist at Princeton University, launched a detailed study of its impact. Over three weeks, Cantril and his researchers interviewed 135 people, of whom 100 had been upset by the broadcast. The people interviewed gave different reasons for believing the program including complaints that "it didn't sound like a play" and the convincing nature of what they had heard. The fact that the events of the broadcast were taking place in familiar locations made it seem very real. Cantril published his results in 1940 as The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic (The book included the complete script of the broadcast).
While the broadcast is still given as an example of the power of the mass media in shaping popular belief, there seems to be little consistent evidence that it actually was "The Night that Panicked America" (the title of a 1975 television movie about the events of that night). Newspapers and later commentators played the panic up in reporting about the broadcast and media classes continue to present it as a textbook illustration of mass hysteria.
The Mercury Theater's ratings went up afterwards and Orson Welles' reputation as a wunderkind was reinforced. Grover's Mill (now part of West Windsor Township) continues to have a modest tourist trade and even hosted a festival in 1988 to mark the 50th anniversary of the broadcast. The program remains one of the most well-known dramatizations in radio history.
Could it happen again? While there have been other examples of mass panic due to fake broadcasts (including a 1949 War of the Worlds broadcast in Quito, Ecuador that caused an enraged mob to burn down the radio station and kill several employees), audiences appear to have become more skeptical regarding what they see and hear in the media. Availability of alternate information sources including television and the Internet means a reduced dependence on individual news sources to shape beliefs.
There have been numerous remakes of War of the Worlds including movies, a television series and even a musical, but none of them have ever had the impact of that fateful broadcast in 1938. It may well be Orson Welles' greatest legacy and a warning about human susceptibility to panic.
Click here to download the broadcast.
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