On October 31st, 1938, the front page of the New York Times read as such: Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact. You see, the night before, Orson Welles took to the airwaves on a show called Mercury Theater on the Air and presented a series of news bulletins that described beings from Mars descending on Earth and roasting everything that moved with a frightening, unstoppable group of war machines. For nearly an hour, as part of their show, Welles kept listeners glued to their radios as he and his production team proceeded to freak out an estimated 6 million listeners. According to Welles in his live radio adaptation of the classic H.G. Welles sci-fi story, an invading force from Mars crashes in a field in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey and promptly begins killing everyone in sight before succumbing to Earth’s germs, which they were unprepared for.
Since the original broadcast, Orson Welles’ production has been cited as the undisputed case study for mass hysteria. History has adopted the press’ account from that night that people up and down the east coast were convinced that this was it for the world and were either offing themselves and their families in fear of death by death ray or they were holing up in their basements, waiting for the end to come. Yet, in the 71 years that have passed since that night, many have come to question the intial reports that the papers, then in fear of radio as the deathstroke for the printed word, were blowing this story wildly out of proportion and that suicides, rioting and looting were breaking out all over the place thanks to Welles and his brilliant way with fooling everyone. However, did you know:
- During the broadcast, at the beginning, middle and end of the show, there are spoken reminders that it is a work of fiction.
- Though broadcast in 1938, the story actually takes place in 1939
- Hitler cited the broadcast’s effect as evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy
- The War of the Worlds was not the first radio stunt to pull this crap. In 1926, the BBC aired a hoax broadcast called Broadcasting From The Barricades, alleging that London was in the midst of a violent, bloody uprising.
A couple of the root causes for the panic, which undeniably took place, just not in the capacity that history has accepted it, were that Mercury Theater on the Air was a small-time show, running opposite the top-rate show at the time, The Chase and Sanborn Hour. As the Chase and Sanborn show went into a musical number after the 12 minute mark, listeners began to channel surf and caught War of the Worlds in progress, just as the broadcaster began to announce the opening of the Martian meteor containing the invaders and their subsequent devastation of everything. Also, this was 1938 in the days leading up to World War 2. Hitler and The Germans were always in the paper and a war with Germany was an inevitability. What many people, just tuning in, thought they were hearing were the early stages of an invasion by Germans, not Martians.
The War of the Worlds has become so synonymous with mass hyseria and widespread public panic that it is an experiment that has been attempted more than once. Radio Quito, of Ecuador, broadcast their own version of the radioplay in 1949, and wound up at the end of the night with their studio in flames and 7 dead thanks to the ensuing riot. In 1992, the BBC aired Ghostwatch (review), an alleged paranormal investigation show gone horribly wrong on Halloween night that results in injuries, disappearances and the demonic possession of BBC news personalities. There are also countless reproductions and adaptations for film and television. Orson Welles and The War of the Worlds are an American treasure and proof positive of the public’s gullibility and willingness to melt down over the supidest things.
UPDATE: Why the hell not? Here’s the original Mercury Theater on the Air broadcast of The War of the Worlds