This Week in History: October 30 1938, Orson Welles’ ‘War of the Worlds’ is broadcast on the radio

It is an episode that has gone down in media history as disturbing but also strangely funny. Orson Welles’ radio dramatisation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds was said to have triggered mass panic and hysteria among a population who took it at face value, thinking that the Martians really had landed on that fateful Halloween 79 years ago.

The War of the Worlds tells the story of Martians landing on Earth and proceeding to incinerate everything in sight. The human armies are left defenceless against the might of the alien invaders, before a much humbler force eventually brings them down. Wells used the original novel to investigate themes of colonialism and reason, and it has spanned several adaptations including a 2005 film starring Tom Cruise. The 1938 radio broadcast, however, remains the most (in)famous.

The radio drama was structured as if it were actually interrupting a scheduled broadcast, taking the form of a news story breaking up what was meant to be a pleasant broadcast of Spanish tango music. The tango was, of course, part of Welles’ script, but the effect was there. At the end, Welles himself made it perfectly clear that the whole thing was fictitious – “This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen” he said, “out of character to assure you that The War of The Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo!”

If the newspapers were to be believed, Welles’ message clearly did not get through. New Yorkers ran out into the streets screaming, with some apparently having mental breakdowns and jumping off buildings. Hospitals were reported to be admitting patients suffering from symptoms of shock after listening to the broadcast, and the one million people that were claimed to be listening to the show (a massive audience in the 1930s) suddenly looked to the skies to catch any signs of Martians overhead. The New York Times ran with the headline ‘Radio Listeners in panic, Taking War Drama as Fact’ while The Detroit News read ‘War Skit on Radio Terrifies Nation’ on the front page.

If. Apparently. Reported. Claimed.

Apologies for shattering beliefs in the power of effective storytelling, but the idea that Welles’ War of the Worlds triggered panic across the United States is as made up and fictitious as the story in question. As has been recently pointed out, people in fact did not take to the streets, and hospitals admitted nobody as a direct result of the radio drama. The report from The Washington Post that one man died of a heart attack from listening to it was never confirmed. Fingers are now pointed at the newspapers of the time, who blew the whole thing out of proportion and put words into people’s mouths.

Why? Superstition. Newspapers were very clearly worried about the advent of radio – still a very recent technology at this time. They sought out any means to discredit it as a source of information and entertainment, and Welles inadvertently provided them with the perfect opportunity to do so. Faking a story in this scale would have been almost impossible to (convincingly) fabricate in the newspapers, but on radio it was easy – too easy, some people believed. It was an opportunity to attack the mismanagement of the airwaves, discrediting the content and delivery of the spoken word with a strongly implied case that the trusty broadsheet should remain the pinnacle of media consumption.

The myth attached to that radio broadcast on Halloween 1938 remains an incredible story, but nothing more. It is not grounded in fact and was manipulated for the agenda of the newspaper industry – ‘fake news’ taken to an intergalactic level. It just goes to show that audiences should always question what they hear on the radio and what they read in the papers, especially where little green men are concerned.

 

Image: H.G. Wells

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