The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds


Some stories are just too good not to be embraced and embellished. And so it was for the story of how a 1938 radio dramatisation of an alien invasion of Earth triggered widespread existential panic and mass hysteria.

On the evening of 30 October 1938, radio listeners across the United States heard a startling report of a meteor strike in the New Jersey countryside. With sirens blaring in the background, announcers in the field described mysterious creatures, terrifying war machines, and thick clouds of poison gas moving toward New York City. But the hair-raising broadcast was not a real news bulletin. It was Orson Welles's adaptation of the H. G. Wells 1898 classic The War of the Worlds.

"The War of the Worlds" broadcast was actually a Halloween episode of the radio series The Mercury Theatre on the Air directed and narrated by a then-23-year old Welles, performed and broadcast live over the CBS Radio Network.

You can listen to the entire original broadcast HERE.

Welles's "The War of the Worlds" broadcast has become famous for convincing some of its listeners that a Martian invasion was actually taking place due to the "breaking news" style of storytelling employed in the first half of the show.

By the next morning … the broadcast was front-page news from coast to coast, with reports of traffic accidents, near riots, hordes of panicked people in the streets. The stories of mass confusion began to propagate, and within three weeks, newspapers had published at least 12,500 articles about the broadcast and its impact. Even Adolf Hitler referenced the broadcast in a speech in Munich on 8 November 1938. Welles later remarked that Hitler cited the effect of the broadcast on the American public as evidence of "the corrupt condition and decadent state of affairs in democracy". Sounds familiar, right?

In an editorial titled “Terror by Radio”, The New York Times reproached “radio officials” for approving the interweaving of “blood-curdling fiction” with news flashes “offered in exactly the manner that real news would have been given”.

Welles apologised at a hastily-called news conference the next morning.

But, historical research suggests the panic was significantly less widespread than newspapers had indicated at the time.

In his 2016 book Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles's War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News, A. Brad Schwartz retells the story of Welles's famed radio play and its impact. Schwartz is the first to examine the hundreds of letters sent to Orson Welles himself in the days after the broadcast, and his findings challenge the conventional wisdom. Few listeners believed an actual attack was under way. 

But even so, Schwartz shows that Welles's broadcast became a major scandal, prompting a different kind of mass panic as Americans debated the bewitching power of the radio and the country's vulnerability in a time of crisis. 

According to a 2013 piece by Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow in Slate, newspapers "seized the opportunity presented by Welles' program to discredit radio as a source of news. The newspaper industry sensationalised the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted”. 

Fake news about the fake news!

But even early on, some people understood the true significance of the phenomenon. Journalist Dorothy Thompson published her thoughts on 2 November 1938 in the New York Herald Tribune in a piece titled “Mr. Welles and Mass Delusion”. Though she overstated the panic like many other journalists did at the time, Thompson argued that the real issue raised by this broadcast was media literacy and the failure of education. The overplaying of The War of the Worlds hysteria was justified, in her eyes, because it highlighted a dangerous gullibility present in some of our populace.

Once again, that feels eerily familiar.

Story Idea: Remo Giuffré



1. Halloween headlines, 1938
2. The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
3. Martians discharging heat rays in the Thames Valley. Illustration by Henrique Alvim Corrêa
Orson Welles at the microphone during the 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds. Image: Bridgeman Images.

5. Complete radio broadcast: The War of the Worlds, 1938
6. Orson Welles meeting with reporters in an effort to explain that no one connected with The War of the Worlds radio broadcast had any idea the show would cause panic.
7. Letter of complaint about the broadcast from the city manager of Trenton, New Jersey, to the Federal Communications Commission, 31 October 1938
8. Book: Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles's War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News, A. Brad Schwartz, 2016

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