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War of the Worlds (radio)

On October 30, 1938, as a Hallowe'en special, Orson Welles performed a live radio adaptation of H. G. Wells' classic novel The War of the Worlds, which famously frightened many in the audience into believing that an actual Martian invasion was in progress.

Wells' novel is about a Martian invasion of Earth at the end of the nineteenth century, as related by a narrator seeing the events unfolding in England. The story was adapted to take place in present-day Grover Hills, New Jersey, and the radio programme's format was meant to simulate a news broadcast. To this end, Welles even played recordings of the radio reports of the famous Hindenburg disaster to the cast to demonstrate the mood he wanted.

The programme started as an apparently ordinary music show, only occasionally interrupted by news flashes. These reports grew more frequent and increasingly ominous, ending with a lone reporter talking from the top of a building, above the poison gas, asking if there was anyone out there. In the atmosphere of growing tension and anxiety in the days leading up to World War II, many people missed or ignored the opening credits of the programme, and took it to be an actual news broadcast. Panic ensued, with people fleeing the area, and others thinking they could smell the poison gas or could see the flashes of the fighting in the distance. Welles' piece is possibly the most successful radio dramatic production in history. It was one of the Radio Project's first studies.

Public Reaction

Many people called CBS, newspapers or the police in confusion over the realism of the simulated news bulletins. There were instances of panic scattered throughout the US as a result of the broadcast, especially in New York and New Jersey.

In the aftermath of the panic, a large public outcry arose, but CBS reminded officials that listeners were reminded throughout the broadcast that it was only a performance. Welles and the Mercury Theatre escaped punishment, but not censure, and CBS had to promise never again to use the "we interrupt this program" device for dramatic purposes.

See Edgar Bergen, who was broadcasting at the same time on NBC. It is said many startled listeners were reassured by hearing Charlie McCarthy on a neighboring channel.

The film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai used the inverted premise that the alien invasion was real and the radio broadcast was a coverup.

Recordings of the broadcast are still available (see old-time radio).


Amazingly enough, the drama has been rewritten to apply to other locations and rebroadcast, with similar results.

In 1944, a broadcast in Santiago, Chile resulted in panic, including the mobilization of troops by the governor.

On Feb. 12, 1949, in Quito, Ecuador, a broadcast panicked tens of thousands. Listeners who were enraged at the deception set fire to the radio station and the offices of El Comercio, the capital's leading newspaper, killing twenty people. The property damage was estimated at $350,000. Three officials charged with responsibility for the broadcast were arrested.

Because of the panic caused in the 1930s and 1940s by this radio play, TV networks have deemed it necessary to post bulletins to their viewing audience to inform them some TV stories were in fact fictional drama, and not really happening. Disclaimers of this sort were shown during broadcasts of the 1983 television movie Special Bulletin. One network even placed disclaimers in an October 1999 TV movie dramatizing the possible disastrous effects of the Y2K bug.

see: false document, The War of the Worlds