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This Day in History: The War of the Worlds

On this day in 1938, the nation is terrified by a too-realistic radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’s “The War of the Worlds.” Were Martians invading New Jersey? Some people thought so. Hysteria reigned.

Or did it? Perhaps the “hysteria” was an invention of newspaper editorial boards.

Orson Welles, surrounded by reporters the day after the broadcast.

Either way, producer Orson Welles found himself in a tight spot. “If I’d planned to wreck my career,” Welles said at the time, “I couldn’t have gone about it better.”

Welles was then producing “Mercury Theater on the Air” for CBS. It was a low budget show broadcast from Radio City in New York. Usually, the show entertained its listeners with an adaptation of a literary classic, but Welles wanted something special for Halloween.

“I had conceived the idea of doing a radio broadcast in such a manner that a crisis would actually seem to be happening,” Welles later said, “and would be broadcast in such a dramatized form as to appear to be a real event taking place at that time, rather than a mere radio play.”

“The War of the Worlds,” by H.G. Wells would be the basis for the program. In the original novel, Martians invade England. The radio version would instead have Martians invading New Jersey. The show would be formatted as a regular program of music, interrupted by “breaking news” bulletins as Martians “invaded.”

Welles’s production team had only one week to create the program.

The script was drafted and re-drafted. Decisions were made that encouraged the idea that the “breaking news” was real. For instance, the actor cast as the “breaking news” reporter found and studied live footage of the Hindenburg disaster. He worked to mimic the shell-shocked reporting.

Another factor crept in: The first act of the show kept increasing in length. Thus, the break for radio station identification wouldn’t come until the show had been running for 40 minutes.

“Radio audiences had come to expect that fictional programs would be interrupted on the half-hour for station identification,” the Smithsonian explains. “Breaking news, on the other hand, failed to follow those rules.”

The broadcast started at 8:00 p.m. ET on that Sunday night. Unsurprisingly, many people tuned in late, thus missing an early disclaimer about the nature of the program.

Instead, the show seemed to begin normally with weather reports and music, until the broadcast was interrupted by “breaking news.” Minute by minute, the story played out across radios, nationwide: A strange meteor crashing in New Jersey. An extraterrestrial with tentacles. A Martian heat ray.

“Shaking off dread visions of meteors, death rays, and monsters from Mars,” news reports blared the next day, “a relieved America today emerged from a wave of mass hysteria reminiscent of war times.”

But was there really a panic? Or did newspaper editorial boards grab the opportunity to undermine radio?

Some say it was the latter.

After all, Welles’s show didn’t generally have high ratings, as it was scheduled against a popular comedy-variety show. Moreover, some local CBS affiliates had ditched the show for local programming.

Nevertheless, Welles was pounded the next day and issued a statement expressing regret. He hadn’t expected “the radio audience to take the program as fact rather than a fictional presentation . . . . We can only suppose that the special nature of radio, which is often heard in fragments, or in parts disconnected from the whole, has led to this misunderstanding.”

Did he mean it? In later years, he changed his tune, hinting that he’d secretly hoped to fool some listeners. He thought there was an important lesson to learn about not believing everything heard on the radio.

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