Feature: Radio's Halloween hoax spooked the nation

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Listeners who tuned their radios in to The War of the Worlds in 1938 found themselves listening to a program that blurred the line between fact and fiction, creating a sensation like no other broadcast has since. To mark the 70th anniversary of that historic airing, we take a look back at the radio play – and the public outcry it sparked.

Chilling broadcast

“The Columbia Broad­casting Sys­tem and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air in The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.” Such was the unremarkable introduction to the program, aired on the eve of Halloween. Then, Welles came on air to set the scene: It was 1939 (then a year into the future), he said, when the drama’s strange events began. Life on Earth had been closely watched from afar – unbeknownst to humankind – since nearly the beginning of the 20th century. But, in “the 39th year of the 20th century came the great disillusionment. … On this particular evening, Oct. 30, the Crossley service estimated that 32 million people were listening in on radios.”

The broadcast then faded into an announcer introducing an orchestra. After a bit of music, the show was interrupted for the first “news” announcement, a report of mysterious explosions on Mars.

From that point on, the broadcast was off and running, proceeding like an authentic radio broadcast that switched between music and increasingly distressing interruptions. Panic flooded the population as announcers declared that Martians had landed at Grover’s Mill, N.J., and were shooting ray guns at people.

Soon, the Martians were completely annihilating the world, and, most determinedly, New York City. Somehow, Professor Richard Pierson – the broadcast’s hero, portrayed by Welles – lasted through the devastation to share his saga with the audience.

A poor reception 

Listeners, ignoring the amazing maneuverability of the show’s “announcers” as they sped to different locations, were terrorized by the broadcast. Many people in the immediate area of Grover’s Mill scoured the woods for Martians, determined to defeat the enemy. Some even shot holes into a water tower.

The day after the broadcast, Welles was brought into the limelight. Listeners demanded retribution for being hoodwinked. New rules on news broadcasts were decreed.

H.G. Wells said he was “deeply disturbed” by how his novel was used. Welles himself stated years later that he had expected a response to the broadcast, but not a national reaction.

Through the years, several radio stations around the world offered updated versions of the broadcast. The most notable was aired in 1968, by radio station WKBW in Buffalo, N.Y. Despite heavy advertising beforehand, police stations and newsrooms were flooded with calls during the broadcast, and the Canadian National Guard was sent to repel Martian invaders crossing bridges. Again, in the aftermath of the broadcast, listeners were furious.

Now, as we look back at Welles’ broadcast 70 years ago, we can take comfort in the fact that it was all just a Halloween ruse. As Welles explained to his audience at the show’s end, it was meant to have “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!’”