Feature: Radio's Halloween hoax spooked the nation

| October 2008

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.

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