79 Years Ago Tonight, Orson Welles’ Fake Alien Invasion Freaked Out the US. Or Did It?

On October 30, 1938, the radio drama program The Mercury Theatre of the Air began as usual on the Columbia Broadcasting Network. The episode that week was an adaptation of H.G. Wells 1898 novel, The War of the Worlds produced by wunderkind Orson Welles. Those tuned in late missed the prologue that the show was a drama and heard nothing but simulated news bulletins of Martians attacking with heat rays and poison gas. The first two-thirds of the show seemed real enough and because there were no commercial interruptions for a full 30 minutes, gullible people actually believed Amerca was being invaded.

Those numbers are worth noting. Contrary to the legend, The War of the Worlds broadcast did not set off a nationwide panic. One estimate says that of the 6 million people who heard the program live, 1.7 thought the world was coming to an end. Another estimate says the number might have more like 500,000. (Read up on that part of the story here.)

Here’s the entire broadcast. Would you have freaked out?

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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