Is the “War of the Worlds” Radio Show Panic a Myth?

This is a bit out of season–it would be best if this story came out just before Halloween on the anniversary of Orson Welles’ famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast on October 30, 1938–but it’s too good to ignore.

Anyone who is enamored with the history of radio has heard the story of the panic this radio show created.

The freakout was said to have been intense. People were said to have actually believed the radio play to be an actual news bulletin and panicked accordingly. The next day, papers across the US carried stories like this one.

War of the Worlds NYT headline


But was this freakout real? Did it even happen?  According to The Daily Beast, no.

The cover of Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News features a woman’s face frozen in terror. Author A. Brad Schwartz opens the book with the dramatic account of a Manhattan couple who, hearingWelles’s October 30, 1938, radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’s science fiction noveland believing that Martians had indeed invaded New Jersey, spent their last six dollars on train tickets to flee the advancing alien army. Glimpsing the cover and perusing the opening pages, readers would be forgiven for assuming thatBroadcast Hysteria was written to bolster the long-held belief that Welles’s infamous Halloween prank had created nationwide mass panic. Schwartz, however, intends to do the opposite—albeit, it seems, reluctantly.

Welles was just 23 in October 1938, a ridiculously precocious actor, writer, producer, and director working in theater and radio who had already graced the cover of Time. He and his creative partner, John Houseman, were tapped to create a weekly show for CBS Radio, Mercury Theatre on the Air, adapting classic works of literature for broadcast. Welles had the idea of updating War of the Worlds by presenting the material as a series of fake news bulletins; his writer, Howard Koch, closed his eyes and picked a random spot on a map of New Jersey to decide on the tiny town of Grover’s Mill as the site of the alien landing.

At this point, Americans were increasingly turning to the young technology of radio for their news. One of Welles’s innovations in War of the Worlds was to cut off the actor portraying a reporter at the scene and then hold the silence for seconds, the unprecedented dead air suggesting that the reporter—and everyone nearby—had perished in the Martian attack.

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ 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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