Orson Welles causes a nationwide panic with his broadcast of
“War of the Worlds”
The Martians are comming!
Orson Welles was only 23 years old when his Mercury Theater company decided to recreate H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel “War of the Worlds” for the national radio.
Orsons Welles’ mitical voice was known as “The Shadow”, in the mystery radio program of the same name.
“War of the Worlds” was not planned as a radio hoax, and Welles had little idea of the havoc it would cause.
The radio dramatization of Martian’s invasion of Earth started one Sunday evening on October 30, 1938. The show began with a voice that said:
“The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the air in ‘War of the Worlds’ by H.G. Wells.”
Those who listened the CBS program from the beginning, were aware that the show was merely an adaptation of the novel. But many other Americans were listening to another program, and only turned to CBS at 8:12 p.m, so they weren’t aware of the disclaimer at the beginning. By then, the story of the Martian invasion was well underway.
The “War of the Worlds” program sounded awfully real. The scriptwriter writer Howard Koch, changed the setting from England to Grover’s Mill, N.J. The show was set up to sound like a typical music broadcast interrupted by a special news bulletin as:
” Professor Farrell of the Mount Jenning Observatory, had detected explosions on the planet Mars”
Then music came back on, followed by another interruption in which listeners were informed that a large meteor had crashed into a farmer’s field. The program was filled with plenty of local details. The relative lack of commercial interruptions added a touch of reality.
Soon, an announcer was at the crash site describing a Martian emerging from a large metallic cylinder:
—”Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now here’s another and another one and another one. They look like tentacles to me … I can see the thing’s body now. It’s large, large as a bear. It glistens like wet leather. But that face, it… it … ladies and gentlemen, it’s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, it’s so awful. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is kind of V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate.”
The radio play was extremely realistic, with Welles employing sophisticated sound effects and his actors doing an excellent job.
In that moment, many listeners, started panicking almost immediately, especially when they heard on the broadcast that the governor of New Jersey had declared martial law and that the National Guard had been mobilized.
Panic broke out across the country. People begged police for gas masks to save them from the toxic gas, and asked electric companies to turn off the power so that the Martians wouldn’t see their lights. Hundreds of local churches were flooded with people rushing inside to pray, while other citizens left New York.
When news of the real-life panic arrived into the CBS studio, Welles went on the air as himself to remind listeners that it was just fiction !
- hoax – something intendent to be a joke; to cause someone to believe an untruth
- havoc – violent and needless disturbance
- disclaimer – denial of, statement which denies responsibility
- scriptwriter – someone who writes scripts for plays, movies or broadcast dramas
- broadcast – a program or a message that is transmitted by radio or television
- lack – be without
- wriggling – moving in a twisting or snake-like
- glistens – be shiny, as it wet
See you next week!
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