Television

How Orson Welles' 1930s War of the Worlds radio adaptation went viral

The famous radio broadcast is etched in radio drama history as one of the first viral media phenomena.

The famous radio broadcast is etched in radio drama history as one of the first viral media phenomena.

A rehearsal of CBS Radio's The Mercury Theatre on the Air, printed in many US newspapers following the broadcast of The War of the Worlds. Orson Welles shown with arms raised. (Acme Telephoto - The Gastonia Daily Gazette (North Carolina), November 3, 1938 (page 8))

An exciting new adaptation of H.G.Wells' 1898 classic science fiction novel, War of the Worlds, is coming to CBC Television and CBC Gem this October. 

War of the Worlds is considered one of the first stories ever written about imagining human kind in conflict with an exterrestrial, and the upcoming TV series promises a thrilling update on the tale.

One of the best known adaptations of this seminal work is the original radio broadcast produced, directed and narrated by Orson Welles, which reportedly sent millions into a panic, with some even fleeing their homes.

Simulating a 'breaking news' style newscast

The dramatic radio program aired as a "Halloween" special on October 30, 1938, on CBS radio as part of Welles' weekly one hour show presenting classic literary works called The Mercury Theatre on the Air. 

Orson Welles delivers a radio broadcast from a New York studio in 1938. (Associated Press)

As with any adaptation, slight modifications were made to localize the narrative for the purpose of appealing to an American audience. The group conducting the broadcast (Welles' Mercury Theatre) changed the story setting from London, England — where Wells had imagined it — to modern day New Jersey.

The broadcast simulated a live "breaking news" style newscast, announcing new events as they "developed", with periodic interruptions of the musical segments to update the listeners on the latest regarding the alien invasion.

To prepare the audience, there were disclaimers explaining that the broadcast was a fictional drama, and were announced at the beginning and during the broadcast.

Those that heard the disclaimers were thoroughly entertained, but those that didn't catch it, according to The New York Times, were convinced that an actual invasion from Mars was taking place, as the announcer said: "Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin. Martians have landed in New Jersey!"

"At 8:50 p.m., a huge flaming object, believed to be a meteorite, fell on a farm in the neighborhood of Grovers Mill, New Jersey."

The first piece of media to go viral

To much debate, it's considered that after the announcement was made on the radio, incidents of hysteria were reported all across America. 

The next day, on October 31st, 1938, The New York Times reported that the broadcast "disrupted households, interrupted religious services, created traffic jams and clogged communications systems."

The New York Times front page from Oct. 31, 1938. (The New York Times)

"In Newark, in a single block at Heddon Terrace and Hawthorne Avenue, more than 20 families rushed out of their houses with wet handkerchiefs and towels over their faces to flee from what they believed was to be a gas raid. Some began moving household furniture."

"Throughout New York families left their homes … Thousands of persons called the police, newspapers and radio stations here and in other cities of the United States and Canada seeking advice on protective measures against the raids."

And when asked in an interview, the same day, about his use of the convincing news method as authentic news and whether he thinks he took an unfair advantage of the public, the blissfully unaware Welles explained that he did not believe so, since it wasn't a method that originated with him.

He later explained in his book, This is Orson Welles, that the approach used in the radio program was inspired by Ronald Knox's radio hoax, Broadcasting the Barricades, about a riot overtaking London — which aired on BBC a decade earlier, in 1926.

Mass hysteria or fake news

Princeton University Psychologist, Hadley Cantril wrote in his book (The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic With the Complete Script of the Famous Orson Welles Broadcast) that within the three weeks of Welles' broadcast, the newspapers had published at least 12,500 articles about the broadcast and its impact.

Radiolab did a deep dive episode about the broadcast in 2018 explaining that of the estimated 12 million people who tuned in to the broadcast, most got the joke. But, "if you consider that about one out of every 12 people didn't get the joke" — which is what they say the surveys found afterwards — that means that around 20% or "one million people ran out of their homes, towels over their faces, clutching children, breaking limbs."

But some scholars believe that the so-called "nationwide panic" was overblown and not as significant as initially reported by the media.

In his book (Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism), an American University Professor of Communication Studies, W. Joseph Campbell wrote that the panic and mass hysteria "so readily associated with the War of the Worlds program did not occur on anything approaching a nationwide scale." 

Campbell also quoted Robert E. Bartholomew, an American medical sociologist, journalist and author — who he explains is an authority on mass hysteria and social delusions — as having said that there is "a growing consensus among sociologists that the extent of the panic ... was greatly exaggerated."

A. Brad Schwartz, a Princeton author who during his undergraduate studies examined the letters sent to Orson Welles by the listeners after his 1938 radio broadcast seems to agree and says that while many people did panic, the numbers were largely inflated.

Schwartz explained, in an interview with NJ.com, that the newspapers at the time got a sense that pockets of hysteria around the country were happening, ended up connecting the wrong dots and decided that it was a much larger event than it really was — with one newspaper even calling it a "tidal wave of terror." 

It seems to have been a two-tiered fake news scenario that occurred, he continues, the first being Welles' fake broadcast of the Martian attack and the second being a larger false narrative that sprung from it that itself ended up terrifying the country, explained Schwartz.

Aftermath

Had the audiences, that did interpret the event as real, stayed for the second part of the broadcast, they would have heard it presented in a more conventional radio drama format — following a survivor (played by Welles) dealing with the aftermath of the invasion and the ongoing Martian occupation of Earth. And they would have realised it was all just good old entertainment.

A few years after the broadcast, in conversation with BBC Four, Welles mentioned that "all kinds of people reacted in all kinds of ways" — many of whom called the station, some even reporting they had seen the Martians landing in their backyards. 

"The whole experience was extremely intense."

"I suppose we had it coming because, in fact, we weren't as innocent as we meant to be."

To date, the Grovers Mill community annually celebrates the anniversary of the broadcast, holding costume contests, seances and Mars-themed events and according to NJ.com, the community even erected a monument, marking the spot where Martians supposedly landed in 1938.

Take a listen to the original broadcast that had some listeners in panic. You can also follow the program script here.

The latest iteration of War of the Worlds will premiere on CBC Television and CBC Gem on October 7th at 8 p.m. (8:30NT).

About the Author

Vanja Mutabdzija Jaksic is a producer, journalist and a perpetual optimist who loves a good show/film, breathes music, writes poetry, and dabbles in tech and innovative ways of storytelling (including through XR/VR/AR/MR). You can find her stories at cbc.ca/television and cbc.ca/comedy or follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @neptunes_blues.

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