On this Halloween Eve night, 76 years ago, a radio broadcast dramatizing the H.G. Wells science fiction novel, "War of the Worlds" caused a real life panic after it led many American radio listeners to believe that planet earth was actually under attack by martians.
The radio broadcast was narrated by a then 23-year-old Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, A Touch of Evil) and written by Howard Koch, a playwright who was later blacklisted during the Red Scare of the 1950s.
Sunday night was prime time for radio listening in 1938, and millions were tuned into the CBS series, The Mercury Theatre on the Air, a popular radio program which brought classic literary works to life and ran for an hour without commercial interruption. The show began innocently enough, with a dramatic program introduction followed by an ever mellifluous Orson Welles reading an excerpt from the novel. The show then cleverly transitioned into a simulated news broadcast format - an interruption of the regularly scheduled programming. As the audience was lulled into soft distraction by Ramon Raquello and his Orchestra performing "La Cumpanista", the Government Weather Bureau ominously broke in, warning that explosions had been observed on the planet Mars. This bulletin was shortly followed by another announcement that a meteorite had crashed into a New Jersey farm field, and yet another report that the meteorite was actually some type of spacecraft - full to the brim with heat-ray wielding martians. Oh the humanity! The crescendo of catastrophe climaxes in an apocalyptic alien attack upon New York City, followed by the martian's inevitable defeat at the hands of a widespread germ infection.
Listeners who were late in turning on their radio, however, missed the intro and stumbled headlong into the fake news broadcast. The looming war in Europe had Americans ill-at-ease to begin with, and many in the audience didn't get the gag. So the trouble began.
Although the actual size of the panic has often been debated (and overstated) the CBS newsroom was instantaneously flooded with frightened phone calls and reports of confused mobs spilling into the streets. As word filtered back to the actual performance studio, Orson Welles himself interrupted the broadcast to remind the audience that it was just a radio play. This didn't prevent the New York Times from printing the next day headline, "ORSON WELLES CAUSES PANIC". CBS proceeded to issue a large mea culpa. The ratings for the Mercury Theatre program, however, went through the roof and the Campbell Soup Company was soon brought in as chief sponsor. All's well that ends well.
So what caused all the fuss? Give a listen, and Happy Halloween!
If you're in the mood for a cheap laugh (and honestly, who isn't?), cleanse your palate with this video of a drunk, late-in-his-career Orson Welles stumbling through a commercial recording for Paul Mason wine. This gets me every single time.