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Photo of Orson Welles as he broadcasts his radio show of H.G. Wells' science fiction novel "The War of the Worlds" in a New York studio

Orson Welles broadcasts his radio show of H.G. Wells's science fiction novel, "The War of the Worlds," in a New York studio on October 30, 1938. The realistic account of an invasion from Mars caused some listeners to panic.

AP Photo

Jarret Liotta

For National Geographic

Published October 30, 2013

October 30, 2013 marks the 75th anniversary of Orson Welles's infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast.

Welles's Mercury Theatre on the Air players detailed an invasion from Mars, which tricked many listeners into believing that Martians really had landed.

Howard Koch's script "modernized" the 1898 novel by H. G. Wells and was delivered as a faux news broadcast—with program interruptions, special bulletins, and a newscaster making an emotional real-time claim that a spaceship had landed near a farm in the village of Grovers Mill in New Jersey's West Windsor Township. Martians had emerged from the ship, he reported gravely, and had killed 40 people there.

Some scholars argue that the extent of the so-called panic was highly exaggerated by newspapers of the time, but many people were disturbed, particularly in New Jersey and New York.

Today, in an age sodden in communication and media, the question is whether such an event could happen again, or if it's more common than one might imagine.

A Pack of Lies

"I think it happens a lot today, but to a lesser degree," said Kathy Battles, associate professor of communication at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.

"I think it happens all the time with social media," she said. "There's so much false information"—everything from lies about Hurricane Sandy and the Affordable Care Act to a glut of false reports involving deaths of celebrities such as Bon Jovi.

Back then, Battles noted, people tended to listen to the radio in the company of others. And although the broadcast prompted mass call-ins to police stations and to the CBS station in New York, jamming phone lines, this was the equivalent of people today using Twitter to contact friends to verify facts they might come across on the Internet.

One Brief, Scary Moment

"It occupied a brief, unique niche in time when it could have happened," David Mikkelson, founder of urban legend-buster Snopes.com, said of the broadcast. "It sort of required a single, real-time news medium that wasn't fully developed."

With no other news sources available to turn to for immediate corroboration of the event, it's understandable how people could have been duped, especially if they didn't know it to be a drama, or if they didn't hear the program's introduction: "The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air in a radio play by Howard Koch suggested by the H. G. Wells novel 'The War of the Worlds.' "

Legend has it that Welles and his company, which he co-founded with actor John Houseman, drew on such iconic audio as President Franklin Roosevelt's "Fireside Chats" and the off-the-cuff radio reporting of Herb Morrison, who gave the famous eyewitness account of the Hindenburg crash, to imbue their play with realism.

"You also have to remember the context of the fall of 1938," said Alexander Magoun, outreach historian for the IEEE History Center. This included not only pre-World War II worries but also Nikola Tesla's claim to have developed a death ray, which is referenced in the broadcast in relation to the Martians.

Welles and Koch folded all these elements very effectively into the updating of H. G. Wells's 40-year-old story, Magoun said.

Hyped Panic

"I'm not denying at all that people weren't emotionally engaged," said Michael Socolow, associate professor of communication at the University of Maine. "I'm not even saying they weren't scared—I'm saying the reports of panic or terror were enormously exaggerated.

"The ratings for the show were minuscule," he said. "The newspapers blew it up out of proportion." They did this, Socolow believes, mainly to discredit the new medium of radio, which had been piggybacking on print news for content.

Socolow said some of the same incidents of panic were reported nationally in different papers, but attributed to different locations.

He also disputes the claims of many individuals who reported hearing the broadcast, saying in some cases people only heard about the show, but later said they had listened to it.

Witnessing History

Robert Sanders, Jr., 81, who's lived his whole life in Grovers Mill, is one of the dwindling number of Americans claiming to have a direct memory of the broadcast.

"My father knew about it, and he knew it was going to be a dramatization," he said.

Anyone familiar with the weekly radio program knew that in each episode the Mercury Theatre dramatized a famous novel. And War of the Worlds was mentioned in that Sunday's radio listings.

That evening, Sanders recalled, their ordinarily quiet Cranbury Road was "just jammed with cars, bumper to bumper. They wanted to see what the Martians looked like."

According to contemporary accounts, a Grovers Mill resident named William Dock actually shot at the large water tower just down the street from Sanders's home, believing it to be a Martian fighting machine.

"The effects were sort of localized," Magoun said. "This is the reason a lot of people in West Windsor had a sore feeling about the whole thing—because they'd been deceived and allowed themselves to be deceived."

Power of Radio

"It's a really fantastic radio play," Battles said. "It's dramatic. It's clever. It's so perfectly realistic. To me, it mines every convention of radio so dead perfect."

Today, though the public has many more options for confirming the truth of news, those committing a hoax—or even those wishing to hurry out unconfirmed rumors—have more to draw on to support their claims, including visuals.

Mikkelson of Scopes.com noted the cleverness of modern pranksters who spread false information via the Internet with the help of fake video and photographs to buoy their lies.

The recent trucker protest in Washington, D.C., is a case in point, Mikkelson said. Some online news outlets claimed that it caused serious congestion in the city. Upon close examination, it turned out that pictures posted of the event were actually from a trucker protest in Italy six years earlier.

"I'm sure if the Internet had been around in 1938," Mikkelson said, "there would be people circulating picture of sinkholes, claiming they were evidence of the Martian invasion."

Follow Jarret Liotta on Twitter.

3 comments
Kendall Whitehouse
Kendall Whitehouse

Great article. One detail, however, deserves additional scrutiny: 

"According to contemporary accounts, a Grovers Mill resident named William Dock actually shot at the large water tower just down the street from Sanders's home, believing it to be a Martian fighting machine."

I suspect this conflates two different incidents. 

Following the radio broadcast, members of the press descended on Grovers Mill. Local resident William Dock was photographed brandishing his rifle in the doorway of the Grovers Mill Co. feed and farm supply building (not, as often reported, in the mill across the road). The shot was likely posed by a photographer eager to capture an image that fit the narrative of the panic surrounding the broadcast. 

The earliest account I've found of the alleged water tower shooting is by playwright Howard Koch based on his visit to Grovers Mill 31 years later, published in "The Panic Broadcast" (Little, Brown and Company 1970; Avon Books 1971). Koch himself seemed a bit skeptical of the tale, saying it was "Possibly ... apocryphal." 

Over the years, these two stories -- each somewhat suspect -- appear to have been merged to make a single compelling anecdote. 


Wayne Cooke
Wayne Cooke

"The 1938 radio program panicked America. Or did it? Could the same happen today?"

""I think it happens a lot today,..."

Yes, it does, and the greatest example of it is the hoax of man-made "Global Warming/Climate Change"

Brian Glenn
Brian Glenn

Or, during the financial crash of 2008 that the economy would be brought to ruin if Congress didn't provide a ($700 billion) bailout to the consortium of Wall St banks.

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