The War of the Worlds Radio Hoax of 1938


The War of the Worlds, a radio adaptation by Orson Welles based upon H. G. Wells' classic novel, was performed by Mercury Theatre on the Air as a Halloween special on October 30, 1938. The live broadcast reportedly frightened many listeners into believing that an actual Martian invasion was in progress. Welles' adaptation is possibly the most successful radio dramatic production in history. It was one of the Radio Project's first studies.


Monument commemorating where the Martians "landed" in Van Ness Park.


The Broadcast

H. G. Wells' novel is about a Martian invasion of Earth at the end of the 19th century, as related by a narrator seeing the events unfold in England. The story was adapted by and written primarily by Howard Koch, with input from Welles and the staff of CBS's Mercury Theatre On The Air. The action was transferred to contemporary Grover's Mill, a section of West Windsor Township, New Jersey, and the radio program's format was meant to simulate a live newscast. To this end, Welles even played recordings of the radio reports of the infamous Hindenburg disaster to the cast to demonstrate the mood he wanted.

Approximately one-half of the 50-minute play was a contemporary retelling of the events of the novel, presented as a series of news bulletins in documentary style. This approach to radio drama had never been done before (at least not with as much continued verisimilitude), and the innovative format has been cited as a key factor in the confusion that would follow.

The program, broadcast from the 20th floor at 485 Madison Avenue, started with an introduction and a short introduction to the intentions of the aliens, and noted that the adaptation was set in 1939. The program continued as an apparently ordinary music show, only occasionally interrupted by news flashes. Initially, the news is of strange explosions sighted on Mars. The news reports grew more frequent and increasingly ominous after a "meteorite"--later revealed as a Martian rocket capsule--lands in New Jersey. A crowd gathers at the landing site, and the events are related by reporter "Carl Philips" up until the Martians incinerate curious onlookers with their "heat rays". (Later surveys indicate that many listeners heard only this portion of the show before contacting neighbors or family to inquire about the broadcast. Many of these people contacted others, in turn; leading to rumours and later confusion.)

More Martian ships land, and then proceed to wreak havoc throughout the United States, destroying bridges and railroads, and spraying a poison gas into the air. An unnamed Secretary of the Interior advises the nation on the growing conflict. (The "Secretary" was originally intended to be a portrayal of then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but CBS insisted this detail, among others, be changed. The "Secretary" did, however, end up sounding very much like Roosevelt as the result of directions given to actor Kenny Delmar by Welles.)

Military forces attack the Martians, but are unable to fight them off. People flee or gather in churches to pray as the Martians' machines head towards New York City, spraying poison gas in the air.

This section ends famously: a news reporter who has been acting as the main narrator broadcasts atop the CBS building, narrates the Martians invading New York City itself, then he too collapses from the poison gas, and a radio operator is heard desperately calling out "2X2L calling CQ… Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there… anyone?"

The less famous last portion of the broadcast was a monologue and dialogue featuring Welles, portraying "noted astronomer" Professor Richard Peirson, who had earlier commented on the strange Martian explosions. The story ends as does the novel, with the Martians falling victim to earthly germs and bacteria. Following the conclusion of the play, Welles breaks character to remind listeners that the play was only a Halloween concoction, the equivalent of dressing up in a sheet and saying "Boo" like a ghost; reportedly, this "disclaimer" was added to the broadcast at the insistence of CBS executives as they became aware of the panic inspired by the program.


Public reaction

Many people missed or ignored the opening credits of the program, and in the atmosphere of growing tension and anxiety in the days leading up to World War II, took it to be an actual news broadcast. Contemporary newspapers reported panic ensued, with people fleeing the area, and others thinking they could smell the poison gas or could see the flashes of the fighting in the distance.

Hand cites studies by unnamed historians who "calculate[d] that some six million heard the CBS broadcast; 1.7 million believed it to be true, and 1.2 million were 'genuinely frightened'" (Hand, 7) While Welles and company were heard by a comparatively small audience (Bergen's audience was an estimated 30 million), the uproar that followed was anything but minescule: within a month, there were about 12,500 newspaper articles about the broadcast or its impact (Hand, 7), while Adolf Hitler cited the panic, as hand writes, as "evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy." (Hand, 7)

Later studies suggested this "panic" was far less widespread than newspaper accounts suggested. However, it remains clear that many people were caught up--to one degree or another--in the confusion that followed.

Later studies also indicated that many listeners missed the repeated notices that the broadcast was entirely fictional, partly because the Mercury Theatre (an unsponsored "cultural" program with a relatively small audience) ran opposite the very popular Edgar Bergen show. About twelve minutes into Bergen's program an Opera number began, and many listeners presumably began tuning around the dial. Some listeners happened upon the CBS broadcast at the point the Martians emerge from their spacecraft. Many of these listeners were apparently confused--in fairness, it must be noted that the confusion can not be credited entirely to naïvete. Though many of the program's actors voices should have been recognizable from appearances on other radio shows, nothing like the "War of the Worlds" broadcast had ever been attempted in the United States, so listeners were accustomed to accepting news flashes as reliable.

In some Northeastern cities people went outside to ask neighbors what was happening (many homes still did not have telephones at this time). As the story was repeated by word of mouth, rumors began to spread, and these rumors caused some limited panic.

Contemporary accounts spawned urban legends, many of which persist and have come to be accepted through repetition as fact: Several people reportedly rushed to the "scene" of the events in New Jersey to see if they could catch a glimpse of the unfolding events, including a few astronomers from Princeton University who went looking for the "meteorite" that had supposedly fallen near their school. Some people, who had brought firearms, reportedly mistook a local farmer's water tower for an alien spaceship and shot at it.

Initially Grover's Mill was deserted, but later crowds developed as people rushed to the area. Eventually police were sent to the area to help control the crowds. To people arriving later in the evening, the scene really did look like the events being narrated on the radio broadcast, with panicked crowds and flashing police lights streaming across the masses.

Some people called CBS, newspapers or the police in confusion over the realism of the simulated news bulletins. There were instances of panic scattered throughout the US as a result of the broadcast, especially in New York and New Jersey.

Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, who were broadcasting at the same time on NBC, are often credited with "saving the world." It is said many startled listeners were reassured by hearing their familiar tones on a neighboring channel.



In the aftermath of the reported panic, a public outcry arose, but CBS informed officials that listeners were reminded throughout the broadcast that it was only a performance. Welles and the Mercury Theatre escaped punishment, but not censure, and CBS had to promise never again to use the "we interrupt this program" device for dramatic purposes.

A study by the Radio Project discovered that most of the people who panicked assumed Germans — not Martians — had invaded. Other studies have suggested that the extent of the panic was exaggerated by contemporary media.

When a meeting between H. G. Wells and Orson Welles was broadcast on Radio KTSA San Antonio on October 28, 1940 the former expressed a lack of understanding of the apparent panic and suggested that it was, perhaps, only pretense put on, like the American version of Halloween, for fun. The two men and their radio interviewer joked about the matter, though clearly with some embarrassment. KTSA, as a CBS affiliate, had carried the original broadcast.


Conspiracy theory

It has been suggested in recent years that the War of the Worlds broadcast was actually a psychological warfare experiment. In the 1999 documentary, Masters of the Universe: The Secret Birth of the Federal Reserve, writer Daniel Hopsicker claims that the Rockefeller Foundation actually funded the broadcast, studied the ensuing panic, and compiled a report that was only available to a chosen few. A variation of this conspiracy theory has the Princeton Radio Project and the Rockefeller Foundation as co-conspirators.



The Los Angeles CBS affiliate radio station, KNX (1070 AM), re-broadcasts the radio program every year on Halloween. A 1975 television film for ABC, The Night That Panicked America, dramatizes the public's panicked reaction to the broadcast, but comes across as a fairly standard disaster movie (albeit one in which the disaster is assumed rather than actual).

The script was also updated and broadcast by PBS on the 50th anniversary of the original radio play in 1988. It starred Jason Robards, Steve Allen, Douglas Edwards, Scott Simon and Terry Gross and was nominated for a Grammy Award. Recordings of the broadcast are still available (see old-time radio). Recently, radio show host Glenn Beck did a live version as well in honor of the drama on Halloween. XM Satellite Radio has broadcast a new version called Not From Space in recent years in which Microsoft's Bill Gates is one of the Martians.



It is sometimes said that the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was first received in skepticism by the American public, as a consequence of the radio performance.

Amazingly enough, the drama has been rewritten to apply to other locations and rebroadcast, with similar results. A 1944 broadcast in Santiago, Chile caused panic, including mobilization of troops by the governor. A February 12, 1949 broadcast in Quito, Ecuador panicked tens of thousands. Some listeners, enraged at the deception, set fire to the radio station and the offices of El Comercio, the capital's leading newspaper, killing twenty people. The property damage was estimated at $350,000. Three officials charged with responsibility for the broadcast were arrested. Because of the panic in the 1930s and 1940s associated with this radio play, TV networks have deemed it necessary to post bulletins to their viewing audience to inform them some TV stories were in fact fictional drama, and not really happening. Disclaimers of this sort were shown during broadcasts of the 1983 television movie Special Bulletin and again during the 1994 telefilm, Without Warning, both of which were dramas disguised as realistic news broadcasts (Without Warning, presenting an alien attack on Earth, acknowledged that it was a tribute to War of the Worlds and was broadcast on CBS TV on the 56th anniversary of the radio broadcast). NBC placed disclaimers in an October 1999 TV movie dramatizing the possible disastrous effects of the Y2K bug even though it was obviously drama and was unlikely to be confused with reality.

The radio play's success in updating the story proved so impressionable that many adaptations of The War of the Worlds have done likewise. There has been continued speculation that the panic generated by the War of the Worlds broadcast inspired officials to cover up unidentified flying object evidence, to avoid a similar panic. Indeed, U.S. Air Force Captain Edward J. Ruppelt wrote in 1956, "The [U.S. government's] UFO files are full of references to the near mass panic of October 30, 1938, when Orson Welles presented his now famous The War of the Worlds broadcast."


Possible influence on Wells

A 2005 BBC report suggested that Welles' idea and style may have been influenced by an earlier 1926 hoax broadcast by Ronald Knox on BBC radio. Knox's broadcast also mixes breathless reporting of a revolution sweeping across London with dance music and sound effects of destruction. Moreover, Knox's broadcast also caused a minor panic among listeners who did not know that the program was fictional. A somewhat similar hoax from 1874 used wild animals rather than aliens claiming that they were escaping from New York Central Park Zoo and this also seems to have generated some public panic.