70 Years Ago: Orson Welles Broadcasts “The War of the Worlds”

On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the Air broadcast a radio play based on H. G. Wells’ science-fictional work, “The War of the Worlds“. The hyperrealistic play about an invasion of Earth by Martians created mass hysteria among thousands of radio listeners who had tuned into WABC and CBS’ radio network from 8 to 9 that evening.

The next day, the New York Times reported on the historic event:

Despite prior announcements and an introduction about the play’s imaginary content, thousands of listeners believed an alien invasion had indeed begun. Police stations and newspapers nationwide, but particularly in New York and New Jersey (non-fictional site of the fictional alien attacks), were swamped with frantic calls for help and rescue.

After the event, CBS, Mercury Theater, and Welles expressed their profound regrets at having stirred up so much fear, anger, and panic. Ironically, Welles disclosed that he had hesitated about presenting the play because he thought that “perhaps people might be bored or annoyed at hearing a tale so improbable”.

70 years ago today, the great Orson Welles tapped into the power of mass media and the lure of dramatic narrative — and unexpectedly, revealed how much we want to believe.

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