October 30, 1938: Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre of the Air scared the crap out of the nation with a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds.
The program, broadcast from the 20th floor at 485 Madison Avenue (in New York City), started with an introduction to the intentions of the aliens and noted that the adaptation was set in 1938. 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” until the Martians incinerate curious onlookers with their “Heat-Rays.”
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 a news broadcast. Contemporary newspapers reported that panic ensued, with people fleeing the area, and others thinking they could smell the poison gas or could see the flashes of the lightning in the distance.
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.
Robert Bartholomew and Hilary Evans suggest in Panic Attacks that hundreds of thousands of people were frightened in some way, but note that evidence of people taking action based on this fear is “scant” and “anecdotal.” Indeed, contemporary news articles indicate that police were swamped with hundreds of calls in numerous locations, but stories of people doing anything more than calling up the authorities typically involve groups of ones or tens and were often reported by people who were panicking, themselves.
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 popular Chase & Sanborn Hour over the Red Network of NBC, hosted by Don Ameche and featuring comic ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and singer Nelson Eddy, at the time three of the most popular figures in broadcasting. About 15 minutes into the Chase & Sanborn program the first comic sketch ended and a musical number began, and many listeners presumably began tuning around the dial at that point. According to the American Experience program “The Battle Over Citizen Kane”, Welles knew the schedule of the Chase & Sanborn show, and scheduled the first report from Grover’s Mill at the 12 minute mark to heighten the audience’s confusion. As a result, some listeners happened upon the CBS broadcast at the exact point the Martians emerge from their spacecraft.
Many of these listeners were apparently confused. In fairness, it must be noted that the confusion cannot be credited entirely to naïveté. Though many of the actors’ voices should have been recognisable 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 newsflashes as reliable.
That’s nothing compared to what happened when, 67 years later, Tom Cruise starred in a film version of the story. Talk about panic and confusion…