The War of The Worlds – 1938

The radio broadcast that horrified America

Gabriel Josefowicz , Student Writer

On the Halloween evening of October 30th, 1938 Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air had performed a radio adaptation of H.G. Welles’s novel The War of the Worlds.  Herbert George Welles (H.G. Welles) was an English writer, and he was proficient in many genres. He had written many short stories, dozens of novels, and his works of history, social commentary, satire, biography, and autobiography. His works also included two books on recreational war games. In current times Welles is best known for his science fiction novels and is often referred to as the “father of science fiction”, amongst Julies Verne and the publisher Hugo Gernsback.

In the early morning hours on hallows eve of 1938, Orson Welles woke to find himself the most talked-about man in America. Converting the 40-year-old novel into fake news bulletins describing a Martian invasion of New Jersey. Some, if not most, listeners mistook those bulletins for a real thing, and their anxious phone calls to police, radio stations, and newspaper offices convinced many journalists that the show had caused mass hysteria nationwide. By the next morning, 23-year-old Welles’s face and name was plastered on the front pages of newspapers from coast to coast, along with headlines about mass panic he and his CBS broadcast had inspired.

Welles barely had any time to glance at the papers, leaving him with a horribly vague sense of what he had just done to the country. He had heard many reports of mass stampedes, of angry listeners threatening to shoot him on sight, and even suicides. Welles had said, “If I planned to wreck my career, I couldn’t have gone about it better.” With his livelihood and even potential freedom on the line, Welles went before dozens of reporters, photographers, and newsreel cameramen at a hastily arranged press conference in the CBS building. Did he intend, or did he anticipate that The War of the Worlds would throw its audience into mass panic and hysteria?

Those very questions would follow him for the rest of his time on earth. His answers changed as the years went on, from pleading innocent to dropping hints for people to realize he knew what he was doing all along.