On This Day

Orson Welles, Orson Welles radio, The War of the Worlds
Associated Press
Orson Welles broadcasts his radio show of
Wells' science fiction novel “The War
of the Worlds”
in a New York studio.

On This Day: “The War of the Worlds” Broadcast Causes Panic

October 30, 2011 06:00 AM
by Caleb March
On Oct. 30, 1938, many Americans believed Orson Welles’ radio broadcast adaptation of H. G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” was reporting an actual alien invasion.

“The War of the Worlds” Broadcast

On Oct. 30, 1938, CBS Radio broadcast a production of Orson Welles’ “Mercury Theatre on the Air.” The broadcast, which aired at 8:00 on the evening before Halloween, was based on H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel “The War of the Worlds.”

Adapted and narrated by Orson Welles, the radio show was intended to simulate an alien invasion of Earth as it would be reported by the news media. Using mock news reports and sound effects, Welles presented the program as breaking news. Although the program opened with a disclaimer that the broadcast was a fictional recreation of the novel, many radio listeners tuned into the broadcast after the introductory disclaimer.

What these people heard began with a fake broadcast of Ramon Raquello and his Orchestra. The orchestral performance began to be interrupted by pseudo-newsflashes that took on increasing tones of alarm and danger. Many listeners believed the newsflashes were real, and mass hysteria began spreading throughout the northeast, primarily in New York and New Jersey, where the invasion was purportedly taking place.

The New York Times described the panic the next day: “Throughout New York families left their homes, some to flee to near-by parks. Thousands of persons called the police, newspapers and radio stations here and in other cities of the United States and Canada seeking advice on protective measures against the raids.”

Even the news media was forced to investigate the truth of the reports made on Welles’ show after repeated inquiries about evacuation and defense procedures. Newspaper articles the next day described mass hysteria of alarming proportions. These reports were later said to be exaggerated, and no one was reported killed as a result of the panic.

CBS apologized for the confusion caused by Orson Welles’ program and aired several broadcasts confirming that reports of alien invasion were purely fictional.

International Broadcasts

On Nov. 12, 1944, the “War of the Worlds” scare was recreated in Chile. Broadcast from Santiago, the Chilean program created a public reaction similar to the American panic six years earlier. One governor in Chile was even reported to have mobilized troops to act against the alien invasion.

Another “War of the Worlds” adaptation was broadcast on Feb. 12, 1949, in Quito, Ecuador. Local Ecuadorians rioted after learning that the broadcast was nothing more than a prank. Angry mobs burned down the radio station building and the offices of Ecuadorian newspaper El Comercio. Twenty people died in the rioting and property damage was estimated at $350,000. Three employees of the radio broadcasting company were arrested and tried.

Biography: Orson Welles

Welles, the son of a wealthy inventor and a concert pianist, was a precocious child who staged mini-productions of Shakespeare’s plays in his home. As a young adult, he worked on Broadway as a director and actor, and founded the Mercury Theatre. He also worked in radio, provided the voice of the titular character in “The Shadow.”

Welles was a brilliant and innovative filmmaker, but he possessed an “erratic, egotistical, self-indulgent and self-destructive temperament,” said The New York Times in his obituary. His films often sparked controversy and harsh reviews, and his frequent clashes with movie studios hampered his work. Though his career included many failed projects, his legendary successes ensured that he would be remembered as one of the greatest filmmakers ever.

“He was the legendary sort of figure upon whom old anecdotes are rehung,” wrote the Times. “Mr. Mankiewicz, for example, was reported by Miss Kael to have said of Welles, ‘There, but for the grace of God, goes God.’”

Belgian Secession Hoax of 2006

On Dec. 26, 2006,  RTBF, a Belgian public television channel, aired a mock-special bulletin announcing that the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium had seceded and declared itself an independent nation, effectively ending the existence of Belgium.

The broadcast showed staged footage of celebrating Flemish people and traffic jams near the Flemish border. The broadcast was made to look real, with news reporters and even a hotline number. More than 2,600 viewers called the hotline looking for more information, and the television station’s Web site briefly crashed due to high traffic volume. After 30 minutes, the television station admitted the hoax to calm viewers down.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines