Friday, September 9, 2011

Spotlight: The War of the Worlds Broadcast of 1938

The year was 1938 - 40 years after H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds was originally published.  On the evening of October 30th, families tuned into their radio programs just in time to hear of a horrible alien invasion taking place in New Jersey and New York City...  At least that's what many listeners thought.  In reality, what they were listening to was simply a dramatization based on The War of the Worlds.

In the 1930's, CBS had been regularly airing a theatrical radio show called Mercury Theatre on the Air.  One of the masterminds behind this radio show was actor Orson Wells.  Every week, Wells and his company of actors would put on shows for their radio listeners.  On that October evening, Wells decided to put on a show based on The War of the Worlds.  It begins with an introduction taken from the novel, and is presented as a series of news broadcasts in which a Martian invasion occurs in New Jersey.

Many of the families listening to the broadcast, however, were confused and thought that the invasion was actually happening and that they were listening to actual news broadcasts.  This confusion was due to a few different factors.  The first is that Wells' show only mentioned the fact that it was fiction three times throughout the hour-long broadcast:  once at the very beginning, once 40 minutes in, and once at the end.  So anyone that missed the beginning of the show would have had no idea of its true nature.  This was compounded due to the fact that many people missed the first 10-12 minutes of the show because they were listening to another show that was airing concurrently on ABC.  By the time that they changed the dial to CBS, they were lost.

Listen to the entire broadcast!!!

Although many events have not been confirmed, there were supposedly many cases of fear and hysteria on the part of the ignorant listeners.  People could swear that they smelled the poisonous gas that the Martians were spreading across the country.  Some people were terrified to leave their homes, while others swarmed to the site of the supposed Martian landing.  There is also a story that a group of armed individuals shot at a water tower, thinking that it was a Martian tripod.  The New York Times published an article describing the chaos and fallout:

After the night of the radio broadcast, the public became irate.  They believed that Orson Wells intentionally deceived the listeners.  Neither CBS nor Mercury Theater on the Air were officially punished, and the entire fiasco served to propel Orson Wells to fame.

Orson Wells' reaction to the supposed hysteria his show caused...

I hope you enjoyed this look into one of the greatest "hoaxes" in history!

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