War of the Worlds Radio Scare: October 30, 1938

War of the Worlds Radio Scare: October 30, 1938

War of the Worlds cartoon
On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre staged a radio adaptation of the H. G. Wells sci-fi novel The War of the Worlds that fooled at least some Americans into believing that Martians really were invading the United States.

In order to make the adaptation of book to radio more interesting, the show was set up to seem like a normal music program that kept getting interrupted by increasingly alarming, official-sounding “news bulletins” that tracked the violent progress of a Martian invasion centered in New Jersey. Traditional accounts maintain that despite announcements that the show was fictional, vast numbers of Americans thought the broadcast was real. In fact, newspapers the next day carried tales of mass panic and hysteria as listeners allegedly fled their homes, and Orson Welles met with the press to express regret for the confusion.

Recent scholarship on the subject, however, tends to argue that the mass panic caused by the War of the Worlds broadcast was exaggerated by the newspapers of the time. Even according to the papers themselves, not everyone strictly believed the Martian story: those who only caught part of the broadcast or heard the news secondhand often merely believed that a disaster of some kind had struck the East Coast. And many people who had initially been fooled called their local newspaper or police station to verify the story and thus quickly learned that it was fiction. Still, many people were indeed at least initially frightened by the broadcast, and the hysteria reported in the newspapers did exist to some extent, though it was more likely on an individual rather than group level.

War of the Worlds' Broadcast Creates Panic in the East

While the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast might not have been as panic-inducing as originally believed, a similar broadcast in Quito, Ecuador, in 1949 really did cause hysteria. A local version of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds program caused radio listeners to panic, and when the broadcast was revealed as fictional, their fear turned into an angry riot. The radio station was attacked, causing $350,000 ($3.5 million today) in damage and multiple deaths.

And those aren’t the only instances. Renditions of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast also fooled listeners—at least to some extent—in Chile in 1944 and in Buffalo, New York, in 1968.

Did any of your family members experience Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast? Tell us about it! Or you can learn more about the radio program by starting a search on Newspapers.com.

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16 thoughts on “War of the Worlds Radio Scare: October 30, 1938

  1. This happened 3 years before my birth, so the memory is that of my parents. My father was filling in for striking telephone operators in New York that night. All at once the operators’ boards lit up, and stayed that way for more than an hour. It was only later that he learned about the broadcast, and all the calls that people were making to friends, relatives, and, yes, to the police stations and newspapers.

  2. I lived in Ann Arbor Michigan at the time and was 8 years old.There was a lot of commotion out side people running around and wondering what to do.

    RAG

  3. I heard this entertaining broadcast live, the whole thirty minutes or so that it played. Without any explanation–which I don’t remember, it was obviously drama. The scene sequences representing passages of time were played in real-time on our cathedral style radio. That was a clue. I was fourteen and in ninth grade and enjoyed the review in the next morning’s paper. mpd

  4. My mom was born on that day. When we kids were old enough to know about it, we teased her that “that explains a lot, Mom!”

  5. I was not around for the original broadcast. But I can believe that the original caused panic. In 1969 they did a 30th year anniversary rebroadcast. I was in my car driving my brother to work when the program we were listening to was suddenly interrupted… I dropped off my brother at work and told him to tell his co-workers and find a safe place to hide. Then I raced home to tell my family. We couldn’t find anything on the television. I turned to my station on the radio (a reproduction old time radio) just in time to here the announcer say we were listening to War of the Worlds. Only then did i realize what a powerful storyteller Orson Welles was.

  6. I used to live down the road about a quarter mile from Grovers Mill, NJ, where the Martians supposedly landed. Everyone in the area knew the story of the Orson Welles broadcast, and yes, some old timers remembered people there panicking.

  7. My mother was four, her sister eight. As a child we heard the story of Grandmother packing up the car and getting the children halfway up in the mountains before she figured it out. Head for the hill indeed! We wondered, tho, how much of that story was a little embellished thru pure repetition over the years…..

  8. On Oct 30, 1938 I was 13 years old. I was aware of the
    show and tuned it on to listen that evening. I was a student at “Our Lady of Perpetual Help ” elementary school in Brooklyn , NY. The next day only half of the class were there.

    • Wow, I would love to set and talk to you all day.. I know you could tell some wonderful stories. I can only imagine the things you have seen in your life time. I hope I live that long and have a great mind.

  9. Both my mom who was 14 and my dad who was 13 heard the broadcast (their families used the radio for entertainment) and their large families thought it was just a play. They had read the book War Of The Worlds and knew this was just a radio play done in an especially entertaining way. It was even said so during the broadcast. They were stunned to hear anyone had panicked over a radio play.

  10. I had relatives living in Salem Utah at the time of the broadcast. I was told that they all got in the family car and started driving. When they start to run low on gasoline they stopped at a service station to fill the tank and told the station attendant why they were fleeing. The attendant asked a very intelligent question: “if the Martians are taking over the earth where are you going?” When my cousins and then they turned the car around and went back home .
    On the 50th anniversary of that famous broadcast I decided to reproduce a contemporary version of the famous Orson Welles broadcast. I hired people who were producing radio programs for public radio in the Northwest. They in turn hired Jason Robards Junior to the star in the program. The program was so well produced it was up for Emmys that year and although it didn’t win it did receive national recognition.

  11. My mom grew up in upstate New York. She was 25 when she heard the 1938 broadcast. When I was a teenager, I first heard of the controversy re: The War of the Worlds. I asked her what her reaction was. She said they knew it was a radio show and that there was no panic in the house. I tried to envision anyone falling for this. Orson Welles was a known actor. The show repeatedly stated this was a radio program. And the clincher: It was Halloween!

  12. My Dad would have just turned 7. He was the 4th youngest of 5 kids born to a share Cropper. They didn’t have radio, cause couldn’t afford the luxury. They lived in rural western part of Va. I remember first hearing of this in college and found it fascinating on so many levels. My Dad and his family weren’t affected by it….so no dinner or folklore stories to go with walking barefoot to school uphill in the snow! Appreciate hearing the stories from families who did hear it.

  13. I was told that when my Grandparents heard the broadcast that my Grandfather told my Grandmother to get the kids in the car so they could run and she replied where do you think we should go?

  14. Orsen Wells broadcast took place six years before my birth. My father often talked about how it took place with many people caught up in the program because they turned to the station after the program began. In the late 1980’s I recall in the early evening I left about 6:30 P.M. for an appointment in Virginia. I changed radio stations, listening to music. As I arrived in Virginia the broadcast was interrupted with news reports of a massive fire in Rockville, MD. It was now perilously close to where my wife and I were then living in. Reports stated it was headed for our area. Huge evacuations were initiated. Also, reports that Mayor Barry of Washington, D.C. was now on the scene. He may have been seriously injured. I headed for the highway to return in heavy traffic. It appeared my meeting would be a no show for me. I pulled off the road for a moment to reflect. I thought of my father’s words. Could this be another broadcast but with a modern setting? I turned around and went to my appointment. Those in Virginia heard the beginning of the broadcast and assured me it was fiction. Relieved but annoyed I thought this was an intrusion; an inconvenience no matter how innovative it was. The format is too realistic in modern applications since we no longer fear Martians as in the 1950;s serials on Saturday afternoons at the movies. I was glad no one hit my car while driving in a panic. It’s part of our history, concerns exist and many smiles. Yet today we have enough tension without panic that can cause loss of life. Thank you. Grant “Tony” Arden, NYC, NY.
    P.S. Orson Wells was a great actor and did a fine job.

  15. Heard the story many times how my grandparents, who lived in an apartment in Orange, NJ with their two-year-old daughter (my mother), were really taken in by the broadcast for at least 15 minutes or so. My grandmother went into quite a panic as did most of the ladies in the apartment house and the other apartments nearby and picked up my mother and got her dressed, all the while saying, “The baby! The baby!” By time my grandfather verified that it was a fictional broadcast, it took quite a while to calm down my grandmother and get life back to normal. Years later, while retelling the story, my grandfather always laughed, but my grandmother never did.

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