The War of the Worlds (1938 radio drama)

"The War of the Worlds" is an episode of the American radio drama anthology series The Mercury Theatre on the Air directed and narrated by actor and future filmmaker Orson Welles as an adaptation of H. G. Wells's novel The War of the Worlds (1898). It was performed and broadcast live as a Halloween episode at 8 p.m. on Sunday, October 30, 1938, over the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network. The episode became famous for causing panic among its listening audience, although the scale of panic is disputed as the program had relatively few listeners.[1]

The War of the Worlds
Orson Welles War of the Worlds 1938.jpg
Orson Welles tells reporters that no one connected with the broadcast had any idea that it would cause panic (October 31, 1938).
GenreRadio drama, science fiction
Running time60 minutes
Home stationCBS Radio
Hosted byThe Mercury Theatre on the Air
AnnouncerDan Seymour
Written by
Directed byOrson Welles
Produced by
Executive producer(s)Davidson Taylor (for CBS)
Narrated byOrson Welles
Recording studioColumbia Broadcasting Building, 485 Madison Avenue, New York
Original releaseOctober 30, 1938 (1938-10-30),
8 – 9 pm ET
Opening themePiano Concerto No. 1 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

The first twenty minutes of the one-hour program was presented as a typical evening of radio programming being interrupted by a series of news bulletins. The first bulletins report on a series of explosions observed on Mars, followed by reports of an unusual cyllindrical object falling on a farm in Grover's Mill, New Jersey. The program is interrupted by a live report from Grover's Mill, where police officials and a crowd of curious onlookers have surrounded the strange object. Martians emerge from the cylinder and attack the crowd. The audio feed abruptly goes dead. This is followed by a rapid series of increasingly alarming news updates detailing a devastating alien invasion taking place around the country. The first portion of the show climaxes with another live report from a Manhattan rooftop as giant Martian war machines release clouds of poisonous smoke across New York City. The reporter mentions in passing that Martian cylinders have landed all over the country as he describes desperate New Yorkers fleeing and "dropping like flies", the smoke inexorably approaching his location. Eventually he coughs and falls silent, and a lone ham radio operator is heard mournfully calling "Is there anyone on the air? Isn't there... anyone?" with no response. Only then did the program take its first break, a full thirty-eight minutes after Welles's introduction.

The second half of the show shifts to a conventional radio drama format which follows a survivor (played by Welles) dealing with the aftermath of the invasion and the ongoing Martian occupation of Earth. The final segment lasts for about sixteen minutes, and as in the original novel, it concludes with the revelation that the Martians have been defeated by microbes rather than by humans. The broadcast ends with a brief "out of character" announcement by Welles in which he cheerfully compares the show to "dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo!"

Welles's "War of the Worlds" broadcast has become famous for supposedly tricking some of its listeners into believing that a Martian invasion was actually taking place due to the "breaking news" style of storytelling employed in the first half of the show. The illusion of realism was furthered because the Mercury Theatre on the Air was a sustaining program without commercial interruptions; the first break in the drama came after Martian war machines were described as devastating New York City. Popular legend holds that some of the radio audience may have been listening to The Chase and Sanborn Hour with Edgar Bergen and tuned in to "The War of the Worlds" during a musical interlude, thereby missing the clear introduction indicating that the show was a work of science fiction. However, contemporary research suggests that this happened only in rare instances.[2]: 67–69 

In the days after the adaptation, widespread outrage was expressed in the media. The program's news-bulletin format was described as deceptive by some newspapers and public figures, leading to an outcry against the broadcasters and calls for regulation by the FCC.[1] However, officials declined to take any punitive action, and the innovative episode and its subsequent notoriety secured the 23-year-old Welles's fame as a dramatist.


"The War of the Worlds" was the 17th episode of the CBS Radio series The Mercury Theatre on the Air, which was broadcast at 8 pm ET on Sunday, October 30, 1938.[3]: 390, 394  H. G. Wells' original novel tells the story of a Martian invasion of Earth. The novel was adapted for radio by Howard Koch, who changed the primary setting from 19th-century England to the contemporary United States, with the landing point of the first Martian spacecraft changed to rural Grover's Mill, an unincorporated village in West Windsor Township, New Jersey.

The program's format was a simulated live newscast of developing events. The first two-thirds of the hour-long play is a contemporary retelling of events of the novel, presented as news bulletins interrupting programs of dance music. "I had conceived the idea of doing a radio broadcast in such a manner that a crisis would actually seem to be happening," Welles later said, "and would be broadcast in such a dramatized form as to appear to be a real event taking place at that time, rather than a mere radio play."[4] This approach was similar to Ronald Knox's radio hoax Broadcasting the Barricades, about a riot overtaking London, that was broadcast by the BBC in 1926,[5] which Welles later said gave him the idea for "The War of the Worlds".[a] A 1927 drama aired by Adelaide station 5CL depicted an invasion of Australia via the same techniques and inspired reactions similar to those of the Welles broadcast.[7]

He was also influenced by the Columbia Workshop presentations "The Fall of the City", a 1937 radio play in which Welles played the role of an omniscient announcer, and "Air Raid", a vibrant as-it-happens drama starring Ray Collins that aired October 27, 1938.[8]: 159, 165–166  Welles had previously used a newscast format for "Julius Caesar" (September 11, 1938), with H. V. Kaltenborn providing historical commentary throughout the story.[9]: 93 

"The War of the Worlds" broadcast used techniques similar to those of The March of Time, the CBS news documentary and dramatization radio series.[10] Welles was a member of the program's regular cast, having first performed on The March of Time in March 1935.[11]: 74, 333  The Mercury Theatre on the Air and The March of Time shared many cast members, as well as sound effects chief Ora D. Nichols.[2]: 41, 61, 63 

Welles discussed his fake newscast idea with producer John Houseman and associate producer Paul Stewart; together, they decided to adapt a work of science fiction. They considered adapting M. P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud and Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World before purchasing the radio rights to The War of the Worlds. Houseman later wrote that he suspected Welles had never read it.[3]: 392 [2]: 45 [4][b]

Howard Koch had written the first drafts for the Mercury Theatre broadcasts "Hell on Ice" (October 9), "Seventeen" (October 16),[8]: 164  and "Around the World in 80 Days" (October 23).[9]: 92  Monday, October 24, he was assigned to adapt The War of the Worlds for broadcast the following Sunday night.[8]: 164 

Tuesday night, 36 hours before rehearsals were to begin, Koch telephoned Houseman in what the producer characterized as "deep distress". Koch said he could not make The War of the Worlds interesting or credible as a radio play, a conviction echoed by his secretary Anne Froelick, a typist and aspiring writer whom Houseman had hired to assist him. With only his own abandoned script for Lorna Doone to fall back on, Houseman told Koch to continue adapting the Wells fantasy. He joined Koch and Froelick and they worked on the script throughout the night. On Wednesday night, the first draft was finished on schedule.[3]: 392–393 

On Thursday, associate producer Paul Stewart held a cast reading of the script, with Koch and Houseman making necessary changes. That afternoon, Stewart made an acetate recording, with no music or sound effects. Welles, immersed in rehearsing the Mercury stage production of Danton's Death scheduled to open the following week, played the record at an editorial meeting that night in his suite at the St. Regis Hotel. After hearing "Air Raid" on the Columbia Workshop earlier that same evening, Welles viewed the script as dull. He stressed the importance of inserting news flashes and eyewitness accounts into the script to create a sense of urgency and excitement.[8]: 166 

Houseman, Koch, and Stewart reworked the script that night,[3]: 393  increasing the number of news bulletins and using the names of real places and people whenever possible. Friday afternoon, the script was sent to Davidson Taylor, executive producer for CBS, and the network legal department. Their response was that the script was 'too' credible and its realism had to be toned down. As using the names of actual institutions could be actionable, CBS insisted upon some 28 changes in phrasing.[8]: 167 

"Under protest and with a deep sense of grievance we changed the Hotel Biltmore to a nonexistent Park Plaza, Transamerica Radio News[15] to Inter-Continental Radio News, the Columbia Broadcasting Building to Broadcasting Building," Houseman wrote.[3]: 393  "The United States Weather Bureau in Washington, D.C." was changed to "The Government Weather Bureau," "Princeton University Observatory" to "Princeton Observatory," "McGill University" in Montreal to "Macmillan University" in Toronto, "New Jersey National Guard" to "State Militia," "United States Signal Corps" to "Signal Corps," "Langley Field" to "Langham Field," and "St. Patrick's Cathedral" to "the cathedral."[8]: 167 

On Saturday, Stewart rehearsed the show with the sound effects team, giving special attention to crowd scenes, the echo of cannon fire, and the sound of boat horns in New York Harbor.[3]: 393–394 

Early Sunday afternoon, Bernard Herrmann and his orchestra arrived in the studio, where Welles had taken over production of that evening's program.[3]: 391, 398 

To create the role of reporter Carl Phillips, actor Frank Readick went to the record library and played the recording of Herbert Morrison's radio report of the Hindenburg disaster over and over.[3]: 398  Working with Bernard Herrmann and the orchestra that had to sound like a dance band fell to Paul Stewart,[16] the person Welles would later credit as being largely responsible for the quality of "The War of the Worlds" broadcast.[17]: 195 

Welles wanted the music to play for unbearably long stretches of time.[18]: 159  The studio's emergency fill-in, a solo piano playing Debussy and Chopin, was heard several times. "As it played on and on," Houseman wrote, "its effect became increasingly sinister—a thin band of suspense stretched almost beyond endurance. That piano was the neatest trick of the show."[3]: 400 

Dress rehearsal was scheduled for 6 pm.[3]: 391 

"Our actual broadcasting time, from the first mention of the meteorites to the fall of New York City, was less than forty minutes," wrote Houseman. "During that time, men travelled long distances, large bodies of troops were mobilized, cabinet meetings were held, savage battles fought on land and in the air. And millions of people accepted it—emotionally if not logically."[3]: 401 


The cast of characters of "The War of the Worlds" appears in order as first heard in the broadcast.[19][20]

  • Announcer … Dan Seymour[21]
  • Narrator … Orson Welles
  • First studio announcer … Paul Stewart
  • Meridian Room announcer … William Alland
  • Reporter Carl Phillips … Frank Readick
  • Professor Richard Pierson … Orson Welles
  • Second studio announcer … Carl Frank
  • Mr. Wilmuth … Ray Collins
  • Policeman at Wilmuth farm … Kenny Delmar
  • Brigadier General Montgomery Smith … Richard Wilson
  • Mr. Harry McDonald, vice president in charge of radio operations … Ray Collins
  • Captain Lansing of the Signal Corps … Kenny Delmar
  • Third studio announcer … Paul Stewart
  • Secretary of the Interior … Kenny Delmar
  • 22nd Field Artillery Officer … Richard Wilson
  • Field artillery gunner … William Alland
  • Field artillery observer … Stefan Schnabel
  • Lieutenant Voght, bombing commander … Howard Smith
  • Bayonne radio operator … Kenny Delmar
  • Langham Field radio operator … Richard Wilson
  • Newark radio operator … William Herz
  • 2X2L radio operator … Frank Readick
  • 8X3R radio operator … William Herz
  • Fourth studio announcer, from roof of Broadcasting Building … Ray Collins
  • Fascist stranger … Carl Frank
  • Himself … Orson Welles


Plot summaryEdit

"The War of the Worlds" begins with a paraphrase of the beginning of the novel, updated to contemporary times. The announcer introduces Orson Welles:

We know now that in the early years of the 20th century, this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own. We know now that as human beings busied themselves about their various concerns, they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacence, people went to and fro over the earth about their little affairs, serene in the assurance of their dominion over this small spinning fragment of solar driftwood which by chance or design man has inherited out of the dark mystery of Time and Space. Yet across an immense ethereal gulf, minds that are to our minds as ours are to the beasts in the jungle, intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. In the 39th year of the 20th century came the great disillusionment. It was near the end of October. Business was better. The war scare was over. More men were back at work. Sales were picking up. On this particular evening, October 30th, the Crossley service estimated that 32 million people were listening in on radios…[3]: 394–395 [20]

The radio program begins as a simulation of a normal evening radio broadcast featuring a weather report and music by "Ramon Raquello and His Orchestra" live from a local hotel ballroom. After a few minutes, the music begins to be interrupted by several news flashes about strange gas explosions on Mars. An interview is arranged with reporter Carl Phillips and Princeton-based Professor of Astronomy Richard Pierson, who dismisses speculation about life on Mars. The musical program returns temporarily but is interrupted again by news of a strange meteorite landing in Grover's Mill, New Jersey. Phillips and Pierson are dispatched to the site, where a large crowd has gathered. Philips describes the chaotic atmosphere around the strange cylindrical object, and Pierson admits that he does not know exactly what it is, but that it seems to be made of an extraterrestrial metal. The cylinder unscrews, and Phillips describes the tentacled, horrific "monster" that emerges from inside. Police officers approach the Martian waving a flag of truce, but the invaders respond by firing a heat ray, which incinerates the delegation and ignites the nearby woods and cars as the crowd screams. Phillips's shouts about incoming flames are cut off mid-sentence, and after a moment of dead air, an announcer explains that the remote broadcast was interrupted due to "some difficulty with our field transmission."

After a brief "piano interlude", regular programming breaks down as the studio struggles with casualty and fire-fighting updates. A shaken Pierson speculates about Martian technology. The New Jersey state militia declares martial law and attacks the cylinder; a captain from their field headquarters lectures about the overwhelming force of properly-equipped infantry and the helplessness of the Martians, until a tripod rises from the pit. The tripod obliterates the militia, and the studio returns, now describing the Martians as an invading army. Emergency response bulletins give way to damage and evacuation reports as thousands of refugees clog the highways. Three Martian tripods from the cylinder destroy power stations and uproot bridges and railroads, reinforced by three others from a second cylinder that landed in the Great Swamp near Morristown, as gas explosions continue. The Secretary of the Interior addresses the nation.

A live connection is established to a field artillery battery in the Watchung Mountains. Its gun crew damages a machine, resulting in a release of poisonous black smoke, before fading into the sound of coughing. The lead plane of a wing of bombers from Langham Field broadcasts its approach and remains on the air as their engines are burned by the heat ray and the plane dives on the invaders in a last-ditch suicide attack. Radio operators go active and fall silent: although the bombers manage to destroy one machine, the remaining five are spreading black smoke across the Jersey Marshes into Newark.

Eventually, a news reporter, broadcasting from atop the Broadcasting Building, describes the Martian invasion of New York City – "five great machines" wading the Hudson "like [men] wading through a brook", black smoke drifting over the city, people diving into the East River "like rats", others in Times Square "falling like flies". He reads a final bulletin stating that Martian cylinders have fallen all over the country, then describes the smoke approaching his location until he suffocates and collapses, leaving only the sounds of the city under attack in the background. Finally, a despairing ham radio operator is heard calling, "2X2L calling CQ, New York. Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there... anyone?"

After a period of silence comes the voice of announcer Dan Seymour:

You are listening to a CBS presentation of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air, in an original dramatization of The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. The performance will continue after a brief intermission. This is the Columbia Broadcasting System.

The last third of the program is a monologue and dialogue. Professor Pierson, having survived the attack on Grover's Mill, attempts to make contact with other humans. In Newark, he encounters an opportunistic militiaman who holds fascist ideals in regards to man's relationship with the Martians, and intends to use Martian weaponry to take control of both species. Declaring that he wants no part of "his world", Pierson leaves the stranger with his delusions. His journey takes him to the ruins of New York, where he discovers that the Martians have died – as with the novel, they fell victim to earthly pathogenic germs, to which they had no immunity. Life eventually returns to normal, and Pierson finishes writing his recollections of the invasion and its aftermath.

After the conclusion of the play, Welles reassumed his role as host and told listeners that the broadcast was a Halloween concoction: the equivalent, as he put it, "of dressing up in a sheet, jumping out of a bush and saying, 'Boo!'"[22] Popular mythology holds that the disclaimer was hastily added to the broadcast at the insistence of CBS executives, as they became aware of panic inspired by the program; in fact, at the station break, network executive Davidson Taylor had attempted to prevent Welles, who had added the speech at the last minute, from reading it on air for fear of exposing the network to legal liability, but Welles delivered it anyway.[2]: 95–96 


Radio programming charts in Sunday newspapers listed the CBS drama, "The War of the Worlds". The New York Times for October 30, 1938, also included the show in its "Leading Events of the Week" ("Tonight – Play: H. G. Wells' 'War of the Worlds'") and published a photograph of Welles with some of the Mercury players, captioned, "Tonight's show is H. G. Wells' 'War of the Worlds'".[8]: 169 

Announcements that "The War of the Worlds" is a dramatization of a work of fiction were made on the full CBS network at four points during the broadcast October 30, 1938: at the beginning, before the middle break, after the middle break, and at the end.[23]: 43  The middle break was delayed 10 minutes to accommodate the dramatic content.[9]: 94 

Another announcement was repeated on the full CBS network that same evening at 10:30 pm, 11:30 pm, and midnight: "For those listeners who tuned in to Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcast from 8 to 9 pm Eastern Standard Time tonight and did not realize that the program was merely a modernized adaptation of H. G. Wells' famous novel War of the Worlds, we are repeating the fact which was made clear four times on the program, that, while the names of some American cities were used, as in all novels and dramatizations, the entire story and all of its incidents were fictitious."[23]: 43–44 [24]


In the first place, most people didn't hear the show.
— Frank Stanton, research director, CBS Radio Network and Radio Research Project[1][25][26][27]

Public reactionEdit

The New York Times headline from October 31, 1938

Producer John Houseman noticed that at about 8:32 pm ET, CBS supervisor Davidson Taylor received a telephone call in the control room. Taylor left the studio and returned four minutes later, "pale as death", as he had been ordered to interrupt "The War of the Worlds" broadcast immediately with an announcement of the program's fictional content. However, by the time the order was given, the program was already less than a minute away from its first scheduled break, and the fictional news reporter played by actor Ray Collins was choking on poison gas as the Martians overwhelmed New York.[3]: 404 

Actor Stefan Schnabel recalled sitting in the anteroom after finishing his on-air performance. "A few policemen trickled in, then a few more. Soon, the room was full of policemen and a massive struggle was going on between the police, page boys, and CBS executives, who were trying to prevent the cops from busting in and stopping the show. It was a show to witness."[33]

During the signoff theme, the phone began ringing. Houseman picked it up and the furious caller announced he was mayor of a Midwestern town, where mobs were in the streets. Houseman hung up quickly: "For we were off the air now and the studio door had burst open."[3]: 404 

The following hours were a nightmare. The building was suddenly full of people and dark-blue uniforms. Hustled out of the studio, we were locked into a small back office on another floor. Here we sat incommunicado while network employees were busily collecting, destroying, or locking up all scripts and records of the broadcast. Finally, the Press was let loose upon us, ravening for horror. How many deaths had we heard of? (Implying they knew of thousands.) What did we know of the fatal stampede in a Jersey hall? (Implying it was one of many.) What traffic deaths? (The ditches must be choked with corpses.) The suicides? (Haven't you heard about the one on Riverside Drive?) It is all quite vague in my memory and quite terrible.[3]: 404 

Paul White, head of CBS News, was quickly summoned to the office, "and there bedlam reigned", he wrote:

The telephone switchboard, a vast sea of light, could handle only a fraction of incoming calls. The haggard Welles sat alone and despondent. "I'm through," he lamented, "washed up." I didn't bother to reply to this highly inaccurate self-appraisal. I was too busy writing explanations to put on the air, reassuring the audience that it was safe. I also answered my share of incessant telephone calls, many of them from as far away as the Pacific Coast.[34]: 47–48 

After "The War of the Worlds" broadcast, photographers lay in wait for Welles at the all-night rehearsal for Danton's Death at the Mercury Theatre (October 31, 1938)

Because of the crowd of newspaper reporters, photographers, and police, the cast left the CBS building by the rear entrance. Aware of the sensation the broadcast had made, but not its extent, Welles went to the Mercury Theatre where an all-night rehearsal of Danton's Death was in progress. Shortly after midnight, one of the cast, a late arrival, told Welles that news about "The War of the Worlds" was being flashed in Times Square. They immediately left the theatre, and standing on the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street, they read the lighted bulletin that circled the New York Times building: ORSON WELLES CAUSES PANIC.[8]: 172–173 

Some listeners heard only a portion of the broadcast and, in the tension and anxiety prior to World War II, mistook it for a genuine news broadcast.[35] Thousands of those people rushed to share the false reports with others or called CBS, newspapers, or the police to ask if the broadcast was real. Many newspapers assumed that the large number of phone calls and the scattered reports of listeners rushing about or even fleeing their homes proved the existence of a mass panic, but such behavior was never widespread.[2]: 82–90, 98–103 [36][37][38]

Future Tonight Show host Jack Paar had announcing duties that night for Cleveland CBS affiliate WGAR. As panicked listeners called the studio, Paar attempted to calm them on the phone and on air by saying: "The world is not coming to an end. Trust me. When have I ever lied to you?" When the listeners started charging Paar with "covering up the truth", he called WGAR's station manager for help. Oblivious to the situation, the manager advised Paar to calm down and said that it was "all a tempest in a teapot".[39]

In a 1975 interview with radio historian Chuck Schaden, radio actor Alan Reed recalled being one of several actors recruited to answer phone calls at CBS's New York headquarters.[40]

In Concrete, Washington, phone lines and electricity suffered a short circuit at the Superior Portland Cement Company's substation. Residents were unable to call neighbors, family, or friends to calm their fears. Reporters who heard of the coincidental blackout sent the story over the newswire, and soon, Concrete was known worldwide.[41]

Welles takes questions from reporters at a press conference the day after the broadcast, on October 31, 1938

Welles continued with the rehearsal of Danton's Death (scheduled to open November 2), leaving shortly after dawn October 31. He was operating on three hours of sleep when CBS called him to a press conference. He read a statement that was later printed in newspapers nationwide and took questions from reporters:[8]: 173, 176 

Question: Were you aware of the terror such a broadcast would stir up?
Welles: Definitely not. The technique I used was not original with me. It was not even new. I anticipated nothing unusual.
Question: Should you have toned down the language of the drama?
Welles: No, you don't play murder in soft words.
Question: Why was the story changed to put in names of American cities and government officers?
Welles: H. G. Wells used real cities in Europe, and to make the play more acceptable to American listeners we used real cities in America. Of course, I'm terribly sorry now.[8]: 174 [42]

In its editions of October 31, 1938, the Tucson Citizen reported that three Arizona affiliates of CBS (KOY in Phoenix, KTUC in Tucson and KSUN in Bisbee) had originally scheduled a delayed broadcast of "The War of the Worlds" that night; CBS had shifted The Mercury Theater on the Air from Monday nights to Sunday nights on September 11, but the three affiliates preferred to keep the series in its original Monday slot so that it would not compete with NBC's top-rated Chase and Sanborn Hour. However, late on that Sunday night, CBS contacted KOY and KTUC owner Burridge Butler and instructed him not to air the program the following night.[43]

Within three weeks, newspapers had published at least 12,500 articles about the broadcast and its impact,[23]: 61 [44] but the story dropped from the front pages after a few days.[1] Adolf Hitler referenced the broadcast in a speech in Munich on November 8, 1938.[2]: 161  Welles later remarked that Hitler cited the effect of the broadcast on the American public as evidence of "the corrupt condition and decadent state of affairs in democracy".[45][46]

Bob Sanders recalled looking outside the window and seeing a traffic jam in the normally quiet Grover's Mill, New Jersey, a crossroads of Cranbury and Clarksville Roads.[47][48][49]


Radio Digest reprinted the script of "The War of the Worlds" "as a commentary on the nervous state of our nation after the Pact of Munich" – prefaced by an editorial cartoon by Les Callan of The Toronto Star (February 1939)

Later studies indicate that many people missed the repeated notices about the broadcast being fictional, partly because The Mercury Theatre on the Air, an unsponsored CBS cultural program with a relatively small audience, ran at the same time as the NBC Red Network's popular Chase and Sanborn Hour featuring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. At the time, many Americans assumed that a significant number of Chase and Sanborn listeners changed stations when the first comic sketch ended and a musical number by Nelson Eddy began and then tuned in "The War of the Worlds" after the opening announcements, but historian A. Brad Schwartz, after studying hundreds of letters from people who heard "The War of the Worlds", as well as contemporary audience surveys, concluded that very few people frightened by Welles's broadcast had tuned out Bergen's program. "All the hard evidence suggests that The Chase & Sanborn Hour was only a minor contributing factor to the Martian hysteria," he wrote. "... in truth, there was no mass exodus from Charlie McCarthy to Orson Welles that night."[2]: 67–69  Because the broadcast was unsponsored, Welles and company could schedule breaks at will, rather than arranging them around advertisements. As a result, the only notices that the broadcast was fictional came at the start of the broadcast and about 40 and 55 minutes into it.

A study by the Radio Project discovered that fewer than one third of frightened listeners understood the invaders to be aliens; most thought that they were listening to reports of a German invasion or of a natural catastrophe.[2]: 180, 191 [38] "People were on edge", wrote Welles biographer Frank Brady. "For the entire month prior to 'The War of the Worlds', radio had kept the American public alert to the ominous happenings throughout the world. The Munich crisis was at its height.... For the first time in history, the public could tune into their radios every night and hear, boot by boot, accusation by accusation, threat by threat, the rumblings that seemed inevitably leading to a world war."[8]: 164–165 

CBS News chief Paul White wrote that he was convinced that the panic induced by the broadcast was a result of the public suspense generated before the Munich Pact. "Radio listeners had had their emotions played upon for days.... Thus they believed the Welles production even though it was specifically stated that the whole thing was fiction".[34]: 47 

"The supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast. ... Radio had siphoned off advertising revenue from print during the Depression, badly damaging the newspaper industry. So the papers seized the opportunity presented by Welles’ program to discredit radio as a source of news. The newspaper industry sensationalized the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted."[1]


Historical research suggests the panic was far less widespread than newspapers had indicated at the time.[50] "[T]he panic and mass hysteria so readily associated with 'The War of the Worlds' did not occur on anything approaching a nationwide dimension", American University media historian W. Joseph Campbell wrote in 2003. He quotes Robert E. Bartholomew, an authority on mass panic outbreaks, as having said that "there is a growing consensus among sociologists that the extent of the panic... was greatly exaggerated".[38]

That position is supported by contemporary accounts. "In the first place, most people didn't hear [the show]," said Frank Stanton, later president of CBS.[1] Of the nearly 2,000 letters mailed to Welles and the Federal Communications Commission after "The War of the Worlds", currently held by the University of Michigan and the National Archives and Records Administration, roughly 27% came from frightened listeners or people who witnessed any panic. After analyzing those letters, A. Brad Schwartz concluded that although the broadcast briefly misled a significant portion of its audience, very few of those listeners fled their homes or otherwise panicked. The total number of protest letters sent to Welles and the FCC is also low in comparison with other controversial radio broadcasts of the period, further suggesting the audience was small and the fright severely limited.[2]: 82–93 [36]

Five thousand households were telephoned that night in a survey conducted by the C. E. Hooper company, the main radio ratings service at the time. Only 2% of the respondents said they were listening to the radio play, and no one stated they were listening to a news broadcast. About 98% of respondents said they were listening to other radio programming (The Chase and Sanborn Hour was by far the most popular program in that timeslot) or not listening to the radio at all. Further shrinking the potential audience, some CBS network affiliates, including some in large markets such as Boston's WEEI, had pre-empted The Mercury Theatre on the Air, in favor of local commercial programming.[1]

Ben Gross, radio editor for the New York Daily News, wrote in his 1954 memoir that the streets were nearly deserted as he made his way to the studio for the end of the program.[1] Producer John Houseman reported that the Mercury Theatre staff was surprised when they were finally released from the CBS studios to find life going on as usual in the streets of New York.[3]: 404  The writer of a letter that The Washington Post published later likewise recalled no panicked mobs in the capital's downtown streets at the time. "The supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast", media historians Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow wrote in Slate on its 75th anniversary in 2013; "Almost nobody was fooled".[1]

According to Campbell, the most common response said to indicate a panic was calling the local newspaper or police to confirm the story or seek additional information. That, he writes, is an indicator that people were not generally panicking or hysterical. "The call volume perhaps is best understood as an altogether rational response..."[38] Some New Jersey media and law enforcement agencies received up to 40% more telephone calls than normal during the broadcast.[51]

Newspaper coverage and responseEdit

Publicity photo of Welles distributed after the radio scare (1938)

What a night. After the broadcast, as I tried to get back to the St. Regis where we were living, I was blocked by an impassioned crowd of news people looking for blood, and the disappointment when they found I wasn't hemorrhaging. It wasn't long after the initial shock that whatever public panic and outrage there was vanished. But, the newspapers for days continued to feign fury.

— Orson Welles to friend and mentor Roger Hill, February 22, 1983[52]

As it was late on a Sunday night in the Eastern Time Zone, where the broadcast originated, few reporters and other staff were present in newsrooms. Most newspaper coverage thus took the form of Associated Press stories, which were largely anecdotal aggregates of reporting from its various bureaus, giving the impression that panic had indeed been widespread. Many newspapers led with the Associated Press's story the next day.[38]

The Twin City Sentinel of Winston-Salem, North Carolina pointed out that the situation could have been even worse if most people had not been listening to Edgar Bergen's show: "Charlie McCarthy last night saved the United States from a sudden and panicky death by hysteria."[53]

On November 2, 1938, the Australian newspaper The Age characterized the incident as "mass hysteria" and stated that "never in the history of the United States had such a wave of terror and panic swept the continent". Unnamed observers quoted by The Age commented that "the panic could have only happened in America."[54]

Editorialists chastised the radio industry for allowing that to happen. The response may have reflected newspaper publishers' fears that radio, to which they had lost some of the advertising revenue that was scarce enough during the Great Depression, would render them obsolete. In "The War of the Worlds", they saw an opportunity to cast aspersions on the newer medium: "The nation as a whole continues to face the danger of incomplete, misunderstood news over a medium which has yet to prove that it is competent to perform the news job," wrote Editor & Publisher, the newspaper industry's trade journal.[1][55]

William Randolph Hearst's papers called on broadcasters to police themselves, lest the government step in, as Iowa Senator Clyde L. Herring proposed a bill that would have required all programming to be reviewed by the FCC prior to broadcast (he never actually introduced it). Others blamed the radio audience for its credulity. Noting that any intelligent listener would have realized the broadcast was fictional, the Chicago Tribune opined, "it would be more tactful to say that some members of the radio audience are a trifle retarded mentally, and that many a program is prepared for their consumption." Other newspapers took pains to note that anxious listeners had called their offices to learn whether Martians were really attacking.[38]

Few contemporary accounts exist outside newspaper coverage of the mass panic and hysteria supposedly induced by the broadcast. Justin Levine, a producer at KFI in Los Angeles, wrote in a 2000 history of the FCC's response to hoax broadcasts that "the anecdotal nature of such reporting makes it difficult to objectively assess the true extent and intensity of the panic.[56] Bartholomew sees this as yet more evidence that the panic was predominantly a creation of the newspaper industry.[57]


In a study published in book form as The Invasion from Mars (1940), Princeton professor Hadley Cantril calculated that some six million people heard "The War of the Worlds" broadcast.[23]: 56  He estimated that 1.7 million listeners believed the broadcast was an actual news bulletin and, of those, 1.2 million people were frightened or disturbed.[23]: 58  Media historians Jefferson Pooley and Michael Socolow have since concluded, however, that Cantril's study has serious flaws. Its estimate of the program's audience is more than twice as high as any other at the time. Cantril himself conceded that, but argued that unlike Hooper, his estimate had attempted to capture the significant portion of the audience that did not have home telephones at that time. Since those respondents were contacted only after the media frenzy, Cantril allowed that their recollections could have been influenced by what they read in the newspapers. Claims that Chase and Sanborn listeners, who missed the disclaimer at the beginning when they turned to CBS during a commercial break or musical performance on that show and thus mistook "The War of the Worlds" for a real broadcast inflated the show's audience and the ensuing panic, are impossible to substantiate.[1]

Apart from his admittedly-imperfect methods of estimating the audience and assessing the authenticity of their response, Pooley and Socolow found, Cantril made another error in typing audience reaction. Respondents had indicated a variety of reactions to the program, among them "excited", "disturbed", and "frightened". However, he included all of them with "panicked", failing to account for the possibility that despite their reaction, they were still aware the broadcast was staged. "[T]hose who did hear it, looked at it as a prank and accepted it that way," recalled researcher Frank Stanton.[1]

Bartholomew grants that hundreds of thousands were frightened, but calls evidence of people taking action based on their fear "scant" and "anecdotal".[58] 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 authorities involved mostly only small groups. Such stories were often reported by people who were panicking themselves.[38]

Later investigations found much of the panicked responses to have been exaggerated or mistaken. Cantril's researchers found that contrary to what had been claimed, no admissions for shock were made at a Newark hospital during the broadcast; hospitals in New York City similarly reported no spike in admissions that night. A few suicide attempts seem to have been prevented when friends or family intervened, but no record of a successful one exists. A Washington Post claim that a man died of a heart attack brought on by listening to the program could not be verified. One woman filed a lawsuit against CBS, but it was soon dismissed.[1]

The FCC also received letters from the public that advised against taking reprisals.[59] Singer Eddie Cantor urged the commission not to overreact, as "censorship would retard radio immeasurably."[60] The FCC not only chose not to punish Welles or CBS but also barred complaints about "The War of the Worlds" from being brought up during license renewals. "Janet Jackson's 2004 'wardrobe malfunction' remains far more significant in the history of broadcast regulation than Orson Welles' trickery," wrote media historians Jefferson Pooley and Michael Socolow.[1]

Meeting of Welles and WellsEdit

H. G. Wells and Orson Welles met for the first and only time in late October 1940, shortly before the second anniversary of the Mercury Theatre broadcast, when they both happened to be lecturing in San Antonio, Texas. On October 28, 1940, the two men visited the studios of KTSA radio for an interview by Charles C. Shaw,[11]: 361  who introduced them by characterizing the panic generated by "The War of the Worlds": "The country at large was frightened almost out of its wits".[45]

H.G. Wells expressed good-natured skepticism about the actual extent of the panic caused by "this sensational Halloween spree," saying: "Are you sure there was such a panic in America or wasn't it your Halloween fun?"[45] Orson Welles appreciated the comment: "I think that's the nicest thing that a man from England could say about the men from Mars. Mr. Hitler made a good deal of sport of it, you know... It's supposed to show the corrupt condition and decadent state of affairs in democracy, that 'The War of the Worlds' went over as well as it did. I think it's very nice of Mr. Wells to say that not only I didn't mean it, but the American people didn't mean it."[45]

When Shaw interjected that there was "some excitement" that he did not wish to belittle, Welles asked him, "What kind of excitement? Mr. H. G. Wells wants to know if the excitement wasn't the same kind of excitement that we extract from a practical joke in which somebody puts a sheet over his head and says 'Boo!' I don't think anybody believes that that individual is a ghost, but we do scream and yell and rush down the hall. And that's just about what happened."[45]

"That's a very excellent description," Shaw said.[45]

"You aren't quite serious in America, yet," said Wells. "You haven't got the war right under your chins. And the consequence is you can still play with ideas of terror and conflict... It's a natural thing to do until you're right up against it."[45]

"Until it ceases to be a game," Welles said, a phrase that Wells repeated in agreement.[45][46]

Britain and France had then been at war with Nazi Germany for more than a year.


As the Mercury's second theatre season began in 1938, Orson Welles and John Houseman were unable to write the Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcasts on their own. They hired Howard Koch, whose experience in having a play performed by the Federal Theatre Project in Chicago led him to leave his law practice and move to New York to become a writer. Koch was put to work at $50 a week, raised to $60 after he proved himself.[3]: 390  The Mercury Theatre on the Air was a sustaining show, so in lieu of a more substantial salary, Houseman gave Koch the rights to any script he worked on.[61]: 175–176 

A condensed version of the script for "The War of the Worlds" appeared in the debut issue of Radio Digest magazine (February 1939), in an article on the broadcast that credited "Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre players".[62] The complete script appeared in The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic (1940), the book publication of a Princeton University study directed by psychologist Hadley Cantril. Welles strongly protested Koch being listed as sole author since many others contributed to the script, but by the time the book was published, he had decided to end the dispute.[8]: 176–179 

Welles did seek legal redress after the CBS TV series Studio One presented its top-rated broadcast, "The Night America Trembled", on September 9, 1957. Hosted by Edward R. Murrow, the live presentation of Nelson S. Bond's documentary play recreated the 1938 performance of "The War of the Worlds" in the CBS studio, using the script as a framework for a series of factual narratives about a cross-section of radio listeners. No member of the Mercury Theatre is named.[63][64] The courts ruled against Welles, who was found to have abandoned any rights to the script after it was published in Cantril's book. Koch had granted CBS the right to use the script in its program.[65][66]

"As it developed over the years, Koch took some cash and some credit," wrote biographer Frank Brady. "He wrote the story of how he created the adaptation, with a copy of his script being made into a paperback book enjoying large printings and an album of the broadcast selling over 500,000 copies, part of the income also going to him as copyright owner."[8]: 179  Since his death in 1995, Koch's family has received royalties from adaptations or broadcasts.[66]

The book, The Panic Broadcast, was first published in 1970.[67] The best-selling album was a sound recording of the broadcast titled Orson Welles' War of the Worlds, "released by arrangement with Manheim Fox Enterprises, Inc."[68][69] The source discs for the recording are unknown.[32] Welles told Peter Bogdanovich that it was a poor-quality recording taken off the air at the time of broadcast – "a pirated record which people have made fortunes of money and have no right to play." Welles received no compensation.[70]


Plaque commemorating the radio broadcast in Township of West Windsor
Welles often invokes "The War of the Worlds" as host of Who's Out There? (1975), an award-winning NASA documentary short film by Robert Drew about the likelihood of life on other planets[71][72]

Initially apologetic about the supposed panic his broadcast had caused (and privately fuming that newspaper reports of lawsuits were either greatly exaggerated or totally fabricated[56]), Welles later embraced the story as part of his personal myth. "Houses were emptying, churches were filling up; from Nashville to Minneapolis there was wailing in the streets and the rending of garments," he told Peter Bogdanovich years later.[11]: 18 

CBS, too, found reports ultimately useful in promoting the strength of its influence. It presented a fictionalized account of the panic in "The Night America Trembled", a 1957 episode of the television series Studio One, and included it prominently in its 2003 celebrations of CBS's 75th anniversary as a television broadcaster. "The legend of the panic," according to Jefferson and Socolow, "grew exponentially over the following years ... [It] persists because it so perfectly captures our unease with the media's power over our lives."[1]

In 1975, ABC aired the television movie The Night That Panicked America, depicting the effect the radio drama had on the public using fictional, but typical American families of the time.

The New Jersey Township of West Windsor, where Grover's Mill is located, commemorated the 50th anniversary of the broadcast in 1988 with four days of festivities including art and planetarium shows, a panel discussion, a parade, burial of a time capsule, a dinner dance, film festivals devoted to H. G. Wells and Orson Welles, and the dedication of a bronze monument to the fictional Martian landings. Howard Koch, an author of the original radio script, attended the 49th anniversary celebration as an honored guest.[73]

The 75th anniversary of "The War of the Worlds" was marked by an episode of the PBS documentary series American Experience.[74][75]


Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air were inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1988, fifty years after "The War of the Worlds" broadcast.[76] On January 27, 2003, "The War of the Worlds" was one of the first 50 recordings made part of the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.[77] At the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention in August 2014, a Retrospective Hugo Award for “Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form – 1938” was bestowed upon the broadcast.[78]

Notable re-airings and adaptationsEdit

Since the original Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcast of "The War of the Worlds", many re-airings, remakes, re-enactments, parodies, and new dramatizations have occurred.[79] Many American radio stations, particularly those that regularly air old-time radio programs, re-air the original program as a Halloween tradition. Some notable examples include:


  • An episode of the animated Disney series 'Goof Troop' featured an episode where Max and PJ dress up as aliens as part of a school project, but due to a mishap, end up broadcasting their message instead of recording it. This leads to Goofy, who dressed similar to the boys, being captured by scientists blissfully unaware they think he is an alien.
  • In 1966 "The Flintstones" episode # 151 "The Masquerade Party" Fred Flintstone dress up like a space alien-Unaware that Bedrock Citizens are in a panic because of a fake Radio program that Bedrock is invaded by space aliens.
  • In 1982 Warp of the Worlds by SHOCKWAVE, out of KFAI in Minneapolis. Written by Kate Worley and Jerry Stearns. Performed live at Minicon.[90][106]
  • They Came for The Candy, by The Radio Pirates out of Madison, WI. A half-hour produced by Scott Dikkers and written by Jay Rath.[90]
  • A 1993 episode of Animaniacs, specifically a "Pinky and the Brain" episode titled "Battle for the Planet" (one of several nods to Welles), had Brain looking at the panic of the 1938 broadcast and figuring he could use the greater media of television to cause mass evacuations in order to take over the world. The plan fails when the audience seemed panicked at first, then humored as it was chalked up to a cheesy science-fiction comedy.
  • The 1997 Hey Arnold! episode "Arnold's Halloween" parodies the radio drama, with Arnold and Gerald broadcasting a fake report of an alien invasion, and several of the school kids dressed up as aliens. Maurice LaMarche plays a character based on Welles.
  • The 2006 The Simpsons "Treehouse of Horror XVII" episode "The Day the Earth Looked Stupid", released in 2006, takes the idea of the mass panic, despite it being fake. When aliens Kang and Kodos are invading Earth, the warnings are ignored with the public saying they will not fall for it again. The episode ends with Springfield in ruins and Kang's race getting in skirmishes with armed militia, where Kodos and Kang figuring they were going to be hailed as Earth's liberators and why that did not come to pass.

Alternative versionsEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Welles said, "I got the idea from a BBC show that had gone on the year before [sic] when a Catholic priest told how some Communists had seized London and a lot of people in London believed it. And I thought that'd be fun to do on a big scale, let's have it from outer space—that's how I got the idea."[6]
  2. ^ Biographer Frank Brady claims that Welles had read the story in 1936 in The Witch's Tales, a pulp magazine of "weird-dramatic and supernatural stories" that reprinted it from Pearson's Magazine.[8]: 162  However, there is no evidence that The Witch's Tales, which only ran for two issues, or its accompanying radio series ever featured The War of the Worlds.[12][13][14]: 33 


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Further readingEdit

External linksEdit