Orson Welles had for years been a fan of master Sci-Fi writer H.G. Wells and his novel War of the Worlds. Welles' co-workers on Mercury Theater took the novel and adapted it for radio, changing the setting from 19th century England to small village in New Jersey. The switch from Victorian England wasn't the biggest change however; now the story was told in news flashes and Welles took the part as a Professor of Astronomy. This was the chief reason why people believed it was true, it sounded like a genuine news report. Another factor contributing to this belief was that a rival network aired a hugely popular program almost simultaneously with the Mercury one, meaning many listeners tuning in late, missed the opening and the context setting introduction.
With the program starting out with a concert by the CBS orchestra, (falsely) interrupted by reports of explosions and bright shining gas noticed on Mars. Astronomer and Princeton Professor Richard Pierson, aka Orson Welles, gives his views on the matter and denies the theory of life on Mars. It continues with more intense and frequent stories such as a cylinder shaped meteorite landing near a New Jersey village and a crowd gathering around the sight.
A radio journalist at the sight reports on a tentacled creature, emerging from the meteorite. He identifies it as a Martian, and before anyone knows it, the whole crowd are reduced to ashes by heat-rays coming from the creatures.
This was the part, allegedly, to cause the initial fear. Many heard this report, believing it was real and started making phone calls and inquiries to neighbours and friends to investigate its authenticity.
The show goes on with a confused and shaken Pierson trying to make sense out of the Martian technology. Martial law is declared in New Jersey and attacks towards the cylinders are initiated. This continues with reports from several terror stricken people on location, coughing and describing planes being forced down by the Heat-Ray bearing aliens.
The first section finishes with an alarming "2X2L calling CQ. Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there.... anyone?"
The story ends with Pierson describing the aftermath of the events and the explanation of how the Martians could finally be defeated with just a simple earthly germ, to which they had no immunity.
Rumour has it that by the end of the show, Welles and his producers -now aware of the stir they created,- make Welles go 'Boo', reminding everyone that Halloween is a time for tricks.
We all know what kind of stir this broadcast generated. The police received many calls that day of light flashes and the smell of gas. Some even fled their homes in fear of the invasion. The pre-war stress and anxiety didn't help to calm people down either. Within a month, there were around 12,500 articles about the broadcast and its impact. CBS, as a punishment, were never again allowed to use the phrase "we interrupt this program" for dramatic effect.
The story was 40 years old at the time and H.G. Wells, during a meet and greet with Welles -said he never understood the panic brought on by the broadcast- and suggested it might just have been a prank by the media in the spirit of Halloween.
Maybe the panic was just pre-war jitters or a case of the domino-effect. A wide spread terror was not what Welles intended, yet, the panic was real amongst many people with the report shaking the country for a few days.
Here is the whole Welle's broadcast from 1938, enjoy!
And here you can listen to more amazing Mercury Theater on the Air shows.