The War of the Worlds (radio)

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On October 30, 1938, as a Halloween special, Orson Welles performed a live radio adaptation of H. G. Wells' classic novel The War of the Worlds, which famously frightened many in the audience into believing that an actual Martian invasion was in progress.



Missing image
Monument of where the martians landed in Van Ness Park.

H. G. Wells' novel is about a Martian invasion of Earth at the end of the nineteenth century, as related by a narrator seeing the events unfolding in England. The story was adapted by and written primarily by Howard Koch, with input from Welles and the staff of CBS's Mercury Theatre On The Air. The action was transferred to contemporary Grover's Mill, New Jersey, and the radio program's format was meant to simulate a news broadcast. To this end, Welles even played recordings of the radio reports of the famous Hindenburg disaster to the cast to demonstrate the mood he wanted.

Approximately two thirds of the 50-minute play was a contemporary retelling of the events of the novel, presented as a series of news bulletins in documentary style.

The program started as an apparently ordinary music show, only occasionally interrupted by news flashes. Initially, the news is of strange explosions sighted on Mars. The news reports grew more frequent and increasingly ominous after a "meteorite"--later revealed as a Martian rocket capsule--lands in New Jersey. A crowd gathers, and the events are related by reporter "Carl Philips" up until the Martians incinerate curious onlookers with their "heat ray". (Later surveys indicate that many panicked or worried listeners heard only this portion of the show--which lasted about five minutes--before calling police or family, contributing to the later confusion.)

More Martian ships land, and then proceed to wreak havoc throughout the United States, destroying bridges and railroads, and spraying a poison gas into the air. An unnamed Secretary of the Interior advises the nation on the growing conflict. (The "Secretary" was originally intended to be a portrayal of then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but CBS insisted this detail, among others, be changed. The "Secretary" did, however, end up sounding very much like Roosevelt.)

Military forces attack the Martians, but are unable to fight them off. People flee or gather in churches to pray as the Martian's machines head towards New York City.

This section ends famously after the last reporter reporting from the top of a building collapses from the poison gas, and a radio operator is heard desperately calling out "2X2L calling CQ... Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there ... anyone?"

The less famous last third was a monologue and dialogue featuring Welles, portraying "notable astronomer" Professor Peirson, who had earlier commented on the strange Martian explosions.

Welles' adaptation is possibly the most successful radio dramatic production in history. It was one of the Radio Project's first studies.

Public reaction

Many people missed or ignored the opening credits of the program, and in the atmosphere of growing tension and anxiety in the days leading up to World War II, took it to be an actual news broadcast. Panic ensued, with people fleeing the area, and others thinking they could smell the poison gas or could see the flashes of the fighting in the distance.

There has been speculation that many panicked listeners missed these warnings because the Mercury Theatre ran opposite the very popular Edgar Bergen show. About twelve minutes into Bergen's program a musical number began, and many listeners presumably tired of the song and "changed the channel, and came upon reporter 'Carl Philips' in the field near Grover's Mill, New Jersey. By the time the break came, with the announcement that this was just a play, most of them had already gone off screaming." [1] ( According to the documentary, The Battle over Citizen Kane the Carl Philips segment was intentionally timed to occur at the moment many listeners were expected to be "channel surfing" (although that term was decades away from being widely used) during Bergen's musical interlude which occurred at the same time in every episode.

Several people rushed to the "scene" of the events in New Jersey to see if they could catch a glimpse of the unfolding events, including a few astronomers from Princeton University who went looking for the "meteorite" that had supposedly fallen near their school. Some people, who had brought firearms, reportedly mistook a local farmer's water tower for an alien spaceship and shot the tower.

Initially Grover's Mill was deserted, but eventually crowds developed as more and more people rushed to the area. Eventually police were sent to the area to help control the panicked crowds. To people arriving later in the evening, the scene really did look like the events being narrated on the radio broadcast, with panicked crowds and flashing police lights streaming across the masses.

Many people called CBS, newspapers or the police in confusion over the realism of the simulated news bulletins. There were instances of panic scattered throughout the US as a result of the broadcast, especially in New York and New Jersey.

Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, who were broadcasting at the same time on NBC are often credited with "saving the world". It is said many startled listeners were reassured by hearing their familiar tones on a neighboring channel. Less kindly it is said that few people listened to Welles compared to the incredibly popular Bergen and McCarthy.


In the aftermath of the panic, a large public outcry arose, but CBS informed officials that listeners were reminded throughout the broadcast that it was only a performance. Welles and the Mercury Theatre escaped punishment, but not censure, and CBS had to promise never again to use the "we interrupt this program" device for dramatic purposes.

A study by the Radio Project discovered that most of the people who panicked did not think that it was an invasion by Martians, but by the Germans. Other studies have suggested that the extent of the panic was exaggerated by contemporary media, but it remains clear that many people were fooled.

When a meeting between H.G. Wells and Orson Welles was broadcast on Radio KTSA San Antonio on October 28 1940 the former expressed a lack of understanding of the apparent panic and suggested that it was, perhaps, only pretense put on, like the American version of Halloween, for fun. The two men and their radio interviewer joked politely about the matter, though clearly with some embarrassment.


The Los Angeles CBS affiliate radio station, KNX (1070 AM), re-broadcasts the radio program every year on Halloween.

A 1975 television film for ABC, The Night That Panicked America, dramatizes the public's panicked reaction to the broadcast, but comes across as a fairly standard disaster movie (albeit one in which the disaster is assumed rather than actual). Its best scenes are those which take place in the radio studio itself, as they give a taste of the atmosphere of live radio production.

The script was also updated and broadcast by PBS on the 50th anniversary of the original radio play in 1988. It starred Jason Robards, Steve Allen, Douglas Edwards, Scott Simon and Terry Gross and was nominated for a Grammy Award.

Recordings of the broadcast are still available (see old-time radio).

Recently, radio show host Glenn Beck did a live version as well in honor of the drama on Halloween.


It is sometimes said that the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was first received in skepticism by the American public, as a consequence of the radio performance.

Amazingly enough, the drama has been rewritten to apply to other locations and rebroadcast, with similar results.

In 1944, a broadcast in Santiago, Chile resulted in panic, including the mobilization of troops by the governor.

On February 12 1949, in Quito, Ecuador, a similar broadcast panicked tens of thousands. Listeners who were enraged at the deception set fire to the radio station and the offices of El Comercio, the capital's leading newspaper, killing twenty people. The property damage was estimated at $350,000. Three officials charged with responsibility for the broadcast were arrested.

Because of the panic caused in the 1930s and 1940s by this radio play, TV networks have deemed it necessary to post bulletins to their viewing audience to inform them some TV stories were in fact fictional drama, and not really happening. Disclaimers of this sort were shown during broadcasts of the 1983 television movie Special Bulletin and again during the 1994 telefilm, Without Warning, both of which were dramas disguised as realistic news broadcasts (Without Warning, presenting an alien attack on earth, acknowledged that it was a tribute to War of the Worlds and was also broadcast at Halloween). One network even placed disclaimers in an October 1999 TV movie dramatizing the possible disastrous effects of the Y2K bug even though it was obviously drama and was unlikely to be confused with reality.

References in fiction

Michael Crichton's Sphere cites the Orson Welles broadcast as an example of why, in the event of an actual alien arrival, it would be more prudent to anticipate mass panic on the part of humanity than wonder and awe.

The film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai used the inverted premise that the alien invasion was real and the radio broadcast was a coverup, an idea also used in the War of the Worlds TV series in the 1980s.

The episode is briefly referred to in Radio Days by Woody Allen.

The X-Files episode "War of the Coprophages" parodied the 1938 panic as a small town called "Miller's Grove" (a reference to the Welles program's "Grover's Mill") is seized by fear of an invading horde of tiny robot cockroaches.

The 1992 BBC TV Halloween special Ghostwatch was similar in its shocking displays of a haunted house in North London.

A similar realistic-looking "hoax" was a 1977 British science fiction movie entitled Alternative 3 which was presented as a science documentary, though the credits showed a production date of April Fool's Day. To this day, there are many who contend the events documented in Alternative 3 were at least partly factual.

See also

External links


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