Panic Over War of the Worlds

Orson Welles at the microphone and how the New York Times reacted to the broadcast
Orson Welles at the microphone and how the New York Times reacted to the broadcast

by Ray Setterfield

October 30, 1938 — The War of the Worlds, the science fiction novel by English author HG Wells telling of a space ship from Mars landing on Earth and causing panic, death and destruction, was published in 1897. On this day in 1938 actor Orson Welles allegedly caused real-life panic across America when he presented the story in an all-too-realistic radio broadcast.

Dance music on the Columbia Broadcasting System was interrupted by an announcer reporting that “Professor Farrell of the Mount Jenning Observatory” had detected explosions on the planet Mars. The music came back on for a while, but then came another announcement that "at 8.50pm a huge, flaming object, believed to be a meteorite, fell on a farm in New Jersey."

Then came a report from the scene by newsman Carl Phillips. He spoke of a 30 yard-wide metal cylinder making a hissing sound. Then the top began to "rotate like a screw." He went on:

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed. . . Wait a minute! Someone's crawling. Someone or . . . something. I can see peering out of that black hole two luminous disks . . . are they eyes? It might be a face. It might be . . . good heavens, something's wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake.

"Now it's another one, and another one, and another one. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing's body. It's large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face, it . . . ladies and gentlemen, it's indescribable.

"I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, it's so awful. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is kind of V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate."

Orson Welles was 23 at the time of the broadcast, working with the Mercury Theatre Company. He went on, of course, to become a highly acclaimed actor, writer and film director.

Citizen Kane (1941), which he co-wrote, produced and directed and in which he performed the lead role is now hailed by some critics as one of the greatest films ever made.

But that was in the future. On this day he was describing the War of the Worlds.

Many listeners had missed his announcement at the start of the programme that this was just a story told by actors. They thought it was real, especially as Welles had decided to present the story in a newscast format.

And when it was reported that seven thousand members of the state militia had been obliterated by a Martian "heat ray" and that New York was being evacuated, there was, according to reports at the time, widespread panic.

Anxious phone calls to police, newspaper offices, and radio stations convinced many journalists that the show had caused nationwide hysteria. By the next morning Welles’s face and name were on the front pages of newspapers coast-to-coast, along with headlines about the mass panic his broadcast had allegedly inspired.

With his livelihood (and possibly even his freedom) on the line, Welles went before dozens of reporters, photographers, and newsreel cameramen at a hastily arranged press conference. Had he intended, he was asked, or did he at all anticipate, that War of the Worlds would throw its audience into panic?

“If I’d planned to wreck my career,” he responded, “I couldn’t have gone about it better.”

But in 1960 a more candid Welles was to offer an explanation for his inspiration for War of the Worlds: “I had conceived the idea of doing a radio broadcast in such a manner that a crisis would actually seem to be happening,” he said, “and would be broadcast in such a dramatised form as to appear to be a real event taking place at that time, rather than a mere radio play.”

Today, of course, he would have been laughed out of the studio. But those were more innocent times.

Published: October 23, 2018

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