It has gone down as one of the most notorious broadcasts in history and in doing so has become firmly embedded in popular culture being referenced by historians, psychologists, sociologists and even Adolf Hitler.
On Sunday, October 30th, 1938, the CBS radio network in the United States aired an adapted version of H.G. Welles’s War of the Worlds tailored to an American audience and presented as a news bulletin. It was directed by the now legendary filmmaker Orson Welles (no relation to the original author) early in his career.
Just as the live program was ending, the CBS studios found police officers arriving to investigate if there was any truth in it since they had been flooded with calls from frightened citizens. The phone system, at the time still quite new, began to fail due to the sheer volume of calls between the authorities, the studio and the frightened people forcing CBS to repeatedly broadcast that it was all fiction. Within a few hours, the world’s media was abuzz with stories of mass panic and a legend was born.
Fiction has often tried to speculate how the world would react to an alien invasion but for many people, it was - at least for a short time - a reality they had to face one autumn night in 1938.
5Why Did People Believe it?
In the 21st century, we live in what some have dubbed the Digital Age meaning we have access to a wealth of information via numerous sources such as news providers on TV and radio, social media and the internet.
It is also far easier to fake something today thanks to the power of the home computer and as such the people of the modern era are far more sceptical about stories or pictures of UFOs than during the late 1930s.
For those who lived through that night, the radio was their only window to the world outside except for the morning paper. So, when the program aired and people tuned in without having heard the initial disclaimer they had no reason to doubt the legitimacy of the “news program” they heard about a Martian invasion.
Historians have also attributed the growing paranoia in the United States regarding the Japanese and Nazi Germany as helping establish a fertile atmosphere for such an invasion being accepted by the public. Additionally, some people heard only a portion of the broadcast and believed the “invaders” were enemy parachutists, not aliens.
4Did People Really Head For The Hills?
“The Martians are coming! Head for the hills!” We’ve all heard that saying and we all associate it with Orson Welles’s broadcast. In reality, there were only a handful of cases where people felt compelled to leave their homes and rather than try to hide from the Martian war machines in the forests, they mostly sought refuge with loved ones at their homes who then had the task of explaining it was not real.
3The Battle For Grover’s Mill
Grover’s Mill is a small town in rural New Jersey and holds a special place in the story of Welles’s broadcast for it was here that the “invasion” began. It was also the scene of a potentially fatal chapter of the real-world story that was unfolding because of Welles’s broadcast.
A group of locals, believing that their town was ground zero for the first interplanetary war, armed themselves and went out into the dark looking for Martians. They spotted what they believed to be a Martian war machine (described in the broadcast as a tripod that walked) and opened fire on it only to discover to their embarrassment that they had actually shot at the town’s water tower. Had someone been working on the tower or walking in the vicinity then they could have been hit by a bullet and possibly killed.
The story has been repeated many times and has even been included in a made-for-TV movie about the whole incident, but some have questioned its validity. No one has come forward to admit they fired the shots although many people claimed to have known someone who did.
If the story is true, then it's likely nobody wants to admit that they fired the shots for fear of ridicule. Regardless of whether it is true or not, Grover’s Mill continues to celebrate the night that it was the scene of the Martian Invasion and even held a “Martian Ball” on the 60th anniversary of the event in 1998.
2The Legend Versus The Truth
There were riots in New Jersey as people demanded to know what was being done to protect them. There were a record number of traffic accidents as people tried to flee their homes for the countryside while some people suffered heart attacks or in extreme cases committed suicide rather than be burned alive by the Martian death rays. Or so legend tells us.
In reality, the actual panic that arose from people believing that an alien invasion was taking place was short lived and nowhere near as dramatic as was reported. The reality was that only around 2% of radio listeners tuned into the broadcast since a rival program was on at the same time that was far more popular than Welles’s regular show. There was nowhere near enough listeners to generate the kind of panic that was reported afterwards and those that did hear it and believed it was real were soon corrected.
In fact, the whole legend of mass hysteria that arose from the incident was created by the newspapers reporting the exaggerated stories over the following days without properly confirming their sources.
Some historians have actually gone as far as to claim that the newspapers deliberately inflamed the situation in an effort to discredit radio broadcasters who they viewed as their only competition. The fury aimed at CBS and Orson Welles was true however, and they were accused of being reckless in their broadcasting.
1It Was Not An Isolated Incident
Despite its notoriety, there have been numerous other broadcasts that have had similar effects amongst an unsuspecting population. In fact, a BBC broadcast in 1926, 12 years before Welles’s broadcast, made people all over the UK believe that an uprising was taking place in London and that Big Ben had been blown up.
The BBC also faced criticism for airing a fake documentary on the BBC 2 channel in 2003 called "The Day Britain Stopped" in which Britain’s overstretched transport links failed dramatically leading to hundreds of deaths from the collision of two airliners over a London suburb.
In 2012 and 2013, the Animal Planet channel and the Discovery Channel aired a series of fake documentaries claiming evidence had been found of the existence of mermaids that fooled many people because the only disclaimer that the show was fake was a small line of text in the closing credits.
By far and away the most serious case takes the story back to War of the Worlds as the setting.
In 1949, Welles's 1938 script was reworked for audiences in Ecuador. In the lead-up to the broadcast, a local newspaper published fake stories of numerous UFO sightings in the area where the Martians were to land in Ecuador to reinforce the radio broadcast’s supposed legitimacy when it aired.
Just as happened in the US eleven years earlier, it caused alarm amongst the population but local authorities responded more seriously than their American counterparts, and the emergency services were placed on full alert. When it was revealed that the broadcast was fiction, the fear amongst the people turned to anger resulting in a riot in which at least seven people died including the girlfriend and nephew of one of the producers of the broadcast.
The offices of the radio station and the local newspaper that had printed the fake news reports of flying saucers leading up to the broadcast were both burned to the ground before order was restored.