Before his ascendancy to cinematic genius, Orson Welles was just a fledgling director in New Deal America. But in 1938, the man who later brought the world "Citizen Kane" caused quite a stir when his pre-Halloween radio drama struck terror in the hearts of Americans nationwide, who believed that what they heard was real.
At the time, Welles, who was just 23, was the director of a New York City-based program called "Mercury Theatre on the Air." It was a radio show featuring a renowned New York drama company founded by Welles and John Houseman (best known for his role in ''The Paper Chase"). But it's most remembered for that infamous night of Oct. 30, 1938, when Welles and the troupe updated H.G. Wells' 19th-century science fiction novel "War of the Worlds" for the national radio program's Halloween episode.
Before the era of Netflix and chill, families sat in front of their radios and listened to music, the news, plays and other shows for enjoyment. In 1938, Sunday evenings were one of the most popular times for radio programming. But Welles was competing for an audience with the prime time ratings winner, a show called the "Chase and Sanborn Hour," starring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, which also aired at 8 p.m.
That's why Welles got the idea to adapt "War of the Worlds" from Victorian England to present day New England — in hopes of reviving the story and gaining new listeners.
The Show Began
On Sunday, Oct. 30, 1938, at 8 p.m., the broadcast began. An announcer came on the air live and said:
Next Welles came back on the air, as always, to set the scene for the play. His introduction was followed by an official-sounding weather report that was credited to the Government Weather Bureau. Then, almost out of nowhere, the announcer tells listeners the broadcast is cutting to "the Meridian Room in the Hotel Park Plaza in downtown New York, where you will be entertained by the music of Ramon Raquello and his orchestra."
Nothing sounds out of the ordinary to radio listeners. But in actuality, everything is completely scripted and broadcast from the Mercury Theatre.
Things Got Really Hairy
To make the broadcast sound as authentic as possible, the show was continually interrupted with a series of "news bulletins." The bulletins began suddenly, first breaking in on the orchestra music supposedly playing from New York's Meridian Room. The bulletin reported that a professor at the Mount Jennings Observatory in Chicago saw explosions on Mars. Then a second, even more official sounding news bulletin, included a "live interview" with astronomer Richard Pierson from the Princeton Observatory in Princeton, New Jersey.
What follows is the actual question and answer session between "Carl Phillips" and "astronomer Richard Pierson" that listeners heard:
Pierson: Certainly, Mr. Phillips.
Phillips: Ladies and gentlemen, I shall read you a wire addressed to Professor Pierson from Dr. Gray of the National History Museum, New York. "9:15 P. M. Eastern Standard Time. Seismograph registered shock of almost earthquake intensity occurring within a radius of 20 miles of Princeton. Please investigate. Signed, Lloyd Gray, Chief of Astronomical Division" ... Professor Pierson, could this occurrence possibly have something to do with the disturbances observed on the planet Mars?
Pierson: Hardly, Mr. Phillips. This is probably a meteorite of unusual size and its arrival at this particular time is merely a coincidence. However, we shall conduct a search, as soon as daylight permits.
Phillips: Thank you, Professor. Ladies and gentlemen, for the past 10 minutes we've been speaking to you from the observatory at Princeton, bringing you a special interview with Professor Pierson, noted astronomer. This is Carl Phillips speaking. We are returning you now to our New York studio.
Martians Invaded Grovers Mill
The next "bulletin" announced more explosions on Mars, and then Welles and his theatrical troupe announced that at "8:50 p.m. a huge, flaming object, believed to be a meteorite, fell on a farm in the neighborhood of Grovers Mill, New Jersey, 22 miles from Trenton."
The same Carl Phillips and Professor Pierson (who were live at the observatory in Princeton, New Jersey) almost immediately began reporting from Grovers Mill. Phillips described the scene:
Then new characters entered the "scene:" policemen, citizens of Grovers Mill, the owner of the farm where the meteor crash landed. These citizens were gathering at the crash site to view the commotion, and began describing how they were zapped by the object's heat ray. And then Phillips again reported what he saw:
Screams are heard, as are strange hissing and humming noises. Then explosions. And finally silence. A polite radio announcer said they'd lost communications with Grovers Mill and the broadcast faded to piano. Then suddenly a second announcer dropped this bombshell:
How Did Welles Make Listeners Believe?
By the middle of the hourlong program, hundreds of thousands of Americans had bought the hoax, believing that Martians had landed on Earth. Welles wanted panic, and that's exactly what he got. But, how did he succeed in creating mass hysteria via the airwaves? Why did a radio play intended for Halloween leave its listeners so spooked?
The broadcast's effects were attributed to two primary factors: format and timing. Welles wanted an authentic sound for the program and achieved it by creating a series of news bulletins describing the alien invasion as it was supposedly happening. The bulletins interrupted a seemingly ordinary music show to inform listeners of the invasion. More bulletins rushed in from around the country reporting Martian sightings. It even included a fake "Secretary of the Interior" in Washington, D.C., who urged people to stay calm, as Martians were destroying cities.
After the broadcast supposedly cut out from CBS headquarters, an announcement finally came that the plot was only fiction. Welles intentionally withheld this reminder from the middle section of the show, so that anyone tuning in after the introduction had no idea of the hoax. For nearly 30 minutes, from the initial reports of explosions on Mars to the lost signals from Manhattan, there were no disclaimers.
He also knew when the first sketch on "Chase and Sanborn" ended, many listeners would turn their dials to his program to hear the musical interlude. Just as NBC listeners did that, they heard the reports from Grovers Mill on CBS, and had no idea that the alien invasion story was fake.
In an era when Americans believed everything they heard on the radio, many were livid upon learning of the trickery. Thousands called radio stations, police and newspapers. Many in the New England area fled their homes. While the broadcast received harsh criticism for sending people into a frenzy, the event took its infamous place in popular culture almost instantly. To this day, there are allusions, in both film and literature, to the night when Orson Welles pulled the greatest prank in the history of radio.