Doomsday arrived on Oct. 30, 1938, when poisonous black gas crept through New Jersey, ray guns shot flames across New York City and killing machines from Mars took over the nation.
Or, that’s what nearly 1 million radio listeners thought, at least.
Wednesday marks the 75th anniversary of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast, an episode from CBS’s The Mercury Theatre on the Air and an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel. The show, a fake news report of alien invaders from Mars, struck fear into the nation as listeners were convinced the fictional story was a very real, live broadcast.
“This is the most famous media event in history,” American Experience Executive Producer Mark Samel told Mashable.
“It showed us that fear can overcome even the most rational parts of our brains.”
Welles was just 23 years old at the time. Two nights before the broadcast, he scrapped much of the original script, believing the simple retelling of H.G. Well’s story was too boring, Samel said. Instead, he found a creative way to make listeners pay attention.
At 8 p.m. on Halloween’s eve, the 1938 show started with a weather report and a swing band number before scripted “breaking news” reports of invading tripods interrupted the broadcast.
The host reported that 7,000 soldiers and a fleet of army planes were called in to fight off the invaders. The military’s effort was unsuccessful.
“They wrecked the greatest country in the world,” one interviewee said in the show. “There isn’t anything to do. We’re done. We’re licked.”
The hour-long broadcast concluded with Welles breaking character to assure listeners that what they had just heard was just a Halloween prank, but the warning came too late for many listeners.
The following morning, Halloween 1938, The New York Daily News reported “unbelievable scenes of terror in New York, New Jersey, the South and as far west as San Francisco.”
“Without waiting for further details, thousands of listeners rushed from their homes in New York and New Jersey, many with towels across their faces to protect themselves from ‘gas’ which the invader was supposed to be spewing forth,” the original article said.
The New York Daily News report continued: 15 people were treated for shock in a New Jersey hospital, and a woman in Pittsburg tried to commit suicide upon hearing of the “attack.”
However, there are conflicting reports about the scale of the reaction. Newspapers especially have been accused of exaggerating the situation, Samels said.
“There was a great variety of reactions, not one mass panic,” he said. “Some panicked. Some were confused.”
Samels explained that people in 1938 weren’t gullible. The confusion and fear came from a perfect storm of emotions and events. These people were living through the Great Depression and witnessed the beginning tensions that would lead to World War II. They became used to breaking news interruptions to report the worst, such as the Hindenburg disaster, and just months before, scientists began speculating about life on Mars.
“Imagine being jolted like that economically and politically,” he said. “All of these possibilities are up in the air. This spoke to an already anxious country.”