Seventy-six years ago Thursday, millions of Americans tuned in to their regular nighttime broadcast and got some rather shocking news. A panicked newscaster informed the masses that Martians had landed in the small town of Grovers Mill, N.J., and 7,000 US soldiers had been deployed to fight off the invaders.
The broadcast was really actor Orson Welles performing a modern American interpretation of H.G. Wells’ novel “War of the Worlds,” but most listeners had tuned in too late to hear the play’s introductory announcement.
“Within a couple of minutes of the first death and destruction bulletin the telephone calls began pouring in,” The New York Daily News reported on Oct. 31, 1938, the day after the broadcast . “Many of the callers seemed on the point of hysteria. One woman said she has relatives in the ‘stricken’ section of New Jersey and wanted to know if their names were on the casualty lists.”
Though the accuracy of its reports has been brought into question, the next day The New York Daily News reported that Newark’s St. Michael’s Hospital had treated 15 people for shock, while churches throughout the tri-state area filled with people seeking comfort and protection.
Last year, PBS premiered “War of the Worlds,” a documentary presented by “American Experience” that explains the hoax in the context of the late 1930s, an era marked by the crash of the stock market, economic depression, and threats of an upcoming war.
“I think there’s a concept that maybe people back then weren’t as media savvy, or as smart as we are now, but I hope that this documentary shows that that just wasn’t true,” producer and director Cathleen O’Connell told Insider. “The Depression had been wreaking havoc on the economy and on people’s psychology, so people had a lot of anxiety about that.”
As there was little information about the possibility of extraterrestrial life at the time, listeners had no reason not to believe the fake report, which featured testimony from fake sources that claimed to be professors at Princeton University or the governor of New Jersey.
Still, O’Connell noted that the broadcasters had nothing but the best intentions.
“It wasn’t meant to be a hoax. It was just part of an ongoing CBS program that adapted books for the radio,” O’Connell said. “Crafting a play that combined a book from the 1800s and modern news bulletins was certainly edgy and artistic, but I don’t think it was part of any plan.”
The broadcast turned out to be a turning point for 23-year-old Welles’ acting career, landing him on the front page of newspapers across the country.
“I think Orson Welles was genuinely shocked at the response and concerned that people were hurt,” O’Connell said. “But when all of this publicity came his way, he saw the opportunity and made the most of it.”
You can listen to the entire “War of the Worlds” broadcast here:
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