“At least forty people, including six state troopers, lie dead in a field east of Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, their bodies burned and distorted beyond recognition.”1 These were the words heard on the night of October 30, 1938 in homes all over the United States. It was the night before Halloween and the Mercury Theatre on the Air radio show wanted to give listeners a fright in celebration of the upcoming holiday.2 What was meant as a scary story in good fun, sent the listeners of the broadcast into a full blown panic.
The live on air radio production was an adapted story from H.G. Wells’s famous novel, The War of the Worlds. In the novel, the setting takes place in England, and a league of alien spaceships, first thought to be shooting stars and meteors, begin to land. People in the surrounding area grow curious, and decide to venture out and see what all the commotion is. As a man approaches one of the meteors, he realizes it is in fact not a meteor but a hollowed out cylinder. Soon a hatch on the cylinder begins to open and a huge, disgusting creature with long gray tentacles emerges. People begin to flee their homes and panic spreads throughout the town and later throughout England. The aliens attack for weeks, feeding on the blood of humans until finally meeting their deadly fate and falling victim to human bacteria.3
Actor and filmmaker Orson Welles teamed up with one of Mercury Theartre’s writers, Howard Koch to broadcast the show over the CBS radio network. Listeners were enjoying dance music when their program was suddenly interrupted by a report of a meteorite landing. To make the story even more believable, Koch decided to alter the script and changed the location from England to a small village in New Jersey.4 Much of the rest of the story was unchanged and there were “reports” of huge creatures wreaking havoc on the town and killing people with their death rays and poisonous gas. Koch took the story even further and had an actor play the part of a reporter who was live in Time Square and reporting the devastation and destruction of New York City before falling dead himself at the microphone due to an alien attack.5 Another actor on the show who was asked to play an anonymous politician, was able to alter his voice in such a way as to sound almost identical to President Theodore Roosevelt. The “politician” declared a state of emergency and stated that troops were being sent in to help stop the invaders.6
It may seem peculiar that anyone would believe this story as factual, but that is exactly what happened. Koch was careful to make sure there were no commercial interruptions during the program to lend even more authenticity to the special report. There were reports of people all over the East Coast fleeing their homes and some adorned with gas masks remembering that the masks had once been used as a defense against gas warfare in WWI.7 Two geologists from Princeton rushed to the site of the reported meteor landing to get their hands on samples, only to find all was well in the area.8 Radio and newspaper stations were flooded with inquiries about the events reported, demanding to know what was happening. Why would anyone allow themselves to become worked up over a little scary story such as this? To answer that question, one must simply look at the events throughout history prior to and those that transpired during the early 1930s.
The stock market crash of 1929 opened the doors to the Great Depression, which was a time when America saw rates of high unemployment, lower salaries, and increased poverty. In 1937 the German airship, Hindenburg, sailed from Frankfurt, Germany to New Jersey and exploded upon its arrival, killing 36 of its crew and passengers. Between 1934 and 1937, the Midwest experienced a period of drought, loose soil, and high winds resulting in the Dust Bowl, leaving thousands of farmers without crops or livestock for several years. War machines being created in both Germany and Japan caused rising tensions, and people throughout the world were on high alert for a possible attack. The Munich Crisis had recently been broadcast by radio throughout America, and citizens were on alert for invasion.9
Taking into consideration all that had recently transpired in America, one can see why a story of invasion was taken seriously and how it could easily send the country into panic. Sociologist Hadley Cantril said it best when he described the actions of the American people as “anxiety latent in the general population caused by years of economic depression.”10 Even though listeners were told four times during the broadcast that what they were hearing was a dramatization of Wells’s famous novel, the American people were already in such a panic, most did not even hear those words.
Unlike today, news was delivered much slower in the 1930s. People did not have access to social media the way we do today. The War of the Worlds radio broadcast linked Orson Welles to the greatest hoax in the history of broadcasting at the time. If something such as this were to happen in the news today, with the limitless sources to media available, the story would be quickly exposed as the fictional tale it is. The Federal Communications Commission investigated the program, but no laws had been broken and the Mercury Theatre faced no charges. The program had done its job and terrified the American people. At the time the show aired, Americans were still on edge about the possibility of war and this show exposed the fragility of American life.