The Great Radio Hoax

As presented by Orson Welles and his Mercury Players.

Everybody knows this story, how the perverse genius of Orson Welles caused mass panic across the United States of America with a radio play which was made to sound like an incredibly realistic sounding Martian invasion. That’s the story which has been handed on down over the decades since 1938, and indeed remains received wisdom yet with a great many people.

More recently however the actual effect this broadcast had has been seriously disputed. For example in this article: The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic.

The War of the Worlds is an episode of the drama anthology series, The Mercury Theater on the Air. It was aired as a Halloween episode on Sunday, October 30, 1938 by the the Columbia Broadcasting System network. Directed and narrated by Orson Welles, the episode was an adaptation of the H. G. Wells novel, The War of the Worlds that moved the story from the UK to the USA.

As appealing as I find the idea of Wells’ story taking in so many thousands of people who had been looking down their noses at science fiction I can’t bring myself to believe it. The prosaic alternative, that the supposed mass panic was in reality a beat-up by a newspaper industry hoping to scare advertisers away from radio back to print by labelling the former ‘irresponsible and untrustworthy’, seems far more likely to me. (Not surprisingly while CBS was keen to refute such newspaper claims Orson Wells was happy to play along in return for the massive amount of personal publicity it gave him.)

Now as it happens I recently discovered a small piece of evidence to back up my preferred assumption. In the March 1942 issue of Leprechaun is an article by Gerry de la Ree all about this incident. This is the Gerry de la Ree who later went on to publish books such as The Book of Virgil Finlay, A Hannes Bok Sketchbook, and Fantasy by Fabian: The Art of Stephen E. Fabian by the way. In his article de la Ree repeats most of the claims that appeared in the papers; injured people were admitted to hospital in New York, Minneapolis switchboards were inundated by calls, hundreds were fleeing by car in New Jersey. However amongst all this second-hand reporting Gerry de la Ree describes his own encounter with The Mercury Theater’s Halloween production. I suspect this hits closer to the mark than any of the newspaper hysteria.

‘I was among the thousands who heard that particular Halloween broadcast, and I believe that my explanation of why so many people were caught unaware of the falseness of the tale is the nearest to being correct.

The Mercury Theater went on the air at 8:00 P.M., Eastern Standard Time, at the same time that the Charlie McCarthy program began on another network. Many people turned to the McCarthy program and listened to Edgar Bergen and his Stooge crack jokes for the first five minutes, and then switched the dial – – – to the Orson Welles program in many cases.

If this happened to be the case, they got in on it just in time to hear an interlude of dance music interrupted with a news bulletin, which sounded exceptionally realistic. It was announced that a strange meteor had landed at Grovers Mills, N.J., and a few minutes later still another bulletin came through stating that huge creatures, presumably Martians, were emerging from this strange capsule.

Before long, people had their ears glued to the radio, hearing of terrible disasters in and around New Jersey. I, for one, like thousands of others , had never read The War of the Worlds, and this, coupled with the fact that I had just finished a copy of Amazing Stories, made it seem quite possible to me.

However, after turning the dial to other stations, I dismissed this idea, as all other networks were continuing with their scheduled broadcasts. A few minutes later the program was switched to Princeton University, where a professor was supposed to give his explanation of the invasion. The professor was Orson Welles, and this was the final tip-off, as far as I was concerned.’

Gerry de la Ree concluded his article with the thought that being a reader science fiction had shielded him from the hysteria of his fellow citizens but I suspect that it might also occur to people not familiar with science fiction to turn the dial on their radios in search of a little confirmation with much the same results.

The night America panicked? Perhaps not.

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