It happened the day before Halloween, on Oct. 30, 1938, when millions of Americans
tuned in to a popular radio program that featured plays directed by, and often starring,
The performance that evening was an adaptation of the science fiction novel
The War of the Worlds, about a Martian invasion of the earth. But in adapting the book
for a radio play, Welles made an important change: under his direction the play was written
and performed so it would sound like a news broadcast about an invasion from Mars,
a technique that, presumably, was intended to heighten the dramatic effect.
As the play unfolded, dance music was interrupted a number of times by fake news bulletins
reporting that a "huge flaming object" had dropped on a farm near Grovers Mill, New Jersey.
As members of the audience sat on the edge of their collective seat, actors playing news
announcers, officials and other roles one would expect to hear in a news report, described
the landing of an invasion force from Mars and the destruction of the United States.
The broadcast also contained a number of explanations that it was all a radio play, but if
members of the audience missed a brief explanation at the beginning, the next one didn't
arrive until 40 minutes into the program.
At one point in the broadcast, an actor in a studio, playing a newscaster in the field, described
the emergence of one of the aliens from its spacecraft. "Good heavens, something's wriggling out
of the shadow like a gray snake," he said, in an appropriately dramatic tone of voice. "Now
it's another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing's body.
It's large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face. It...it's indescribable. I can hardly
force myself to keep looking at it. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped
with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate....The thing is
raising up. The crowd falls back. They've seen enough. This is the most extraordinary
experience. I can't find words. I'm pulling this microphone with me as I talk. I'll have to
stop the description until I've taken a new position.
Hold on, will you please, I'll be back in a minute."
As it listened to this simulation of a news broadcast, created with voice acting and
sound effects, a portion of the audience concluded that it was hearing an actual news
account of an invasion from Mars. People packed the roads, hid in cellars, loaded guns,
even wrapped their heads in wet towels as protection from Martian poison gas, in an
attempt to defend themselves against aliens, oblivious to the fact that they were acting
out the role of the panic-stricken public that actually belonged in a radio play. People
were stuck in a kind of virtual world in which fiction was confused for fact.
News of the panic (which was conveyed via genuine news reports) quickly generated a
national scandal. There were calls, which never went anywhere, for government regulations of broadcasting to ensure that a similar incident wouldn't happen again. The victims were also subjected to ridicule, a reaction that can commonly be found, today, when people are taken in by simulations.
"All unwittingly, Mr. Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater of the Air have made one of the most fascinating and important demonstrations of all time," she wrote. "They have proved that a
few effective voices, accompanied by sound effects, can convince masses of people of a totally unreasonable, completely fantastic proposition as to create a nation-wide panic.
"They have demonstrated more potently than any argument, demonstrated beyond
a question of a doubt, the appalling dangers and enormous effectiveness of popular
and theatrical demagoguery....
"Hitler managed to scare all of Europe to its knees a month ago, but he at least had an
army and an air force to back up his shrieking words.
"But Mr. Welles scared thousands into demoralization with nothing at all."