War of the Worlds: A Halloween Prank?

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This material is not for the faint-hearted. You have been warned.

Enter the radio Twilight Zone with Florida Sailor. He takes you back to yesteryear. . .

'War of the Worlds' A Halloween Prank?

HG Wells

On Sunday, 30 October 1938, millions of Americans gathered around their radio receivers for the latest entertainment. The most popular show at 8:00 PM was the 'Chase and Sanborn Hour' on Red Net, featuring Edgar Bergen and his ventriloquist’s dummy Charlie McCarthy. On another station Orson Welles' 'Mercury Theatre' on CBS was a close second.

While most of the listeners were laughing at the exploits of Charlie McCarthy, the 'Mercury Theatre' opened with its usual introduction and promised their own interpretation of HG Welles1 1898 Science fiction novel. This was followed by an emphatic announcement that all that would follow will be a pure work of fiction.

It was about 8:12 that the 'Chase and Sanborn Hour' presented an act that proved to be unpopular, whether a song or sketch makes no difference, much of the audience tuned to CBS just in time to learn of the Martian invasion. The invasion site had been moved from Victorian London to Grover Mills New Jersey, not far from the radio studio in New York City.

The format of the presentation was a live broadcast from a local2 ballroom featuring the bands performance. The music was regularly interrupted by 'experts' and 'reporters' breaking in to to tell in panicked tones of the progress of the Martian Invasion. The Martian army seemed to travel the 60 miles to the streets surrounding the studio in less than 30 minutes.

Although at each commercial break for advertisements another disclaimer was issued, it appears that many had already fled to the streets. The panic that followed is legend, if not in part, urban myth.

There are reports of thousands fleeing their homes, many taking to the roads in flight. Police telephone switchboards were flooded with calls begging for more information about the invasion.

End of the Broadcast

Orson Welles summed up his purpose of the broadcast in his conclusion;

This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that The War of The Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo! Starting now, we couldn't soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night. . . so we did the best next thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears,
and utterly destroyed the C. B. S. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn't mean it,
and that both institutions are still open for business. So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian. . .it's Hallowe'en.


The public reaction to this single broadcast has had far-ranging repercussions from tighter broadcast regulations, both from the government and private employers. While freedom of speech is a fundamental right in the United States, certain exceptions have been established by the Supreme Court. You can not falsely shout 'Fire!' in a crowded theatre, as your 'free speech' may cause serious injury, or death. For a nation on the brink of the second World War, this was a serious concern.

The official outcome was that the panic was an accidental. However all plays, Theatrical, Radio of Film are based on time, especially those supported by commercial interruption. The fact that people often switch stations if they become board was well known. In light of Welles' closing remark, did he carefully place the most alarming remarks at points of the broadcast at points where new listeners were likely, and well removed from the disclaimers? If this is true the broadcast was one of the greatest Halloween pranks of all time.

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1No relation.2New York City.

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