On This Day: Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds Broadcast

Sunday October 30th, 1938. 8:00 pm US Eastern Standard Time.

The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the air in ‘War of the Worlds’ by H.G. Wells.

And with these innocuous words, a legend was born. Twenty-three year-old wünderkind Orson Welles, and his Mercury Theatre Group, embarked upon an updating and dramatisation of H G Wells‘ great alien invasion story, The War of the Worlds, eschewing the conventional narrative form of the novel for an as-it-happens reportage style – thereby convincing many of those who had tuned in late that the Earth was indeed being invaded by Martians.

It is now part of pop cultural history that Welles’ broadcast caused panic across the United States, with stories of people fleeing their homes, demanding police protection, and calling on utilities companies to turn off the lights to prevent the Martians seeing them. There were even rumours of suicides, although they’ve never been corroborated. As news of the panic filtered back to CBS studios, Orson Welles returned to the air out of character to remind the audience that what they were listening to was only a work of fiction.

Was the hysteria justified? You be the judge . . .