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By Tom Emery
Fake news is a hot-button issue in America today. Years before that term was coined, a seemingly innocent fictional radio broadcast caused panic in the streets.
Monday (Oct. 30) marks the 85th anniversary of the national radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which was misunderstood by many listeners as an actual attack on Earth by Martians. An estimated nine to twelve million Americans were frightened by the broadcast on Oct. 30, 1938, including many in Illinois.
The broadcast on CBS Radio was a dramatic interpretation of the 1898 novel of the same name by British author H.G. Wells. In an era before television, radio was a prime form of entertainment, and millions of Americans tuned in to hear news bulletins, live music, political addresses, and dramatic readings.
The War of the Worlds was the seventeenth broadcast of the CBS series The Mercury Theatre on the Air. Its ratings, though, sorely lagged behind the popular NBC program, The Chase and Sanborn Hour, featuring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, in its time slot at 8 p.m. Sunday evening, the night before Halloween.
The Mercury Theatre was a non-sponsored show, meaning there were no commercials in the hour-long slot. Producers at CBS, as well as actor Orson Welles, who is best known for his 1941 classic Citizen Kane, created an adaptation of Wells’ work with a setting in New Jersey against a backdrop of simulated, live news bulletins.
As listeners tuned in that evening, they heard Welles introduce the play, then read a weather report before switching to orchestra music, said to be live from New York. The fictional nature of the broadcast was announced before, and as many as four times through, the program but, apparently, many Americans never heard it.
As a result, some listeners were surprised when the music shifted to a breaking news bulletin that
“at twenty minutes before eight, Central Time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory” in Chicago reported “several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars.” The report claimed “the spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the Earth with enormous velocity.”
The music resumed before more news bulletins and interviews, along with a “live” news report from Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, where a meteorite had reportedly crashed. A shocked reporter said, “I hardly know where to begin…I guess that’s the thing buried in front of me, half-buried in its vast pit.”
Minutes later, the same announcer breathlessly reported the emergence of a Martian and told the audience “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed…Someone’s crawling out of the hollow top.” The creature was said to have a “V-shaped” mouth with “saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seemed to quiver and pulsate.”
Sounds of screams and explosions followed, with the announcer screaming “the whole field’s caught fire…it’s spreading everywhere.” Since there were no breaks in the show for nearly a half-hour, the suspense only built as more news bulletins told the story of a spreading Martian attack.
In succeeding reports, Martians were said to destroy New Jersey state militia, power stations and infrastructure, and communications before spreading into New York City, where more destruction and havoc followed.
Despite the repeated announcements of the true nature of the broadcast, The War of the Worlds threw many into hysteria. Some raced into the streets while others gathered around family or headed to church for prayer in their “final hours.”
Law enforcement was up in arms as switchboards lit up nationwide, particularly in the East. Scattered suicide attempts were reported, while one young woman in New York reportedly broke her arm as she fell in an attempt to flee.
Though the hysteria was largely in the East, there was plenty of alarm in the Midwest. Southeast of Peoria, a minister ended his Sunday evening services early, telling his congregation that “an alarming news broadcast has just come over the radio, and I suggest that you all go to your homes, where you can better keep in touch with events.”
In Decatur, the switchboard of the daily Herald & Review was “kept busy for nearly 45 minutes” from citizens fearing an invasion from Mars. One local girl was reported to be “hysterical and under the care of a physician.” In Bloomington, the Pantagraph reported that “for several minutes [its] switchboard was swamped with calls,” though apparently the callers kept their wits about them.
Though the episode remains legendary in American culture, recent researchers argue that reaction to The War of the Worlds has been embellished, based on the low ratings of The Mercury Theatre as well as letters received by CBS, the Mercury Theatre staff, and the Federal Communications Commission. Of the 1,770 letters documented by CBS, some 1,086 were positive, as were 91 percent of mailings to The Mercury Theatre production staff.
Among the compliments was a note to the FCC from a twelve-year-old Rockford boy, who wrote “I enjoyed the broadcast of Mr. Welles…I heard about half of it but my mother and sister got frightened and I had to turn it off.”