Halloween is a holiday often associated with weird and scary things. Of course we understand these things are not real. But that was not the case on October 30, 1938. For many people that day, fiction became reality, causing otherwise normal people to behave totally irrationally.
It began with a radio show and a young actor named Orson Welles, a child prodigy, gifted in writing, acting, and directing. At 23, Orson became director of a radio show that aired on CBS, called “The Mercury Theater” that dramatized stories by using sound effects and the voices of famous actors. Welles wanted to adapt a novel, making it seem like it was actually happening as the show aired. He eventually chose War of the Worlds, a science fiction novel written by H. G. Wells about aliens and space invasions. Orson decided to air the dramatized broadcast the day before Halloween, on October 30th. His idea was to rewrite the book as a fake news broadcast, formatted as a play-by-play of events to make it seem real to listeners.
As the show began, an announcer introduced the program, explaining that it was based on the 1898 sci-fi novel War of the Worlds. But millions of people tuned in late, missing this announcement. All they heard were the increasingly alarming fake news broadcasts about a Martian army with giant space vehicles landing in Grover’s Mill, a tiny town in New Jersey. The Martians were supposedly destroying Newark, NJ, and New York City, NY.
The announcers (well-known actors, including Welles himself) read fake news bulletins about the aliens sending out “heat rays” that killed everything in their path. Supposedly, the U.S. military was fighting them, facing heavy losses as the “heat rays” decimated their forces.
Many listeners believed the broadcast was real. They panicked, thinking that the end of the world had arrived at the hands of aliens from outer space. Thousands got into their cars and fled, fearing a poisonous gas attack from Mars.
In Newark, the panic caused traffic jams. Emergency phone lines became jammed from all the panicked citizens trying to call them. Many people had to be treated for shock. Even politicians and other famous people believed the fake news broadcast. Geologists from Princeton University began looking for a Martian meteor that had supposedly landed in Grover’s Mill.
All this hysteria took place in less than an hour. Halfway through the show, CBS production supervisor Davidson Taylor suggested that Orson Welles remind listeners that the show was just a reenactment. But Welles waited until the end of the hour-long broadcast. By then, pandemonium had already spread. Questioned by police and reporters afterwards, Welles unconvincingly claimed to be totally innocent of the chaos he had caused.
Ironically, the notoriety that Welles received from the broadcast launched his Hollywood career. He would later go on to direct and act in the movie classic Citizen Kane, as well as other movies.