By MARK TODD - email@example.com
It might be the biggest Halloween prank in the history of broadcasting.
Long before so-called reality television, in 1938 a “reality” radio show in 1938 spawned a nationwide panic. Tonight marks the 75th anniversary of Orson Welles’ infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast, a program so authentic — and disturbing — that millions truly believed a Martian invasion had begun in New Jersey.
Police stations were flooded with calls and newspapers were filled with accounts of panicked people convinced they saw little green men in their back yards.
The historic broadcast was the brainchild of Orson Welles, whose Mercury Theater players adapted H.G. Well’s science fiction classic for the radio. It aired on Oct. 30, one day before Halloween.
The show began like a typical musical program, only to be interrupted by a “newsman” who told listeners that large cylinders had fallen in a portion of rural New Jersey. The rest of the program featured “live-from-the scene” description of creatures that emerged from the space ships and were incinerating people with death rays.
Before the show began, people were told what was to follow was a dramatization of the novel, and at least two times during the program announcers reminded listeners that the broadcast was fiction.
But those warnings wasn’t heard by millions of Americans who had been listening to a competing show and joined “War of the Worlds” already in progress. All they heard were reports that Martians were ravaging the New Jersey countryside and making their way to New York City.
Newspapers had a field day with the story. Both the Star Beacon and Conneaut News-Herald carried front page stories about the panic that ensued. “Hysteria prevails,” read a subhead on the Star Beacon article.
The Conneaut News-Herald was more dramatic. “Conneaut was flushed with excitement and mass hysteria swept the nation Sunday night when a too-realistic radio broadcast described an imaginary national catastrophe — invasion of the United States by an army from the planet Mars.
Neither paper mentioned readers reacted to the program. Locally, it appears everyone took the show in stride, unlike other people across the country. The local newspapers told of a Indianapolis woman who ran down the aisle of her church screaming “The world is coming to an end!”
Diners fled half-eaten meals in a Chicago restaurant, while three people fainted while placing calls to police in Toledo, the papers reported. In news accounts at the time, of the estimated six million people who listened to the show, 1.7 million believed it was true and 1.2 million were “genuinely frightened” by the show.
Today, experts believe the broadcast struck a nerve with Americans already jittery about Hitler, Mussolini and talk of pending war in Europe.
The Federal Communications Communication investigated and found no fault with CBS, the network that carried the program. CBS was sued by numerous people but all cases were dismissed except one — a Massachusetts man who wanted to be reimbursed money he had been saving for a new pair of shoes. The man spent the cash escaping Martians, he claimed.
Orson Welles himself insisted the man be given his shoe money, according to news accounts.