On This Day

On this day in 1938, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater Company broadcasted an updated version of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” causing panic amongst listeners who confused the show with real news bulletins:

Many people missed or ignored the opening credits of the programme, and in the atmosphere of growing tension and anxiety in the days leading up to the Second World War, took it to be a news broadcast. Contemporary newspapers reported that panic ensued, with people fleeing the area, and others thinking they could smell the poison gas or could see the flashes of the fighting in the distance.

The author Richard J. Hand cites studies by unnamed historians who “calculate[d] that some six million heard the Columbia Broadcasting System broadcast; 1.7 million believed it to be true, and 1.2 million were ‘genuinely frightened'”. (Hand, 7) While Welles and company were heard by a comparatively small audience (Bergen’s audience was an estimated 30 million), the uproar that followed was anything but minute: within a month, there were about 12,500 newspaper articles about the broadcast or its impact (Hand, 7), while Adolf Hitler cited the panic, as Hand writes, as “evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy.” (Hand, 7)

Later studies suggested this “panic” was far less widespread than newspaper accounts suggested. However, it remains clear that many people were caught up — to one degree or another — in the confusion that followed.

You can listen to the broadcast here (direct link to mp3) or read the script here.