The day is 30th October 1938 and there’s a strange broadcast on the radio. It goes on to state that a huge meteorite had hit a farm in New Jersey and now New York was under attack from Martians. Cue mass panic and the faint sound of infamous director Orson Welles chuckling quietly to himself.
Yes, on this day 80 years ago Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre group were pulling off one of the largest hoaxes ever conducted and convincing, whether intentionally or not, a huge chunk of the American population that they were under attack by aliens. The truth is that they were in fact just being treated to Welles’, now acclaimed, a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ sci-fi novel from 40 years before titled ‘The War of the Worlds’.
In fairness to those grabbing their guns and shooting wildly at the sky, the Welles adaptation had been written and performed as if the attack were real and they were conducting a news bulletin to the masses.
Thousands of people called police and media outlets asking desperately for ways to flee their city or escape the gas attack, with scores of adults medically treated for shock and hysteria.
Many historians say the hoax worked because the broadcast authentically simulated how radio worked in an emergency. “Audiences heard their regularly scheduled broadcast interrupted by breaking news,” said Michele Hilmes, a communications professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and author of Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922-1952.
Stations then cut to a live reporter on the scene of the invasion in New Jersey. “By the end of the first half of the program, the radio studios themselves were under attack,” Hilmes said.
But in fact, had they been on time to listen to the introduction of the programme they would’ve found the group and CBS radio clearly explain that the upcoming play was an adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel. However, most of the audience was at the time tuning into a rival network to hear the popular Chase and Sanborn Hour.
Aside from all the intrigue, what we’ve found very interesting on the anniversary of such an event is that not only how comparable an iPhone alert simulation would be for our society today (can you imagine the hysteria!?) but also the cool, calm and collected approach Welles took to such a highly charged event.
Take a look at these behind the scenes images of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre group performing one of the greatest hoaxes of all time.