What Inspired the Radio Program that Terrified America?

War of the Worlds, Orson Welles, Air Raid, Archibald MacLeish

It was 72 hours before they were to go on the air. Because of his busy schedule with other projects, the director was only then getting his chance to review the script and listen to a recording of the rehearsal of the show. After listening to the recording, he proclaimed the show “exceedingly dull.” Something would have to be done to make the show interesting, and with less than three days remaining until the live broadcast, time was running out. Little did he know that his decisions in the next few hours would make history and terrify a nation.

At 23 years of age, the director had the energy of youth, but his popularity and demand as a radio and stage actor found him uncharacteristically drained on this particular evening. With his imagination searching for some way to make Sunday night’s program worthwhile, he decided to indulge himself with a little entertainment and a few minutes’ needed rest.

At 10:00 p.m. on October 27, 1938, he turned on the radio and listened to Air Raid, a radio dramatization by Archibald MacLeish. The program was unlike other radio shows of the time. This one employed live news-style reports to describe unexpected air attacks over a city. Although fiction, the program capitalized on the growing clouds of war in Europe. The director was mesmerized.

Suddenly an idea struck him. Seizing the script he found so dull a short time earlier, he began to reimagine it. What if, instead of it being a modern retelling of a popular science fiction novel, it were to incorporate the same elements that made Air Raid so compelling?

Brimming with excitement, the young man got to work rewriting the program. It would involve a lot of work from his supporting cast and crew to pull it all together, but the managed to do so.

On Sunday, October 30, 1938, the Mercury Theater on the Air, under the direction of its young director, Orson Welles, presented its hastily-rewritten production, The War of the Worlds, on CBS. That program made history with its breathless news flashes of a Martian invasion. The country tuned in, and panic built, as listeners heard the shocking reports of the vanguard of the invading alien army overwhelming the state militia at Grovers Mill, New Jersey.

By incorporating the live-news elements of Air Raid, Welles presented a drama that was so compelling and believable that millions who missed the first couple of minutes of the program thought they were actually hearing news reports of the beginning of the end of the world. Over the next few hours, panic gripped much of America.

Recent scholarship has cast some doubt on the extent of the panic and whether the reports were overblown. What has been documented, however, are the following:

  • A Radiolab survey concluded approximately 12 million people were listening to The War of the Worlds, with one out of 12 believing it to be real for some amount of time.
  • Worship services in an Indianapolis, Indiana church were disrupted when a woman ran in, yelling that the world was coming to an end.
  • CBS switchboards were flooded with incoming calls, causing networks executives to order an immediate announcement that the program was fictional.
  • The mayor of a Midwestern town called the studio, reporting that mobs will filling the streets.
  • Police departments across the country reported receiving countless calls from concerned citizens.
  • Jack Paar, who would go on to become the second host of NBC’s The Tonight Show, recalled trying to calm panicked listeners who kept calling the CBS station in Cleveland, Ohio. “The world is not coming to an end,” Paar reassured the callers. “When have I ever lied to you?” Callers kept accusing him of trying to cover up the truth.
  • The town of Concrete, Washington abruptly lost telephone and electrical service in the middle of the program, trigger panic among the residents and those who were unsuccessful in being able to contact them.
  • 12,500 articles appeared in newspapers in the next three weeks, addressing the panic.
  • Residents of Grovers Mill, New Jersey, attempted to flee the community, causing a very rare traffic jam.
  • 20 families in Newark, New Jersey rushed from their houses with wet towels over their faces to protect themselves from the alien gas attacks.
  • A Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania woman narrowly escaped death when her husband stopped her from committing suicide, having declared that she preferred poison to alien heat rays.
  • Eleven years later the program was rebroadcast in Quito, Ecuador. People panicked and became enraged, storming the radio studio and setting fire to it, killing 15 people trapped inside.

Listen to Air Raid, the drama that inspired Orson Welles to re-envision The War of the Worlds.

Listen to The War of the Worlds, as it was heard by the public on October 30, 1938.

Read more fun facts about Old Time Radio.

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