Seventy-nine years ago, on Halloween eve, director Orson Wells pulled off one of the great media hoaxes of all time with a radio broadcast that scared the beejesus out of millions of listeners who believed that Martians had invaded New Jersey. (New Jersey?)
A front-page story in The New York Times read:
“Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact; Many Flee Homes to Escape ‘Gas Raid From Mars’ ”
(Yes, but New Jersey!?)
As The Times reported, the following day (Oct. 31, 1938), “The radio play, as presented was to simulate a regular radio program with a ‘break-in’ for the material of the play. The radio listeners apparently, missed or did not listen to the introduction, which was: ‘The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air in “The War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells.’
“They also failed to associate the program with the newspaper listing of the program, [and] ignored three additional announcements made during the broadcast emphasizing its fictional nature.”
In 2013, TV Guide interviewed Welles friend, director Peter Bogdanovich, about the pivotal event that changed the young Welles career.
“The audience was primed to react,” Bogdanovich said, “in such an extreme way to Orson’s radio show because there was already a lot of alarming stuff coming through the radio on a regular basis — from the news about the Great Depression to Hitler’s growing power in Europe to the crash of The Hindenburg.
“It was a very shaky time and people were ready to bolt. Orson’s broadcast was an extraordinary event to the point where it still reverberates to this day. We keep talking about it, making programs about it, and wondering, ‘How could this have happened?’ It must have been quite something at the time!”
TV Guide Magazine: Though listeners were alerted that this radio show — adapted from the H.G. Wells novel — was only a dramatization, anyone joining the broadcast in progress wouldn’t know about the disclaimer. Welles had to be aware of that. Was he secretly hoping to cause a fuss?
“He expected something,” Bogdanovich said, “but he certainly wasn’t expecting that kind of an uproar. He knew it could be big because he took the idea of doing a fake news broadcast from someone who’d done something similar in Spain the year before. Now fake news is against FCC rules. The guy in Spain went to jail for what he did and Orson, himself, landed in a lot of legal hot water. But he didn’t go to jail. Instead, he went to Hollywood.
“I remember asking Orson what he thought of [that broadcast] and he said he’d always considered it one of his lesser efforts. And, if you listen to the whole thing, it isn’t anywhere near as good, in terms of compelling drama, as many of his other radio shows. Once the Martian catastrophe happens and the news announcer’s mike goes dead, from then on, the show isn’t all that interesting. But, by then, it didn’t much matter. Everyone was terrified!
“He did so many brilliant, extraordinary shows on radio, Bogdanovich adds. “In fact, Citizen Kane owes a lot to the radio days. The score, for example, is a typical radio score, and his use of overlapping dialogue is something he’d pioneered in radio and in the theater.”
Nonetheless, “Police precincts and newspapers were inundated with calls. The Times alone received 875 that night; one man who called from Dayton, Ohio, asked, “What time will it be the end of the world?”
As for “Fake News,” we’re only now learning that Russia reached as many as 126 million users on Facebook and published 131,000 phony messages on Twitter in order to disrupt the 2016 election.