Ah, those heady far-off days of October, 1938. The nylon toothbrush just got invented. Hitler hadn’t invaded anyone quite yet. And millions of Americans had the pants scared off them by Orson Welles broadcasting his radio play, The War of the Worlds.
Except, perhaps, they didn’t. Contrary to popular belief, the October 30th broadcast from Mercury Theatre in New York City failed to create a mass panic over alien invasion – in fact, not that many people even heard it the first time around. Polling on the night by a radio audit company found just two per cent of the listening audience was tuned into Welles’ alien drama – and none of them mistook it for a news broadcast. Subsequent surveys of police and hospital records also show a distinct lack of people running wild through the streets or committing suicide in despair at their new Martian overlords.
Strangely, the only people who did seem to think there was a panic all worked for newspapers. Keen to splash headlines promising, “War”, “Panic” and “Terror”, print media went mad for The War of the Worlds, generating something like 12,500 stories worldwide in the months after Welles’ broadcast. They also made sure to slander their counterparts in radio – then a new-fangled competitor on the media landscape – basically implying the medium couldn’t be trusted and was sure to continue creating pandemonium if left unchecked. “Radio is new but it has adult responsibilities,” one New York Times editorial chided. “It has not mastered itself or the material it uses.”
The concocted hysteria sold papers, and made Welles notorious (something he didn’t seem to mind one bit). But despite the panic that wasn’t, the original broadcast is still something to hear. It has drama, it has urgency, it has alien heat rays! And yes, despite what The New York Times might say, it has several mentions that it’s not real. Listen below, if you dare.