Socialist Worker

Orson Welles' War of the Worlds transmission 75 years on

Issue No. 2377

On 30 October 1938 at 8pm CBS radio network in the US transmitted The War of the Worlds. 

The special Halloween edition of The Mercury Theatre went on the air and a legend was born. 

The broadcast, directed and narrated by Orson Welles, was based on a HG Wells novel about a Martian invasion of Earth.

A live concert was interrupted by ever more frightening bulletins. 

It was and is a brilliant and effective drama.

As a 1940 study by the psychologist Hadley Cantril made clear, “For a few horrible hours people from Maine to California thought that hideous monsters armed with death rays were destroying all armed resistance sent against them; that there was simply no escape from danger; that the end of the world was near.” 

One woman ran into an Indianapolis church during a  service and yelled, “New York has been destroyed! 

“It’s the end of the world! Go home and prepare to die!”

Welles said, “It was our thought that perhaps people might be bored or annoyed at hearing a tale so improbable”.

The threat of world war increased fears. But the chaos created by the broadcast was overstated.

An iconic image of the farmer with a gun, ready to shoot the aliens was staged for Life magazine.

Of the people who did mistake the fake news bulletins for real reports, a portion were under the impression that the invaders were Germans. 

Welles was using a newish form of media—radio—and was a leftist. He was attacked by the right wing print press. 

The political commentator Walter Lippmann warned that   “masses without roots” and their “volcanic and hysterical energy” are “the chaos in which the new Caesars are born”.

Regardless of the legend the production is still powerful and entertaining. It can be listened to at  www.mercurytheatre.info


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Tue 29 Oct 2013, 17:25 GMT
Issue No. 2377
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