On 30 October 1938, Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcast their most famous drama, an adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Popular myth has it that mass panic broke out in the U.S., but historical research has shown this is unsubstantiated nonsense.
A tiny number of people in the rather small listening audience were legitimately scared, due to not tuning in from the start, and then not having any commercial breaks for a long time. The drama also played into very real fears about goings-on in the world.
Just what was it about this story that’s captivated the popular imagination for 80 years, and keeps alive this complete myth?
Mercury Theatre ran for 22 episodes, 11 July–4 December 1938, and adapted short stories, plays, and novels. Among their other stories were Oliver Twist, Dracula, Heart of Darkness, The Pickwick Papers, and Julius Caesar. Mercury Theatre was an indie company created by Orson Welles, in business from 1937–46.
After their first radio program ended, they returned from 9 December 1938–31 March 1940, as The Campbell Playhouse, with 56 episodes, again adapting classic works of literature. Their last hurrah was The Mercury Summer Theatre of the Air, with 15 episodes, from 7 June–13 September 1946.
Mercury Theatre began Mondays at 9 PM on CBS, and later moved to Sundays at 8 PM. This schedule change put it into direct competition with the hugely popular Chase and Sanborn Hour. Some people tuned in to C&S first, and switched to Mercury Theatre when the first musical interlude started, but historical research has shown there was NOT a mass exodus on that famous night.
The story is set on 30 October 1939, and begins with Orson Welles making it obvious this is a fictional story. Then there’s a musical interlude, followed by an announcement about explosions on Mars. The music quickly returns.
The announcer says there’ll be an interview with a Prof. Pierson of Princeton re: the explosions soon, and the music continues.
Prof. Pierson (Welles) doesn’t think the explosions are particularly worrying, in spite of their unusualness. He soon gets a telegram about an explosion near Princeton, but still doesn’t see any reason to worry. The music returns.
The announcer returns, saying a meteorite has landed in a farm in Grover’s Mill, NJ. More music follows, and then things begin getting more intense.
A huge crowd has gathered in Grover’s Mill by the time Prof. Pierson and reporter Carl Phillips arrive. Prof. Pierson doesn’t think it’s a meteorite, since it’s so bizarre, and in one piece.
Mass panic begins, and tentacle-like objects emerge from the strange object. It’s a monstrous Martian.
Another musical interlude follows, and then we return to the increasing fear and panic. Martians respond to a white flag of truce with a flame-throwing heat-ray.
The announcer still doesn’t think there’s anything to panic about, and the piano interlude continues. Presently, there’s a report about the deaths of at least six state troopers. State militia are on their way to Grover’s Mill, and Prof. Pierson sets up an emergency outlook post in a nearby building.
News bulletins start streaming in from all over NJ, PA, and NY, and things go from bad to outright nightmarish. The entire country is soon locked in mass panic.
Forty minutes into the show, there’s finally another commercial break, announcing this is a radio production of The War of the Worlds by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre.
The next voice we hear is Prof. Pierson’s, who’s hiding out in an abandoned house and convinced he might be the last living being left on Earth.
Prof. Pierson makes his way to Newark (which was a much nicer city in that era), where he finds a militiaman with horrific updates about the Martians. The militiaman plans to move underground and find other survivors, with whom he’ll defeat the Martians and take over the world.
Prof. Pierson decides he wants no part of this scheme, and continues on to NYC. The city that never sleeps is eerily devoid of life, but for a starving, territorial dog and a flock of birds.
Then, in Central Park, he finds the birds feasting on the dead Martians. The reason for the Martians’ demise always gives me goosebumps.
Orson Welles then speaks as his own self, saying this was a Halloween prank, Mercury Theatre‘s version of dressing up in a sheet and shouting “Boo!”