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Orson Welles’s Mars ‘Attack’ Scares Nation, Prompts Inquiry

The New York Post publishes a condensed transcript of the 1938 radio drama that frightened Americans and a story on the government's response.

  • Type
  • Source
    The New York Post
  • Date
    October 1938
  • Section
    Front Page
  • Copyright

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On Sunday evening Oct. 30, 1938, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater performed a Halloween episode over the CBS radio network. The play was an adaptation of H.G. Wells’s science fiction novel “The War of the Worlds.” The radio program’s intense realism produced panic nationwide as thousands of listeners believed they were hearing news broadcasts of an actual Martian invasion of Earth.

The New York Post published in its Oct. 31 issue a condensed transcript of the radio drama, including “all announcements on the program which might have warned listeners that the description was not real.” The transcript included an introduction from producer Welles setting the scene of the play, which is interrupted with a series of simulated “news bulletins” reporting on the alien invasion “in progress.” The drama ran without commercials, adding to the realism that caused some listeners to flee their homes, swamp police switchboards with calls or take protective measures.

“Confronted by a situation unparalleled in this country’s radio history,” the Federal Communication Commission began an investigation, according to the Post article. FCC Chairman Frank R. McNinch called the situation “regrettable” and said it demonstrated “the power and force of radio.” Congress demanded that laws be passed to prevent such a broadcast hoax from happening again, but after an investigation the FCC found no law was broken. Networks did agree to be more cautious in future programming.

A third article, in the lower right-hand column, lightheartedly puts some of the blame for the public panic on the “blockhead” Charlie McCarthy.  Ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie, starred in the popular radio program, “Chase and Sanborn Hour,” which started at the same time as Welles’s “Mercury Theater on the Air.”  Many listeners of the “Chase and Sanborn Hour” turned the dial at 8:20 p.m. when Charlie’s act finished. These “dial-twiddlers,” as the story describes them, tuned into Welles’s broadcast “just in time to get the horror part without having heard the preliminary explanations.”


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