Panic in the Streets: The War of the Worlds on the Radio

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• Part 2: Resolution and Relief

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Part 1: Hook, Line and Sinker

Can a radio program cause a mass panic? It certainly did in 1938, as a hoax put on by a group of theater performers drove thousands of people into the streets in terror.

The date was October 30. The year was 1938. The radio program was a production of the H.G. Wells novel The War of the Worlds, put on by members of the Mercury Theatre on the Air, whose members most famously included Orson Welles.

A few years later, Welles would become massively famous for the movie Citizen Kane, but he was already sort of a household name in 1938. At 23, he was one of the leaders (along with John Houseman) of the Mercury Theatre group, which had made a name for itself by producing radio adaptations of other well-known literary classics, including Dracula, A Tale of Two Cities, Treasure Island, as well as Shakespeare plays, including "Julius Caesar."

But what Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air unveiled for the New York-area listening public on the day before Halloween in 1938 was a full-blown hoax, a wolf of fiction dressed up in sheep's radio broadcasts.

It went something like this:

At 8 p.m., New York's CBS radio station began with a short announcement and then some dance music, played by Ramón Raquello and his orchestra. After awhile, a broadcaster interrupts the music to report the first of several strange occurrences, this one observations of mysterious activity on far-away Mars.

During the next hour, the music disappeared, replaced by more and more disturbing events being reported as facts: of alien spaceships landing near Grover's Mill, New Jersey, and of alien death rays laying waste to the countryside and the population.

Despite the fantastic nature of these events, which couldn't possibly be true, people believed them to be true and many people literally ran for their lives. The number of people who panicked increased as the broadcast went on, as the "events" included battlefield casualties and mass evacuations.

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