Three years before Orson Welles would hit Hollywood with his groundbreaking directorial and acting debut with “Citizen Kane” (1941), Welles would send millions of people into a panic with his convincing radio broadcast of “War Of The Worlds” which aired on October 30, 1938.
Throughout his twenties, Welles worked in various radio stations. With his theatrical experiences, Welles teamed with John Houseman to create The Mercury Theater. One of their first productions was a dramatization of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” In fact, most of their productions were radio dramatizations of classic novels and short stories.
In 1938, at the age of twenty-eight, Welles was inspired by H.G. Wells’s sci-fi classic novel, “War of the Worlds.” Set in London, England, H.G. Wells describes an alien invasion from planet Mars. Orson Welles planned on making it a radio dramatization. But in order to provide the realism he wanted, Orson Welles replaced major locations with local sites familiar to the New Jersey/New York audience. In order to ensure the public that the alien invasion would be staged without commercial breaks, Orson Welles advertised it in major newspapers and radio ads.
When it aired, the radio play lasted for one hour. At various times, new listeners would tune in believing an alien invasion was actually taking place. When the radio program concluded, the station was deluged with frantic telephone calls. Moreover, the public’s hostility towards the Orson Welles program prompted an emergency apology the following day.
In the future, the sensation of this dramatization reached the whole world. Three similar productions of Orson Welles’ radioplay were made. Two of them had major repercussions. In Chile, one ended in fifteen casualties when the enraged listeners stormed the radio station and unintentionally started a fire.
In 1968, soon after NASA received their first pictures of planet Mars surface which did not show any life forms, another radio station revived the dramatization. Yet again, to make the public aware, for twenty-one days, every hour on the hour, a warning was announced when the dramatization would take place. Still, there was an outburst.
Incidents such as these bring to question if a contemporary radio station decided to play another dramatization for today’s audience, would it cause another bout of hysteria like the others did in the past?