CLASSIC HOAXES: The War of the Worlds Radio Prank!

One of the greatest hoaxes in entertainment history happened 76 years ago – it’s the kind of hoax that was so shocking that it even needed the authorities to intervene to calm down the public. Whether the reactions of the newspapers were justified or exaggerated, what is certain is that the prank became a pretty tough act to follow! It was such a simple idea – a sci-fi story read out on the radio as if it were true… The book? HG Well’s War of the Worlds. The narrator? Orson Welles. And what a stir it caused!

Orson Welles was superbly talented from a young age, with his skills ranging from painting and music to acting. He came from an affluent family and much of who he was can be attributed to his parents. His cunning and intelligence was inherited from his inventor father, who amassed a fortune from his discoveries. Welles’ artistry he got from his mother who was a striking concert pianist.

At the early age of 7, he lost his mother and due to the nature of his father’s work, he got the opportunity to travel over the world. He became an orphan at 15 and even without the guidance and protection of an appointed guardian, he was able to complete his pre-college education. All of these experiences molded him to be fearless, astute and an expert in sensing what makes people tick.

War of Worlds

By the time of the hoax, Orson Welles had already become known as a great writer and was a master of playing with people’s emotions. His writing was capable of bringing upon a “willful suspension of disbelief”, which, as we will see was integral to the success of the hoax.

By the 1930’s, Orson Welles had become involved with the production of plays for the radio. He often wrote, directed and acted in The Mercury Theatre on the Air for the CBS. He went on to purchase the radio rights of The War of the Worlds story which he then had adapted into a script for radio presentation. This was to be aired on October 30 1938; in time for Halloween…

War of Worlds

All credits of the hoax should go to Orson Welles’s foresight. This was because he decided that the novel The War of the Worlds should be presented over the radio as if it was part of a radio newscast.

The program started like any other The Mercury Theatre on the Air presentation. There was an announcement that what the listeners were tuned in to was a dramatic presentation, however few people heard this announcement due a more popular program, Chase and Sanborn Hour, being aired on another channel at the same time.

The War of the Worlds started out as a regular news broadcast complete with dance tunes and playing of music by Debussy and Chopin. There was then a report about a certain observatory which had detected blasts from the planet Mars. As with all other radio programs, the music continued until it was interrupted by another bulletin. This time it was about a meteor that hurtled into a farm in Grover Mills, New Jersey. When the “news reporter”, gave a description of an alien coming out of a space ship, this added to the panic that was already rising.

War of Worlds

The extent of the damage done by the hoax became evident when people started crowding the streets. There were those who hid in their basements or cellars. Some even wrapped wet towels over their heads as a safety precaution against “alien gas.” It was described as a national scare!

It might seem funny that people reacted that way, but government authorities didn’t think so. Many officials wearing dark-blue uniforms stormed the radio station, searching for the script used for the production. They rummaged around for clues, looking to see if the broadcast was intended to have the effect it already generated.

The War of the World’s radio show inadvertently became one of the best hoaxes of all time. It may seem strange to us in the days of modern technology and 24 hour news broadcast, however at the time, it’s realistic presentation on a well respected radio channel was enough to convince the listeners of an alien invasion!

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