How little it took to panic the country 80 years ago! The War of the Worlds broadcast on Halloween Eve 1938 by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater demonstrated the power of radio and how edgy the country was. Or did it? Recent studies have contended that the panic was not widespread and that relatively few radios in the country were tuned to the broadcast. At any rate there was enough of an uproar that CBS called a press conference the next morning at which Welles appeared and took questions:
MR. WELLES: Despite my deep regret over any misapprehension that our broadcast might have created among some listeners, I am even more bewildered over this misunderstanding in the light of an analysis of the broadcast itself.
It seems to me that they’re our four factors, which should have in any event maintained the illusion of fiction in the broadcast. The first was that the broadcast was performed as if occurring in the future, and as if it were then related by a survivor of a past occurrence. The date of this fanciful invasion of this planet by Martians was clearly given as 1939 and was so announced at the outset of the broadcast.
The second element was the fact that the broadcast took place at our weekly Mercury Theatre period and had been so announced in all the papers. For seventeen consecutive weeks we have been broadcasting radio sixteen of these seventeen broadcasts have been fiction and have been presented as such. Only one in the series was a true story, the broadcast of Hell on Ice by Commander Ellsberg, and was identified as a true story in the framework of radio drama.
The third element was the fact that at the very outset of the broadcast, and twice during its enactment, listeners were told that this was a play that it was an adaptation of an old novel by H. G. Wells. Furthermore, at the conclusion, a detailed statement to this effect was made.
The fourth factor seems to me to have been the most pertinent of all. That is the familiarity of the fable, within the American idiom, of Mars and the Martians.
For many decades “The Man From Mars” has been almost a synonym for fantasy. In very old morgues of many newspapers there will be found a series of grotesque cartoons that ran daily, which gave this fantasy imaginary form. As a matter of fact, the fantasy as such has been used in radio programs many times. In these broadcasts, conflict between citizens of Mars and other planets been a familiarly accepted fairy-tale. The same make-believe is familiar to newspaper readers through a comic strip that uses the same device.
Welles then took questions:
Q: Where you aware of the terror going on throughout the nation while you were giving the broadcast?
MR. WELLES: Oh no, of course not. I was frankly terribly shocked to learn it did. You must realize that when I left the broadcast last night I went into a dress rehearsal for a play that’s opening in two days (Danton’s Death) and I’ve had almost no sleep. So I know less about this than you do. I haven’t read the papers. I’m terribly shocked by the effect it’s had. The technique I used was not original with me, or peculiar to the Mercury Theater’s presentation. It was not even new. I anticipated nothing unusual.
Q: What was your reaction after you learned the extent of the panic the broadcast had caused?
MR. WELLES: Of course we are deeply shocked and deeply regretful about the results of last nights broadcast. It came as rather a great surprise to us that the H. G. Welles classic—which is the original for many fantasies about invasions by mythical monsters from the planet Mars—I was extremely surprised to learn that a story which has become familiar to children through the medium of comic strips and many succeeding novels and adventure stories, should have had such an immediate and profound effect on radio listeners.
Q: Knowing what happened, would you do the show over again?
MR. WELLES: I won’t say I won’t follow this technique again, as it is a legitimate dramatic form.
Q: Do you think there ought to be a law against such enactments as we had last night?
MR. WELLES: I don’t know what the legislation would be. I know that almost everyone in radio would do almost everything to avert the kind of thing that has happened, myself included. Radio is new and we are still learning about the effect it has on people.
Q: When were you first aware of the trouble caused?
MR. WELLES: Immediately after the broadcast was finished, when people told me of the large number of phone calls received.
Q: Should you have toned down the language of the drama?
MR. WELLES: No. You don’t play murder in soft words.
Q: Why was the story changed to put in the names of American cities and government officers?
MR. WELLES: H. G. Wells used real cities in Europe, and to make the play more acceptable to American listeners, we used real cities in America. Of course, I’m terribly sorry now.