Radio / The War of the Worlds

When Orson Welles needed to come up with a Halloween Episode for the October 30, 1938 broadcast of his CBS nationwide radio program The Mercury Theatre on the Air, he decided to adapt the H. G. Wells 1898 novel The War of the Worlds to a contemporary American setting. Rather than staging a regular radio play like all of the previous Mercury Theater broadcasts, for this episode the program aired what seemed like a regular night of music, until reports came over the air of strange phenomena on the surface of Mars and what seem to be meteorites landing in locations across America...

By the time large alien tripods emerged from the cylindrical meteorite and began destroying the American countryside, many listeners believed that the events taking place were really happening, and a nationwide panic ensued. Or so the Urban Legends say, at least. If you believe the research done by Jeff Pooley and Mike Socolow, there was little to no actual panic and the breathless reports that ran in the next day's newspapers were an attempt by said newspapers both to sell more papers and discredit radio—see New Media Are Evil below. However, the story's more complex than that. What people believed and continue to believe about the broadcast is as important as the fact that people believed the broadcast itself. The legend of this program has become part of American folklore.

Police and fire stations, newspaper offices and CBS affiliate stations nationwide, and the CBS New York studios, were swamped with thousands of telephone calls — less a mass panic than a mass attempt to verify. People with loved ones in the area tried to call them (the jammed switchboards gave the impression that something was happening); some drove or flew there. Following the broadcast, CBS, the FCC and Orson Himself were flooded with mail.note  People of all ages and walks of life wrote that they'd believed the broadcast, although not all succumbed to panic, fled their homes or behaved irrationally.

Some thought the "invasion" was really Nazis; some faced "the end of the world" calmly;note  others simply prepared as for a World War I gas attack. College students fell for it by the dozen, much to the delight of those who knew it was a play and set off firecrackers or shut off the lights. Many believed only until they heard something that told them it was a play. Some of the more extreme reactions may have been people who hadn't heard the show but heard about it from friends or neighbors who had. Many letter writers were thoughtful, wondering about radio's influence on behavior, on democracy.

The fact remains that CBS telephone switchboards across the country lit up like pinball machines, the calls not just from listeners but from reporters; the hallways outside the New York studio swarmed with reporters and cops who besieged the cast and crew after the show until they had to leave via a rear exit; Welles himself ended the program by saying that the program was little more than "dressing up in a sheet, jumping out of a bush, and saying 'Boo!'" and suggesting that the audience shouldn't be taken in by make-believe stories on the radio. Later that night, the New York Times building's famous neon headline crawler in Times Square was announcing "ORSON WELLES CAUSES PANIC."

Welles thought it was the end of his career. But the one-hour program became a media sensation. Welles and his show were instantly internationally famous. The Campbell Soup Company jumped at the chance of becoming the sponsorless show's underwriter, and The Mercury Theater on the Air was renamed The Campbell Playhouse. Whether or not Welles used the format to intentionally troll radio listeners is still up for debate note , but the show made him a star, and led before too long to a movie contract, and Citizen Kane.

The broadcast was actually recreated in 1949 in Quito, Ecuador by director Leonardo Páez, definitely as an intentional prank, although not on the diabolical level that's been attributed to him. A huge riot erupted when listeners were finally told it was a gag. An angry mob with Torches and Pitchforks set fire to the station, with 100 workers trapped inside. Seven people died. It was tried again in an updated version by WKBW in Buffalo, New York in 1968. Conceived by engineer-director Dan Kriegler and program director Jeff Kaye, it used the station's news staff and contemporary music and commercials and put the action in nearby Grand Island. Instead of a script, Kaye wrote out a series of events and had the news people read them as they would normally. In spite of fairly frequent "this is a dramatization" announcements, the show's format meant that people who tuned in late were going to think, at least for a few minutes, that it was real. A local newspaper, several police officers and the Canadian National Guard (which sent troops to the border) were among those deceived. WKBW updated the format again and rebroadcast the show in 1971. For the 50th anniversary of the broadcast in 1988, NPR aired yet another remake directed by The Firesign Theater's David Ossman and featuring several of the network's on-air personalities. And in 2008, another revival was presented on NPR by the LA Theatre Works with a nearly all-Star Trek cast including Leonard Nimoy as Prof. Pierson and Gates McFadden as reporter Carla Phillips.

The incident was dramatized in "The Night America Trembled", a 1957 episode of Westinghouse Studio One, and The Night That Panicked America, a 1975 Made-for-TV Movie co-starring John Ritter; and touched upon in feature films like Radio Days (1987) by Woody Allen. Two episodes of Negativland's weekly KPFA radio happening Over the Edge, helmed by master culture jammer Don Joyce, focused on the program as an example of "How Radio Was Done" (2006) and a 1999 examination of how we discern true from false information in modern life. It was analyzed in a hysterically funny episode of NPR's Radiolab in 2008, talking about the power of mass media and humanity's need for storytelling. The historical events and situations that set up this incident are described in PBS' 2013 American Experience episode "The War of the Worlds". There's more in A. Brad Schwartz's 2015 book Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles' War of the Worlds & the Art of Fake News.

This incredibly innovative broadcast is the Trope Maker for Deadline News, Phony Newscast, This Just In!, We Are Experiencing Technical Difficulties, and We Interrupt This Program.

The radio version contains examples of:

  • Adaptational Badass: The Martians, despite going up against more contemporary military technology (United States National Guardsmen equipped with gas masks and machine-guns, military airplanes, etc.), manage to prove much more durable and threatening than in the original novel, and without having the force-fields they are depicted with in later film adaptations.
    • For example, only one fighting-machine is brought down in combat , and it took an artillery barrage and a bomber plane crashing into it to eliminate it. Also, the Black Smoke is deployed before said machine is destroyed, and it's shown to render gas masks useless. And the real kicker is that the very first fighting-machine deployed by the Martians was pitted alone against an army of 7,000 National Guardsmen that were all using rifles and machine-guns, and left only 120 known survivors.
  • After the End: The last third of the one-hour show quits the Phony Newscast format, and follows Pierson as he writes in his journal about his harrowing trip from Grover's Mill to New York City. He sees one living person the whole way.
  • And Now For Something Completely Different: About forty minutes in, the narrative changes completely to the aforementioned professor writing in his journal, and then briefly follows the professor and a stranger discussing Martian theories before returning to the journal again.
  • Audio Adaptation: Of the famous novel.
  • Battle Discretion Shot: When the first of the Martian fighting-machines rises from the cylinder, the radio feed from the National Guard stationed at Grover's Mill is conveniently cut short right before the soldiers open fire on the machine, and we are instead treated with a report on the aftermath of what turned out to be a Curb-Stomp Battle (that the Martian won) from the CBS studio.
  • Circling Vultures: They draw Pierson's attention to the corpses of the Martian invaders, lying around an abandoned New York after the Martians died from Earth-bound microbes.
  • Commercial Break Cliffhanger: Averted. As The Mercury Theatre of the Air didn't have a sponsor, there didn't need to be a break in the program for advertisements; this helped keep up the Kayfabe of the broadcast. The only break acts as a transition between the faux-radio program and Pierson's After the End narration.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Phillips the news correspondent conducts an interview with Professor Pierson live on the air, discussing the mysterious gas explosions on Mars. Then objects are observed to be falling from the sky and landing in rural New Jersey—just a few miles from the observatory, conveniently allowing Pierson and Phillips to go there and report.
  • Deadline News:
    • Carl Phillips, reporting live from Grover's Mill, is burned to death mid-sentence by a Martian heat ray.
    • The reporter in New York narrates the advance of the Martian tripods until he is killed by their poison gas. The broadcast goes to dead air, then one voice comes on, repeatedly asking if anyone is out there.
  • Decoy Protagonist: At first, Carl Phillips the news reporter appears to be this story's counterpart to the unnamed protagonist of the novel, with Professor Pierson the astronomer being the Ogilvy stand-in. Then it gets subverted, when Carl Phillips is found incinerated by the Martians' Heat-Ray, and Pierson fills the role of protagonist after being shown to survive the attack.
  • Emergency Presidential Address: Averted by Executive Meddling. It was originally intended for the unnamed Secretary of the Interiornote  to be President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but CBS objected to this detail. That didn't stop Welles from having the actor imitate Roosevelt's voice.
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: In the radio drama, large numbers of people are killed, either by heat rays or poison gas spewed from the alien spaceships. Several "field reporters" make note of this fact before they, too, succumb to the imminent danger. After a cutaway where a reporter describes millions of fleeing New Yorkers dying en masse falling victim to gas clouds or falling into the Hudson River to commit suicide a ham radio operator desperately calls out, "2X2L calling CQ. Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there anyone on the air?! Isn't there ... anyone???!!!"
  • Face Death with Dignity: The radio reporter in New Yorknote , who narrates the advance of the Martian tripods into the city, knowing perfectly well he's going to die. ("This is the end, now.")
  • Foreshadowing: The opening narration, adapted from the beginning of the novel, muses on how we were watched by the Martians as we might watch "the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water". In the end it is those creatures that destroy the Martians.
  • Found Footage: A Ur-Example and perhaps the only radio version of this trope.
  • Horror Doesn't Settle for Simple Tuesday: The supposed Martian invasion begins on the night before Halloween.
  • Kayfabe: Welles was concerned that War of the Worlds was such a well-known antique that bored audiences would tune out, so he repeatedly emphasized realistic portrayals and the "radio news" format. He was mostly occupied with the theatrical play he was putting on at the same time, so left it to the cast and crew to do the World Building necessary to make it fully believable.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: The at-the-scene radio reporter, Carl Phillips. Or, at least, the on-site radio equipment is destroyed while he's in mid sentence. (His charred remains are later identified.)
    [describing the Martian death ray] "...coming this way, about twenty yards from my ri—"
    • The pilot who crashes his plane into a Martian tripod has his transmission cut off mid-sentence as well.
  • Large Ham: Welles' opening narration is very hammy. He is more restrained when performing as Professor Pierson within the program.
  • Mood Whiplash: Terrifying reports of Martian spaceships landing on Earth? We'll get back to that in a second, but first, here's Ramon Raquello and his orchestra!
  • Moral Guardians: Lots of them in the wake of the sensationalized post-broadcast reports, calling for censorship, speaking up against "terrorizing" broadcasts, the fake-news format (which wasn't new, as any listener to March of Time's news re-enactments could have told you), radio as a corrupter of children, &c., &c. The kids, of course, knew the story or caught on quickly; thousands wrote fan letters to Welles.
  • Narrating the Obvious: This trope, usually nigh-unavoidable in radio drama, is here justified In-Universe. Usually in an audio play characters have to explicate things that they are seeing for the benefit of the audience. Thanks to the decision to stage this show as a Phony Newscast, and a reading from Pierson's journal in Act Three, the characters are already narrating the action, which makes the whole broadcast sound more natural.
  • New Media Are Evil: It seems that newspapers (embellished the facts to make radio look bad).note  Latter-day research has found that the number of people who were taken in by the faux-news format wasn't as high as previously thought. And those who did believe it mostly reacted rationally. The "mass panic" reported in the press, with thousands fleeing the city, simply didn't occur, although some individual incidents — like the woman who ran into the Indianapolis church to announce the "end of the world"note  — were verified. Letters and telegrams have been found from people who had indeed believed it, many congratulating Welles on his ingenuity. To sum up, about six million people listened, and about a million of them, however briefly, believed it was real.
  • People Farms: The rather unhinged militia veteran that Pierson meets in Newark—the only living person he finds between Grover's Mill and New York City—anticipates that the good folks of soft middle-class America will submit themselves to the Martians and live on people farms.
  • Phony Newscast: Ur-Example, Trope Maker. This is the format for the first two-thirds of the show, as a program of dance music is interrupted by increasingly urgent news reports about gas explosions on Mars and mysterious objects plummeting to Earth in New Jersey. See We Interrupt This Program below.
  • Real Time: For roughly the first third of the program, up to the death of reporter Phillips, as radio bulletins break the news of the Martian invasion. Even before the Phony Newscast portion of the show ends, the Real Time part is basically abandoned, as the show skips ahead to military confrontations with the Martians and the Martian advance on New York.
  • Setting Update: Welles moved the setting of the story from H.G. Wells's Victorian England to the United States of The Thirties.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Pierson, the Ogilvy Expy, survives the invasion, unlike his novel counterpart.
  • Switching P.O.V.: The first part is comprised of various reports and interviews from different people. The last part follows a lone professor.
  • This Just In!: The studio begins to overflow with reports of the Martian walkers arriving and destroying power lines and transport routes.
  • To Serve Man: At least part of the reason the Martians invaded is, apparently, to eat people.
    Pierson: I've seen the Martians...feed.
  • We Are Experiencing Technical Difficulties: After Phillips's broadcast is cut off by him being burned up by the heat ray.
  • We Interrupt This Program: The first ten minutes of the show involves "Ramon Raquello and His Orchestra" playing Thirties dance music, with the plot occasionally interrupting to provide breaking news. Later on it changes to piano music by Debussy, in a textbook example of classical music on radio being shorthand for world-threatening disaster.
    • This is one reason so many people did believe it. World War I and its gas warfare was fresh in their memories, World War II was brewing in Europe; America was primed for possible attacks or invasion. Regular programming experienced constant interruptions by news bulletins about Hitler's conquests. Sometimes one bulletin would be interrupted by another! So they heard "Martians", but thought it was really Nazis making it look like a Martian attack.

Alternative Title(s): War Of The Worlds