The single most (in)famous broadcast in American radio history.
When Orson Welles needed to come up with a Halloween Episode for the October 30, 1938 broadcast of his CBS radio program The Mercury Theatre on the Air, he decided to adapt H. G. Wells's 1898 novel The War of the Worlds to a contemporary American setting. Rather than presenting a straight radio play like all of the previous Mercury Theatre broadcasts, for this episode the program started out as what seemed like a regular night of dance music, until they started breaking in with news of strange explosions on the surface of Mars... followed by reports of a meteorite landing in rural New Jersey...
As the on-air "reporters" breathlessly described large alien tripods emerging from the cylindrical "meteorites" and commencing to destroy the American countryside with heat-rays, many listeners believed that an actual Alien Invasion was taking place, and thus a nationwide panic ensued... or so the Urban Legends say, at least. Later research indicates there was little to no actual panic and the anxious reports that ran in the next day's newspapers were an attempt by said newspapers to sell more copies, while discrediting radio as a medium —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 idea that people believed the broadcast itself. The legend of this program has become part of American folklore.
The broadcast has been re-created several times:
- in 1949 in Quito, Ecuador directed by and starring Leonardo Páez, a familiar and beloved voice on Radio Quito; journalist, broadcaster, actor, director, singer-songwriter, poet and playwright. He used a Spanish-language version of the script written for a production in Chile which reportedly had also caused a brief panic. This also had the cooperation of Quito's local newspaper, as they were both owned by the same company. One of the big differences here was that Radio Quito was extremely popular, didn't have as many competitors as CBS, and was highly respected along with the paper as the most trusted news sources. For a few days before the event, they ran announcements of a live radio concert featuring Duo Benitez Valencia, an extremely popular folk band, to ensure that lots of people would be listening. They also planted small stories in the paper about unusual phenomenon being observed on Mars and in the skies over Quito. The result was incredible - the invasion story was believed on a massive scale. When the deception was revealed, those fooled turned angry and set fire to the building that housed both the newspaper and radio station. Emergency responders did not arrive until much later - because they had been dispatched to the out-of-the-way location of the supposed alien landing. Six people died (including Páez's girlfriend) and many more were injured, either in the fire, trying to escape the fire, or at the hands of an angry mob. Páez managed to escape unharmed, went into hiding for three months, and was eventually exonerated.
- an updated version by WKBW in Buffalo, New York in 1968. Which — despite the station running advertisements beforehand and putting up disclaimers during the broadcast — ended up causing a panic in its own right. The broadcast was so convincing, in fact, that the Canadian Army reportedly sent troops to numerous bridges along the border, prepared to help fight off the "invaders".
- WKBW again in 1971.
- a 50th anniversary edition on NPR in 1988, directed by Firesign Theatre alumnus David Ossman and starring Jason Robards as Prof. Pierson, with a supporting cast including Steve Allen, René Auberjonois, and Héctor Elizondo.
- a 1994 revival on KCRW in Los Angeles, featuring a nearly all Star Trek cast (including Leonard Nimoy as Prof. Pierson, Gates McFadden as reporter Carla Phillips, and Dwight Schultz, Armin Shimerman, Brent Spiner and Wil Wheaton in various roles) and directed by John de Lancie.
- a 1998 version on WGRF in Buffalo, New York, incorporating elements from the 1953 film (sound effects, dialogue, and a character named Clayton Forrester). Needless to say, the broadcast included several disclaimers throughout reminding the audience that it was pure fiction to prevent a recurrence of the WKBW panic from 30 years prior.
- a 2002 version on XM Satellite Radio, hosted by Glenn Beck.
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 Woody Allen's Radio Days (1987) and even in cartoons like Bob Clampett's Kitty Kornered (1946) and The Simpsons episode "Treehouse of Horror XVII" (2006). 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.
The War of the Worlds provides 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.
- Halloween Episode: Aired on October 30, 1938, and explicitly intended as the Halloween episode of Welles' radio show, as he says during his sign-off.
- 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 Worldbuilding necessary to make it fully believable.
- Welles guessed right that even little children knew the story. What he didn't anticipate was that while the kids caught on very quickly, they were thrilled by the modern "radio news" presentation. Among the thousands of letters received at CBS and the Mercury Theater were many from children thanking him for a great evening.
- 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.
- Kenny Delmar, as the FDR-soundalike Secretary of the Interior, begins his speech calmly, but quickly starts chewing the scenery.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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 and Phillips and Pierson race over to the site of the alien landing. 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 '30s.
- Spared by the Adaptation: Pierson, the Ogilvy Expy, survives the invasion, unlike his novel counterpart.
- Stylistic Suck: Bernard Herrmann and his musicians were more comfortable with classical-style music, so they couldn't quite get the proper feel of the dance music interludes. But it works perfectly, because it adds an extra layer of cheesiness to Ramon Raquello's musical stylings, and makes you want to have the music interrupted by more bulletins.
- 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 Is a Work of Fiction: An announcement, given at the start of the broadcast and repeated at the conclusion of the "newscast" segment, informed listeners that they were listening to the Mercury Theatre dramatization of The War of the Worlds.
- And, at the conclusion of the broadcast:"This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen. Out of character, to assure you that The War of the Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be; the Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying, 'Boo!' Starting now, we couldn't soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night, so we did the best next (sic) thing: we annihilated the world before your very ears and utterly destroyed the CBS. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn't mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business.
"So goodbye, everybody, and remember, please, for the next day or so the terrible lesson you learned tonight: that grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian; it's Halloween."
- And, at the conclusion of the broadcast:
- 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.