At 8 o’clock on the evening of October 30, 1938, millions of Americans were settling in by their radios. It was the golden age of radio, and they were looking forward to hearing one of the most popular programs, NBC’s Chase and Sanborn Hour. Among the highlights of the variety show was ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his sidekick dummy, Charlie McCarthy. (Charlie had been carved in the image of a Chicago newsboy Bergen knew.)
Meanwhile, over at CBS, a low-budget upstart program featuring the 23-year-old prodigy Orson Welles (not to be confused with Sumner Welles) was still trying to make a name for itself. Welles had first appeared in show business a few years earlier as the voice of Lamont Cranston, otherwise known as The Shadow. Thereafter he quickly became involved in acting, directing and producing.
Welles’s four-month-old “Mercury Theatre on the Air” staged dramatic presentations of popular literature for its Sunday evening broadcasts, including such works as Treasure Island and Jane Eyre. With the approach of Halloween, and with the world still jittery from the threat—narrowly averted—of war over Czechoslovakia weeks earlier, Welles decided that a presentation of H.G. Wells’s 1898 science fiction fantasy, The War of the Worlds, would be just the ticket.
But how to dramatize a work about a Martian invasion of Great Britain? And accomplish this in less than one week? On October 27, with only three days to go, Welles’s theatre troupe was still struggling with their adaptation, which, everyone agreed, had the makings of a terribly dull show.
Finally, someone had a brainstorm. Why not make the show sound like a simulated news broadcast of a current event, complete with “news bulletins” breaking in on the “regular programming.” The Martian invasion would also be moved from Victorian England to nearby New Jersey—Grovers Mill to be exact.
Despite subject matter that was so far-fetched that it would seemingly need no further disclaimers, Welles’s program duly began with an explanation that the events depicted in the forthcoming show were purely fictional. And this disclaimer might have been sufficient were it not for one idiosyncrasy of the listening public.
As noted, the Mercury Theatre couldn’t hold a candle to the Chase and Sanborn Hour. NBC’s variety show boasted a listening audience estimated at almost 10 million, compared to a paltry 1 million who tuned into the Mercury Theatre. As William Manchester writes in The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America 1932—1972, “when it came to a choice between great theater and listening to [Edgar] Bergen talk to himself, most Americans preferred Bergen.”
So, at precisely 8:00pm Bergen and Charlie McCarthy opened the show for NBC, while Welles opened his show—complete with disclaimer—to a much smaller audience.
Then, something unexpected happened.
At precisely 8:12pm McCarthy and Bergen finished their opening skit. What followed was either a musical act or a commercial for Chase and Sanborn coffee (accounts vary). According to Manchester, millions of listeners in response spun their dials to CBS to hear what was playing there, and broke in on what appeared to be live reporting of some strange goings-on in New Jersey. The “reports” became ever more dire until an anguished announcer blurted out:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make. Incredible as it may seem, both the observations of science and the evidence of our eyes lead to the inescapable conclusion that those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars.”
Two-thirds of the way through the program there was a break (instead of the more typical break at 30 minutes), where the disclaimer was once again repeated to the audience. But, according to Manchester, “that didn’t matter anymore.”
“Before the break hundreds of thousands of screaming Americans had taken to the streets, governors were begging their constituents to believe that martial law had not been declared, and the churches were jammed with weeping families asking for absolution of their sins before the Martians came to their town. ‘For a few horrible hours,’ [a later Princeton University study] concluded, ‘people from Maine to California thought that hideous monsters armed with death rays were destroying all armed resistance sent against them; that there was simply no escape from disaster, and that the end of the world was near.’”
Of course, all this panic seems rather preposterous in retrospect; we can all enjoy a chuckle at the gullibility of Orson Welles’s listeners 84 years ago today. As critic Alexander Woollcott later wrote to Welles, “This only goes to prove . . . that the intelligent people were all listening to the dummy, and all the dummies were listening to you.” But on a more serious side, American sociology professor Theodore Abel, writing in his journal only three days after the event (November 2, 1938) concluded:
“[I]t is amazing that thousands have apparently not reflected at all as they listened in. . . . Thousands saw flames, heard firing, and smelled gas. . . .
It was demonstrated that:
1. Theatrical demagoguery has appalling dangers and is enormously effective.
2. Popular education is a failure in the life of individuals.
3. Thousands are incredibly stupid, and lack nerve.
4. It is easy to start a mass delusion.
5. Primeval fears lie under the thinnest surface of the so-called civilized man.”
Are we any less susceptible to popular delusions today? Millions of Americans proudly boast of their belief in QAnon. As I write this, the husband of the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives had his skull fractured from someone steeped in conspiracy theories. A man is in prison for firing an assault rifle in a Washington, DC pizza parlor in the misguided belief that it was the site of a child abuse ring. A former correspondent for the CBS news show 60 Minutes has alleged that the current administration is participating in the trafficking of children, and has compared Anthony Fauci to Josef Mengele. And haven’t we all heard preposterous claims regarding the efficacy of COVID vaccines?
It’s hard not to conclude that many Americans today are as deluded, if not more deluded, than any of those gullible radio listeners 84 years ago.
If that is not truly scary to contemplate this Halloween, then I don’t know what is.
PS: Despite a firestorm of criticism from government officials and embarrassed listeners, neither the New York Police Department nor the FCC could find where Welles had broken any law. In fact, his prank catapulted Welles overnight to fame—and a Hollywood contract. Less than three years later Welles would write, produce, and star in Citizen Kane, considered one of the most famous movies of all time.