The Orson Welles' War Of The World's Radio Broadcast That Nearly Caused A National Panic

September 2, 2022

On October 20, 1938, Orson Welles unleashed a national panic with his radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’s “The War of the Worlds.” For context, the science fiction novel follows the landing of violent Martians who dispatch the British army with ease before succumbing to earthly diseases. Welles, with very little planning, delivered a national broadcast that transformed the novel into a real-time announcement of a Martian invasion of the planet.

The writer, Howard Koch, only got a week to turn the novel into a radio adaption.

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, thousands of people took the invasion as real! The next day Welles’ face was emblazoned over the front pages across the country, asking a similar question: did he purposely create a national panic? Here’s the crazy story of the Orson Welles broadcast that rocked America.

Orson Welles is seen rehearsing his radio depiction of "The War of the Worlds." The broadcast, which claimed that aliens from Mars had invaded New Jersey, terrified thousands of Americans. Getty

The Conceit

In ‘38 Welles was just 23 but already a known radio personality, the most popular entertainment medium of the day. While working for CBS, he gained a cult following with his “Mercury Theatre on the Air” which performed adaptations of literary classics. On the eve of Halloween, Welles decided to mix it up by converting “War of the Worlds” into a fake bulletin of aliens invading New Jersey. As he told friends shortly after, “If I’d planned to wreck my career, I couldn’t have gone about it better.”