The first two thirds of the 60-minute broadcast was presented as a series of simulated news bulletins, which suggested to many listeners that an actual Martian invasion was in progress. Compounding the issue was the fact that the Mercury Theatre on the Air was a 'sustaining show' (i.e., it ran without commercial breaks), thus adding to the dramatic effect. Some fled their homes; others were terrified. The news-bulletin format was decried as cruelly deceptive by some newspapers and public figures, leading to an outcry against the perpetrators of the broadcast, but the episode launched Welles to fame.
Welles's adaptation was one of the Radio Project's first studies.
H. G. Wells' novel is about an alien invasion of Earth, set in Woking, England at the end of the 19th century. The radio play's story was adapted by and written primarily by Howard Koch, with input from Orson Welles and the staff of CBS's Mercury Theatre On The Air. The action was transferred to contemporary Grover's Mill, an unincorporated village in West Windsor Township, New Jersey in the United States. The program's format was to simulate a live newscast of developing events. To this end, Welles played recordings of Herbert Morrison's radio reports of the Hindenburg disaster for actor Frank Readick and the rest of the cast, to demonstrate the mood he wanted.
About half of the 55 1/2 minute play was a contemporary retelling of events of the novel, presented as news bulletins in documentary style. This approach was not new. Fr. Ronald Knox's satirical "newscast" of a riot overtaking London over the British Broadcasting Company in 1926 had a similar approach (and created much the same effect on its audience). Welles had been influenced by the Archibald MacLeish dramas The Fall of The City and Air Raid, the former using Welles himself in the role of a live radio news reporter. But the approach had never been done with as much continued verisimilitude and the innovative format has been cited as a key factor in the confusion that would follow.
The news grow more frequent and increasingly ominous as a cylindrical meteorite lands in Grover's Mill, New Jersey. A crowd gathers at the site and events are related by reporter "Carl Phillips." The meteorite unscrews, revealing itself as a rocket machine, and onlookers catch a glimpse of a tentacled, pulsating, barely mobile Martian before it incinerates the crowd with "Heat-Rays." Phillips' shouts about incoming flames are cut off in mid-sentence. (Later surveys indicate that many listeners heard only this portion of the show before contacting neighbors or family to inquire about the broadcast. Many contacted others in turn, leading to rumors and confusion.)
Regular programming breaks down as the studio struggles to keep up with casualty updates, firefighting developments and the like. A fairly shaken Pierson speculates about Martian technology. The New Jersey state militia declares martial law and attacks the cylinder; a message from their field headquarters goes on about the overwhelming force of properly equipped infantry and the helplessness of the Martians in Earth's gravity until a tripod rears up.
The studio returns to establish the Martians as an invading army with the obliteration of the militia force. Emergency response bulletins give way to damage reports and evacuation instructions while millions of refugees clog the roads. Three Martian tripods from the cylinder destroy power stations and uproot bridges and railroads, reinforced by three others from a second cylinder as gas explosions continue. An unnamed Secretary of the Interior advises the nation. (The "secretary" was intended to be a portrayal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, then President, but CBS insisted this detail, among others, be changed. The "secretary" did, however, sound like Roosevelt as the result of directions to actor Kenny Delmar by Welles.)
A live connection is established to a field artillery battery. Its gun crew reports damaging one machine and a release of poison gas before fading in to the sound of coughing. The lead plane of a wing of bombers broadcasts its approach and remains on the air as their engines are burned by the Heat Ray and the plane dives on the invaders. Radio operators go active and fall silent, most right after reporting the approach of the black smoke. The planes destroyed one machine, but cylinders are falling all across the country.
This section ends famously: a news reporter (played by Ray Collins), broadcasting from atop the CBS building, describes the Martian invasion of New York City — "five great machines" wading across the Hudson River, poison smoke drifting over the city, people running and diving into the East River "like rats", others "falling like flies" — until he, too, succumbs to the poison gas. Finally, a despairing ham radio operator is heard calling, "2X2L calling CQ ... Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there ... anyone?"
After an intermission which mentions the show's fictionality, the last third is a monologue and dialog, with Welles returning as Professor Pierson, describing the aftermath of the attacks. The story ends, as does the novel, with the Martians falling victim to earthly germs and bacteria.
After the play, Welles breaks character to remind listeners that the broadcast was a Halloween concoction, the equivalent of dressing up in a sheet and saying "boo" like a ghost. Popular mythology holds this "disclaimer" was added to the broadcast at the insistence of CBS executives as they became aware of panic inspired by the program; in fact, it appears in Koch's working script for the play as presented in his 1968 book The Panic Broadcast...
Some listeners heard only a portion of the broadcast, and in the atmosphere of tension and anxiety leading to World War II, took it to be a news broadcast. Newspapers reported that panic ensued, people fleeing the area, others thinking they could smell poison gas or could see flashes of lightning in the distance.
Professor Richard J. Hand cites studies by unnamed historians who "calculate[d] that some six million heard the CBS broadcast; 1.7 million believed it to be true, and 1.2 million were 'genuinely frightened'". While Welles and company were heard by a comparatively small audience (in the same period, NBC's audience was an estimated 30 million), the uproar was anything but minute: within a month, there were 12,500 newspaper articles about the broadcast or its impact, while Adolf Hitler cited the panic, as Hand writes, as "evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy."
Later studies suggested this "panic" was less widespread than newspapers suggested. During this period, many newspapers were concerned that radio, a new medium, would make them defunct. In addition, this was a time of yellow journalism, where newspapers were not held to the same standards as today. As a result, journalists took this opportunity to demonstrate the dangers of broadcast by embellishing the story, and the panic that ensued, greatly.
Robert Bartholomew and Hilary Evans suggest in Panic Attacks that hundreds of thousands were frightened in some way, but note that evidence of people taking action based on this fear is "scant" and "anecdotal." Indeed, contemporary news articles indicate that police were swamped with hundreds of calls in numerous locations, but stories of people doing anything more than calling the authorities typically involve groups of ones or tens and were often reported by people who were panicking themselves.
Later studies indicate that many missed the repeated notices that the broadcast was fictional, partly because the Mercury Theatre (an unsponsored "cultural" program with a relatively small audience) ran opposite the popular Chase and Sanborn Hour over the Red Network of NBC, hosted by Don Ameche and featuring comic ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and singer Nelson Eddy, three of the most popular figures in broadcasting. About 15 minutes into the Chase and Sanborn program the first comic sketch ended and a musical number began, and many listeners began tuning around the dial at that point. According to the American Experience program The Battle Over Citizen Kane, Welles knew the schedule of the Chase & Sanborn show, and scheduled the first report from Grover's Mill at the 12-minute mark to heighten the audience's confusion. As a result, some listeners happened upon the CBS broadcast at the point the Martians emerge from their spacecraft.
Many listeners were apparently confused. It must be noted that the confusion cannot be credited entirely to naïveté. Though many of the actors' voices should have been recognisable from other radio shows, nothing like The War of the Worlds broadcast had been attempted in the United States, so listeners were accustomed to accepting newsflashes as reliable.
Compounding the problem is that the working script had only three statements concerning the fictional nature of the program: at the beginning, at 40 minutes, and at the end. In fact, the warning at the-40 minutes mark is the only one after the actors start speaking in character, and before Welles breaks character at the end. This structure is similar to earlier Mercury Theatre broadcasts: due to the lack of sponsorship (which often included a commercial message at the 30-minute mark during an hour-long show), Welles and company were able to schedule breaks at will, depending on the pacing of a narrative. Furthermore, the show's technique of jumping between scenes and narratives made it hard for the audience to distinguish between fact and fiction, so it is understandable that they were no more likely to perceive the three statements of the fictional nature of the program as being 'outside' the narrative, than they were to perceive the introduction (and subsequent interruption) of the music as being 'inside' the narrative.
While War of the Worlds was in progress, some residents in northeastern cities went to ask neighbors what was happening (many homes still did not have telephones). As the story was repeated, rumours began and caused some panic.
Contemporary accounts spawned urban legends, many of which have come to be accepted through repetition. Several people reportedly rushed to the "scene" of the events in New Jersey to see the unfolding events, including a few geologists from Princeton University who went looking for the "meteorite" that had fallen near their school. Some people, who had brought firearms, reportedly mistook a farmer's water tower for an alien spaceship and shot at it.
Initially Grover's Mill was deserted, but crowds developed. Eventually police were sent to control the crowds. To people arriving later in the evening, the scene really did look like the events being narrated, with panicked crowds and flashing police lights streaming across the masses.
Some people called CBS, newspapers or the police in confusion over the realism of the news bulletins. There were instances of panic throughout the US as a result of the broadcast, especially in New York and New Jersey.
Seattle, WA CBS affiliate stations KIRO and KVI broadcast Orson Welles' radio drama. While this broadcast was heard around the country, it made a deep impact in Concrete, WA. At the point where the Martian invaders were invading towns and the countryside with flashes of light and poison gases, a power failure plunged almost the entire town of 1,000 into darkness. Some listeners fainted while others grabbed their families to head into the mountains. Others headed for the hills to guard their moonshine stills. One was said to have jumped up out of his chair and, in bare feet, run two miles to the center of town. Some men grabbed their guns, and one Catholic businessman got his wife into the car, drove to the nearest service station and demanded gasoline. Without paying the attendant, he rushed to Bellingham, WA (50 miles away) to see his priest for a last-minute absolution of sins. He reportedly told the gas-station attendant that paying for the gas "[wouldn't] make any difference, everyone is going to die!"
Because phone lines as well as electricity were out, residents were unable to call neighbors, family or friends to calm their fears. Of course, the real story was not as fantastic as the radio drama: all that had occurred was that the Superior Portland cement company's sub-station suffered a short-circuit with a flash of brilliant light, and the town's lights went dark. The more conservative radio-listeners in Concrete (who had been listening to Charlie McCarthy on another station), calmed neighbors by assuring that they hadn't heard about any "disaster". Reporters heard soon after of the coincidental blackout of Concrete and sent the story over the newswire and soon the town of Concrete was known world-wide.
Edgar Bergen and Don Ameche, who were continuing their Chase & Sanborn Hour broadcast on NBC, are often credited with "saving the world". It is said many listeners were reassured by hearing their tones on a neighbouring station.
A study by the Radio Project discovered that some who panicked presumed that Germans — not Martians — had invaded. Other studies suggest that the extent of the panic was exaggerated by contemporary media.
When a meeting between H.G. Wells and Orson Welles was broadcast on Radio KTSA San Antonio on October 28, 1940, Wells expressed a lack of understanding of the apparent panic and that it was, perhaps, only pretense, like the American version of Halloween, for fun. The two men and their radio interviewer joked about the matter, though with embarrassment. KTSA, as a CBS affiliate, had carried the broadcast.
War of the Worlds and the panic have become examples of mass hysteria and the delusions of crowds.
In 1988, during the weekend nearest the 50th anniversary of the broadcast, West Windsor Township, in which Grovers Mills is located, held a Martian festival. Designed to attract tourist revenue, this included "Martians" firing "ray guns" and carnival rides and hucksters' stalls. The New Yorker magazine review began "It's not every day we get to see the Martians invade..."
While Mercury Theatre had no sponsor, CBS and the Rockefeller Foundation were contracting the leading crowd psychology researchers of the time; CBS had Edward Bernays, the Rockefeller Foundation had Ivy Lee. With the involvement of Frank Stanton in the Radio Project and his position in the CBS research department, it is possible the "creative curiosity" of Orson Welles came from conversations within these business circles. A detailed documentary on these circles and the ideas behind social manipulation was made by the BBC called, The Century of the Self.
There has been continued speculation that the panic generated by War of the Worlds inspired officials to cover up unidentified flying object evidence, avoiding a similar panic. U.S. Air Force Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, the first head of UFO investigatory Project Blue Book wrote, "The [U.S. government's] UFO files are full of references to the near mass panic of October 30, 1938, when Orson Welles presented his now famous The War of the Worlds broadcast."
In February 1949, Leonardo Paez and Eduardo Alcaraz produced a Spanish-language version of Welles's 1938 script for Radio Quito in Quito, Ecuador. The broadcast set off panic in the city. Police and fire brigades rushed out of town to engage the supposed alien invasion force. After it was revealed that the broadcast was fiction, the panic transformed into a riot and hundreds attacked Radio Quito and El Comercio, the local newspaper. In the days preceding the broadcast, El Comercio had participated in the hoax by publishing false reports of unidentified objects in the skies above Ecuador. The riot resulted in six deaths, including those of Paez's girlfriend and nephew. Paez fled to Venezuela, never to return
Many stations, particularly those that regularly air old time radio programs, re-air the original program as a Halloween tradition.
Buffalo station WKBW aired a modernized update in 1968, produced by the station's news department. In this version, revised for 1971 and 1975, Martians invaded the Niagara Falls area. Like the original, this also inspired panic, despite reassurances throughout that it was a dramatization.
Two different remakes created by writer/producer Bob Karson aired ten years apart, both on Halloween night. The first, "War of the Worlds 1987", on KHOW in Denver, ended with a 10-minute mostly ad-libbed monologue by Charlie Martin (the acerbic half of the Hal and Charlie morning show), in the station's bomb shelter, as the last man on earth. Karson's "War of the Worlds 1997" on Washington, D.C. station WBIG-FM treated the nation's capitol to a Martian invasion. In addition to a speech from Bill Clinton above the mayhem in Air Force One, this version has a scene where mayor Marion Barry tries to communicate with one of the capsules, and is zapped. Both were played by actors, but many police and fire officials, scientists and newspeople were real.
PBS also aired a remake on the 50th anniversary of the Mercury Theatre play in 1988. It starred Jason Robards, Steve Allen (who as a youth listened to the 1938 broadcast), Douglas Edwards, Scott Simon and Terry Gross and was nominated for a Grammy Award for "Best Spoken Word or Nonmusical Recording
In 1994 the L.A. Theater Works' The Play's the Thing and KPCC rebroadcast the original play before a live audience, featuring actors from Star Trek, including Leonard Nimoy, Wil Wheaton, Gates McFadden, Brent Spiner, and Armin Shimerman. John de Lancie was the director.
Since 2005, students from WXOU radio (at Oakland University in Rochester Hills, MI) perform the radio drama live. It was begun by WXOU host Richard Luzenski on his film music program "Cinema Serenade."
On October 30, 2006, Camden County College's WDBK in Blackwood, New Jersey aired a new version performed by the current staff. The version was updated and set in West Windsor Township, as well as Blackwood and surrounding towns. The broadcast was a finalist in the CBI Awards in 2007.
In cooperation with KMHL Broadcasting, War of the Worlds will be performed as a radio drama directed by Paula Nemes and Maureen Keimig in Marshall, Minnesota. This production will be broadcast for three days, starting on Wednesday, October 29, 2008, at 7pm CST (the final broadcast will air on Halloween night, also at 7pm).
Pullman Civic Theatre will stage a production of War of the Worlds, set in a mockup of the 1938 CBS' studios, directed by Mike Long in Pullman, WA. This production will be performed live for three days, starting on Wednesday, October 29, 2008, at 7pm PST. In addition, a local radio station will broadcast the production on October 30, 2008 to honor the 70th anniversary.
Malisson Radio (), an Internet radio station based in Pittsburgh, PA, plans on rebroadcasting the original 1938 staging three times within 24 hours to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the broadcast. Playback is scheduled for 11:59 PM Eastern on October 30, 2008 and at 12:00 PM noon and 11:59 PM Eastern on October 31, 2008.
A 1975 television movie for ABC, Howard Koch and Nicholas Meyer's The Night That Panicked America, also dramatizes the public's panic to the broadcast but as a standard disaster movie (albeit one in which the disaster is assumed rather than actual). The production included Vic Morrow, Meredith Baxter, Michael Constantine, John Ritter, Will Geer, and Tom Bosley.
In 2006, Northwest Missouri State University aired a version of the broadcast on KNWT, the local student-run television network. One of the student-run shows, "ETC.", created a mock newscast, using both students and locals, and spliced it into the episode to look like a real interruption. KNWT did not show or mention any disclaimers about the newscast being fake.
Because of the panic in the 1930s and 1940s, U.S. TV networks deem it necessary to post bulletins to the audience to inform them some TV stories were fiction. Disclaimers were shown during the 1983 television movie Special Bulletin, and during the 1994 telefilm, Without Warning, both of which were dramas disguised as news broadcasts (Without Warning, presenting Earth being hit by three meteor fragments, acknowledged it was a tribute to War of the Worlds and was broadcast on CBS TV on the 56th anniversary of the radio broadcast). NBC placed disclaimers in an October 1999 TV movie dramatizing the possible disastrous effects of the Y2K bug even though it was drama unlikely to be confused with reality.
On February 16, 1991, a popular Estonian TV satire show Wigla Sou reported, using the "we interrupt this program" device, that the government of Finland had voided the bills of one hundred Finnish Markka, most common banknote in Estonia, when the Soviet ruble was not trusted because of high inflation. That was parody of Soviet currency reform, but thousands rushed to get rid of 100 markka bills, some selling many times under market prices. TV reporters Ivar Vigla and Felix Undusk received threats while currency profiteers cheered unexpected high profits .
On December 22, 1991, the student-run satire TV show Ku-Ku on Bulgarian state channel Kanal 1 broadcast reports of an accident in the Bulgarian Kozloduy Nuclear Power Plant, to draw attention to the lack of preparedness for such an accident. The impact was heightened due to memory of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster and its incomplete coverage by official media during 1986. The show used TV news reporters because actors from the show would have been recognized. Reminders of the program's fictional nature were broadcast during music video breaks but largely ignored. There were reports of people taking iodine pills to protect their thyroid glands from radiation. In the aftermath, the show was canceled, but trial charges against director, screenwriter and producer were dismissed.
In 2005, Danish radio station P2 announced their plan to broadcast a remake of the original broadcast on September 3. As the broadcast was about to start, an announcer interrupted the show to report on a fake story about a biological terrorist attack on Copenhagen.
In 2006, a false Belgian news bulletin, broadcasted by RTBF, reported that the Dutch-speaking Flanders region of the country had declared its independence from Belgium, and led to widespread panic in French-speaking Belgium. It was a hoax inspired by The War of the Worlds. See 2006 Belgian Secession Hoax.