War of the Worlds:
Why the Hoax Worked

A year and a century after the publication of H.G.Wells' The War of the Worlds, we are still fascinated by the story of an invasion from Mars.
This tale has been retold in film, whether in the 1953 film of the same name or as recently as 1996's "Independence Day". In each of these times, this story has something to tell us not only about the human condition but also about the conditions of the day.
The base tale is a terrifying, but simple one. Alien ships land on Earth. Observers watch these ships for an extended period, all the while wondering about the intentions of those on board. When the aliens reveal their hostile nature, military forces prove inadequate in the face of the alien weapons. The ships -- now growing in number -- begin to destroy the planet.
And in each version of the story, after inflicting grave damage on civilized life on Earth, the aliens themselves are killed and vanquished, by atmospheric bacteria in most versions.
But why are we fascinated with this story? What does its history have to say to us now, at our point in the history of the world?
Crossing the boundaries
It seems appropriate that Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater chose Halloween Eve as the night on which they would present their 1938 CBS radio adaptation of Wells' novel, perhaps the single greatest media hoax of all time.
Admittedly, there was the purely practical matter of scheduling played a part, as the broadcast was part of a one of Sunday night programs. But beyond this prosaic explanation, the selection feels appropriate.
Halloween is the night in which boundaries are crossed, a time for people to hide themselves behind costumes and become people whom they are not. It is a time for spirits to walk the earth and for mortals to scare each other. Halloween is a time when reality as we know it -- rigid and defined -- loosens up, and all dissolves into flux.
Moreover, Halloween is a celebration of the terrifying, when it is okay for people to attempt to scare their neighbors, just a bit. Society sanctions the costuming, the deception, and even the terrifying under the institutional framework of the holiday.
When else would a theater company attempt a hoax like this one, except perhaps April Fool's Day?
And it was in this spirit that Welles offered his comments at the close of the Mercury Theater's version of The War of the Worlds.
"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 Theater's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and shouting boo," he reassured his audience. "You will be relieved to hear that we didn't mean it."
Why the hoax worked
Despite four announcements within the program as to the fictional nature of the presentation, many listeners in 1938 believed that the United States was actually being invaded by ships from Mars.
Anyone who had listened from the start, however, would have heard the CBS announcer telling the audience that they were about to hear Orson Welles' adaptation of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, the latest in the Mercury Theater's series of adaptations for radio. The audience would have heard Welles himself setting the scene, quoting from Wells' novel (updated slightly to bring it in line with the 1930s).
"We know now that in the early years of the Twentieth Century," Welles read, "this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man, yet as mortal as his own...."
Then, after establishing the fictional context of the work, Welles stepped aside, and the hysteria began.
Some of the confusion was purely situational. At this time in the history of radio, programming often went slightly over its allotted time. While the Mercury Theater's "War of the Worlds" began its broadcast at 8:00, certain other programs from the 7:00 hour had yet to conclude on other stations, even as others were beginning.
Of particular interest on the night of Sunday, October 30, 1938, was the immensely popular Chase and Sanborn Hour, featuring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. The opening monologue for this program probably aired while Welles and company were reassuring listeners of the fictional nature of the Mercury program, so anyone turning the dial from McCarthy would have missed the warning.
The format of the material itself encouraged listeners to believe. After the government weather report, the broadcast "shifted" to the Meridian Room of the Park Plaza Hotel in New York City, where listeners heard the Ramon Raquello Orchestra playing. After twenty or thirty seconds of music, an announcer cut in with words that would have jolted the listeners: "Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt this broadcast."
Listeners were accustomed to breaking news presented in this way. The initial break, reported by the fictional "Intercontinental Radio News" and supplemented by evidence from "astronomers," simply told of eruptions of gas from the surface of Mars. The program returned to the orchestra, only to interrupt the music again a short time later.
A lie in an authoritative mask
This pattern of ordinary programming -- interruption -- ordinary programming allowed listeners to become caught up in what would seem to be radio-as-usual. The fiction of the Meridian Room was maintained throughout the first seven minutes of the broadcast,. Later on, the broadcast was devoted exclusively to the events of a Martian invasion, now presumed to be breaking news.
As this middle portion of the broadcast evolved, Welles utilized a variety of actors presenting reports from the field. "Townspeople" were called upon to give eyewitness accounts. "Scientists" made astronomical observations. "Military men" discussed the strategic situation.
These people sounded authoritative, speaking the specialized languages of their "professions," and representing such prestigious institutions as the Natural History Museum in New York City or the Signal Corps of the New Jersey State Militia. Although CBS censors made certain that the institutional affiliations did not match up with actual government or scientific organizations so as not to confuse listeners about this line between reality and fiction.
The events seemed to unfold in real time. A "Professor Pearson" of Princeton University, originally interviewed about the eruptions of gas on the surface of Mars, drove to Grover's Mill, New Jersey in order to provide commentary on what would emerge as the first of many Martian landing sites.
Note, too, how Orson Welles brought H.G. Wells' novel closer to home by placing the center of the invasion in an actual town in New Jersey. This location allowed listeners in the metropolitan areas of New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore -- as well as the entire State of New Jersey -- to hear about places close by, maybe even ones which they know well.
Another circumstance affecting the reception of this broadcast was the way that government used radio at the time. Radio was an intimate medium, one in which listeners imagined themselves close to their leaders in Washington, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in particular made great use of his "fireside chats" to reassure the American people in the wake of the Great Depression.
As a historical note, the hysteria that erupted after the broadcast forced radio stations and news outlets to reexamine the relationship between news stories and their on-air presentation. Guidelines were established for presenting breaking news in a timely and clear way, so as not to confuse audience members or keep them waiting for long times about potentially terrible news. These developments would prove critical as the world really went to war -- with more terrestrial foes -- in September of 1939.