War of the Worlds

I was discussing Buckaroo Bonzai with a friend and the subject trailed off to War of the Worlds radio broadcast by Orson Wells that took place October 30, 1938, sending countless into hysteria over the thought that martians were invading the earth.

Being the 90’s minded folk we are, the question came up if anyone tried to sue Orson Wells or the radio station for causing such hysteria.

And, the other question that came up, being that copy cats are everywhere, has anyone ever duplicated such a stunt since then?

People change not because they see the light but because they feel the heat.

In the early '80’s there was a movie about domestic terrorism called “Special Bulletin.” It was designed to look like a live news broadcast. (Ed Flanders from “St. Elsewhere” was one of the news guys.) The “unfolding drama” concerned a small atomic bomb placed in the harbor in Charleston, SC, which they would explode if certain demands (that I do not recall) were not met.

The next day, the local papers reported that a number of people had called in, thinking that the “Special Bulletin” was real. I think most of them were crank calls, though, because at every commercial break, they showed a disclaimer that basically said “Hey, folks, it’s just a movie.”

Didn’t that movie “The Day After” also cause some panic? I can’t rightly remember cause I didn’t watch it, but…anyone…anyone.

Sorry, Shirl, your question reminded me of this…sorry to butt in! :slight_smile:

In the 90’s, maybe the suit would have a chance but not in the 30’s. Next time you go to the public library, check out that New York Times on microfilm for that date, and find the Radio Listings. You’ll see it in clear black and white: “7 pm – Mercury Theater – War of the Worlds – Orson Welles” (or something like that). The publicity was quite ample, at least by pre-80’s standards.

It was also unmistakable to anyone who actually tuned in and listened. By about the second commercial or so, the story had advanced to where ‘The Protagonist’ was describing walking through a wasteland. Even today, you can’t win a lawsuit simply because you’re stupid enough to believe 10-15 minutes of an hour show. You can file one, of course, but you can’t win it.

I don’t know how easy it would have been to sue CBS after the program was aired. But, during the last 20 minutes of the show, they employed some CYA tactics by repeating on numerous occasions that it was just a dramitization. By then it was too late. The realistic section of the show was over already.
Even though, there was numerous references to it being a dramitization in the newspaper, people were fooled, because after the standard opening, the show sounded exactly like a news broadcast. If you were turning over midway through, the effect was even more realistic.
It would be difficult for someone to try to duplicate this feat, since FCC regulations were changed after this show requiring you to give station identification, and notification of the program.



The news broadcast lasted for the first 40 minutes or so that the show was on the air. I have listened to it, and could imagine how people would find it realistic.
This is a bit from the Philadelphia Inquirer Oct 31, 1938.

So, I don’t think it was unmistakable for the people who tuned in. A factor in this, is that Charlie McCarthy was on the air that same night. More people listened to that program. The Charlie McCarthy show had a singer come on the air about 15 minutes into the program, and a large number of people turned that off and tuned into this “news report” which sounded real. That is why so many people were fooled.

I guess this is a bit off topic. But, its a subject I find interesting. Sorry, for the tangent.

I know I have read that CBS was afraid of lawsuits, but, I don’t remember if any ever came about, I will have to check the book I have at home to see if it mentions it.


If I recall correctly (famous last words!), a significant portion of the audience DID tune in late because there was a very popular show on NBC (Red or Blue, I don’t recall) in the same time slot. Again IIRC, it was a variety show, and it was common for people to tune in at the beginning to see who would be on: if it was going to be lame, they’d tune out, but they’d stay if they liked who was scheduled.

I also recall reading a book analyzing the psychological and sociological aspects of the scare, and the statistics indicated that only a small portion of the audience actually believed the story was a real newscast, and of those, the bigger percentage had tuned in late. In other words, very few people who listened from the beginning were fooled.

Exactly, The Charlie McCarthy show with Edgar Bergen was the most popular show on the air. People switched off when a singer came on (I can’t rememeber the singer’s name)

I can’t imagine anyone who listened to the whole program would be fooled. I mean, in the beginning they make it very clear what they are doing. I think the people who were fooled were those who switched late, and there were those who didn’t listen at all, but were called by others who were fooled.


Pricciar: Thanks for the correction; I confess to speaking a bit off-the-cuff in my response; I’ve listened to the show a couple of times (even had it on tape for a while) and that was just my memory of it. However, I have to say, I still found it hard to believe that anyone would fall for this for more than a few minutes. And then, as John mentioned, there were all those millions of unpanicked listeners – you’d think they’d have held the others down! I think the whole thing was really one of the first examples of a ‘media panic’.

People of the 1930s didn’t have a healthy mistrust of the media. They trusted them to give the news to them and they wouldn’t question it. Orson Welles and others in the media thought this was dangerous. (Well, others did, Orson Welles said he did later, who knows what he really thought, sometimes he claimed he didn’t think people would react as they did, others he made it out to be a big practical joke, and other times he said he was trying to teach a lesson to people not to always believe what they heard. He was a man who never told the same story twice.)
So, when people heard what sounded like a true story, many of them believed it. I think nowadays, there is more of a media sophistication, so people would not readily believe something like this. I think there is a healthy skepticism towards news, so that they don’t believe things right away.
Of course, I might be overestimating the average nightly news watcher. I mean, I have listened to Art Bell, and he has callers who believe and believe and believe. So, what are ya gonna do.
Anyway, DIF, I have a mp3 copy of War of the Worlds, you can email me and I will send it out to you, to hear what scared those people.


I got into quite a heated argument with a friend of mine concerning the Blair Witch Project. It seems he saw the fake documentary that the Sci-Fi Channel aired and took it as fact. I’m willing to bet that quite a few people who saw that show were duped into thinking it really happened.

Another important factor: I don’t know how true it is, but I once heard that the program actually started about 5 minutes early, so the people who tuned in on time missed the disclaimers at the beginning. Remember, most (all?) broadcasts were done live, and so it was not at all unusual for a show to run a little overtime or undertime.

I don’t know who else believed it, but the folks in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey sure did.

I lived a few towns over from Grover’s Mill after I graduated from college. The water tower is the same one that was there during the original broadcast. There are still bullet holes in it from that fateful night (although presumably they’ve patched the ones in the tank itself).

It seems that when the good folks of Grover’s Mill heard on the radio that Martians had landed in their town, they panicked, ran outside and shot at the thing that looked like a giant spacecraft. Never mind that it had been there all along; people don’t think when they’re panicking.

BTW, Orson Wells claims that he picked Grover’s Mill more or less at random out of an atlas, because he liked the sound of it.

The Cat In The Hat

Regarding the OP (not that the tangents haven’t been fun), I would guess that the U.S. simply was not as litigious in those days. I’m not sure that people even thought about suing as often. Going back quite a bit before the WotW incident: the Johnstown flood was clearly the result of human error and the dam that burst was used to maintain a lake for a number of the wealthiest titans of American industry to use as a resort. At that time, no one even considered suing the resort owners for the death and destruction that resulted from improper modifications to the dam. It was simply not part of our cultural consciousness.

At that time, tort was generally used in cases of direct personal injury. I suspect that the attitude had not radically changed by 1939. I will further guess (because I can’t recall right now) that the sort of lawsuit we are thinking of probably got its feet under it after the product safety issues that arose in the 1960’s. (I am not claiming that those were the first suits of that sort, only that that was the era when they became common.)


This info is from the booklet included with the CD set “The Smithsonian Collection: Old-Time Radio: Science Fiction.” (Welles’s WotW broadcast is also available on a single CD.)

Long after the broadcast, Welles remarked, “The people who imitated it in Chile and France and Ecuador…They all got put in jail afterwards, and all I did was get picked up by Campbell’s Soup.” From this, I’d say if anyone sued Welles or CBS, they lost.

WotW (on CBS radio) started on time. People who tuned in after Welles’s 2-minute intro mistook the following parts of the drama for real news bulletins.

An estimated 6 million heard WotW, and of those an estimated 1 million thought it was real.

Alexander Woollcott sent the following telegram to Welles after the show: “This only goes to prove, my beamish boy, that the intelligent people were all listening to the dummy [Charlie McCarthy], and that all the dummies were listening to you.”

Years later, station HCQRX in Ecuador translated the script to Spanish and did their own version. When the audience learned it was a hoax, they stormed the station and burned it down, killing 15 people, including some of the performers.

Wow, one of my mental ramblings turned into a pretty decent question.

I still find it hard to believe with so many that actually beleived it to be a real event, and the hysteria involved, that some wise lawyer didn’t think of suing somebody. I guess TomnDebb is right, we weren’t as ligitious then. (I think we’ve made up for it since.)

“We begin bombing in 5 minutes” - R. Reagan

I think if anything caused any kind of hystirya compared to war of the worlds. It would be The balir witch project (someone had to point it out)

I went to see it with some friednds, and I had to tell them it was fiction.
they didn’t believe it.
they went to the web site before seeing it, and the site was set up as if it had really happened.
apparently, others thought it was true too.
another net rumor, “the incedent” was a hoax, a supposed “true event” http://www.the-void.dk/incident/intro.html
the net’ is a new media for spreading hoaxes that present itsef as a truth
It may not cause mas hysteria, but it makes for a good conversation.
you will see what i mean

There is a sucker born every minute – PT Barnem

MASS hysteria not mas hysteria

my bad, I hope the trolls don’t beat me down because of my “ingorance.”