TBT: The most famous Halloween prank in history

Cover from Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds
Vinyl LP released in 1968
On October 30, 1938, an invading army from Mars landed in the marshlands of northern New Jersey. The invaders assembled invincible war machines, and proceeded to lay waste to all the human forces which tried to stop them. They moved inexorably toward New York City, with panicked millions desperately trying to flee their deadly heat rays. A radio reporter, choking on Martian poison gas, used his last breath to warn listeners of reports of Martians landing in Chicago and St. Louis.

Or so you might have been led to believe if you had your radio tuned to CBS.

Orson Welles; who got some of his first theater training and radio experience in Woodstock, Illinois, and later studied at the Art Institute of Chicago; had just pulled off the most famous Halloween prank in history.

Orson Welles (fourth from left) with schoolmates in 1931
Welles was born in Wisconsin in 1915, but moved to Chicago as a child. His early years were nomadic, finally enrolling at the Todd Seminary for Boys in Woodstock, where he found the theatrical stage. He also got his start in radio while at the school. After graduation, he spent a very short time at the Art Institute, before setting out to see the world. He began acting in radio dramas in the mid-1930s, as well as appearing on stage in shows including Romeo and Juliet.

In 1937, Welles and a colleague formed the Mercury Theatre in New York with an adaptation of Julius Caesar that was a clear slap at European dictators. His performances became so renowned that he appeared on the cover of Time magazine in May 1938. That summer, CBS hired him for a 13-week stint to be called The Mercury Theatre on the Air, producing radio adaptations of famous plays. The stage was now set; in a manner of speaking; for Welles to make history.

The program for Sunday night, October 30, was to be an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel War of the Worlds, in which a Martian invasion force lands near London. Originally scripted as a soap opera-style performance, the presentation lacked the excitement which Welles intended. Looking for a way to punch up the drama, a suggestion was made that instead of a traditional play the production should be presented as a series of news interruptions.

Orson Welles performs a card trick for Carl Sandburg in 1942
Broadcast interruptions were nothing new to a jittery American public in 1938. Many Americans were familiar with the previous year’s eyewitness account of the crash of the airship Hindenberg in New Jersey by Herb Morrison of Chicago’s WLS radio. The world had just endured the “War Scare” of that year: Hitler’s threats against neighboring Czechoslovakia and the disastrous efforts of the western allies to find some way to avert war, ending in British Prime Minster Neville Chamberlain’s infamous “peace in our time” declaration. So when a broadcaster interrupted a program with a news alert, Americans were prepared to listen and take it seriously.

The show began with the usual Mercury Theatre on the Air introduction, gently telling listeners that they were about to hear a work of fiction. Welles’ deep, stern voice is then heard delivering the opening narration. Later accounts would suggest that many listeners were tuned to other shows and spun their dials to CBS after the beginning of the program, thus causing them to miss the opening and believe the “news” broadcast they had picked up in mid-program was actually the real thing.

A weather report was delivered, then music played: said to be an orchestra performing in the ballroom of a New York hotel. Then came the first interruption: a professor at “the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas occurring at regular intervals on the surface of the planet Mars.” After explaining that the projectiles from the explosion were moving toward Earth, the “newscaster” returns listeners to the New York ballroom.

But soon the evening’s entertainment was interrupted again: “Noted astronomer Professor Pierson” of Princeton would be giving an exclusive interview shortly with his observations. “Pierson,” played by Welles, soon joined reporter Carl Phillips to describe the phenomenon from his observatory at Princeton.

From there, the drama only grew. A mysterious cylinder crashed to Earth on a farm near Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. Phillips and Pierson rushed to the scene to report to captivated listeners. But soon things took a terrible turn: hideous Martians emerged from the cylinder and began striking down onlookers, including Phillips, with a deadly heat ray. The New Jersey state militia was wiped out, Army Air Corps bombers were knocked from the sky, and then worried listeners were treated to an address by “the Secretary of the Interior” with a voice and speaking style that sounded a lot like one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous fireside chats.

At last, the Martians waded across the river into New York City. A reporter was heard broadcasting from a rooftop with bells ringing in the background, “urging people to evacuate the city as Martians approach.” He described traffic jams, collapsing defenses and last minute religious services. He pledged to “stay here until the end,” warning listeners of the cylinders now reportedly landing near Chicago before collapsing from the poison gas. After his microphone went silent, a voice was heard over the air pleading, “New York? Is there anyone on the air? Isn’t there anyone?”

Next came a narrator, reminding listeners that they were listening to the Mercury Theatre on the Air doing a dramatic production. The “news” broadcast was over: the rest of the show consisted of a traditional dramatic play, with “Professor Pierson” telling his story of survival and (spoiler alert) the ultimate victory of humanity over the invading Martians. Twice more during the broadcast CBS announced that it was fiction. Becoming aware of the tempest they had created, they also repeated the announcement on real newscasts later in the evening after the show was over.

But for many, it was too late.

Minutes before the intermission, the control room operator received a phone call ordering him to announce on the air that the production was not a real news broadcast. Actor Stefan Schnabel recalled, “A few policemen trickled in, then a few more. Soon the room was full of policemen and a massive struggle was going on between the police, page boys and CBS executives, who were trying to prevent the cops from busting in and stopping the show.”

The next phone call which producer John Houseman answered was from someone claiming to be the mayor of a Midwestern town, though Houseman could not remember which one. The mayor claimed that there were mobs in the street because of the broadcast. Across the nation, listeners were trying to get more information. Some called police, while others called CBS affiliates and local newspaper offices. It has been speculated that the volume of calls to newspapers may have helped inflate the narrative of a nationwide panic.

Some listeners may have believed the tale of invading Martians, others who tuned in late perhaps recalled the summer’s war scare and thought it was a human aggressor, Germans perhaps. Others may not have heard the broadcast at all, but instead were frightened by second-hand stories from those who did. Stories of suicides and gruesome car accidents among fleeing Americans abounded.

Historians and sociologists have studied the War of the Worlds panic for decades, trying to sort out its full extent. Some have concluded that the stories of nationwide hysteria have been exaggerated. But as the contemporary reporting shows, it is undeniable that some Americans took the broadcast seriously and believed that the nation was under attack. The next morning’s New York Times carried a front page headline: “Radio listeners in panic, taking war drama as fact.” Demands for action were even made to the Federal Communications Commission, which ultimately declined to punish anyone.

Orson Welles takes questions from the press the day after
“The War of the Worlds” broadcast
In the wake of the broadcast, Orson Welles became a national superstar. Reporters crowded the CBS building even before the show was over, demanding comment. Welles held a press conference the next day to apologize to the nation for the frenzy his production had apparently caused. His skill as a writer and producer soon overshadowed any lingering concern related to the War of the Worlds affair, and just three years later he produced the Academy Award-winning Citizen Kane, considered by many to be the greatest movie of all time. He went on to a long and successful career in Hollywood.

After eight decades, and numerous books and films (most recently starring Tom Cruise), the War of the Worlds broadcast of 1938 remains the most famous Halloween prank in history, and a defining moment in the early years of broadcasting. CBS included the War of the Worlds broadcast in its 75th anniversary celebration in 2003, and a recording of the show was among the first entries in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry when it was created in 2002.

Welles finished his 1938 broadcast with a legendary signoff:

“This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character, to assure you that the War of the Worlds has no further significance and is the holiday offering it was intended to be: the Mercury Theatre’s own version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and shouting ‘boo!’ Starting now we couldn’t soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night, so we did the next best thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears and utterly destroyed the CBS. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn’t mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So goodbye everybody, and remember please for the next day or so the terrible lesson you learned tonight: that grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian: it’s Halloween!”