A fake invasion grips the US, 1938

October 1938 saw a radio adaptation of HG Wells' The War of the Worlds went viral for all the wrong reasons

Orson Welles rehearsing the radio broadcast © Getty

Orson Welles always had a talent for courting media attention, even before the release of his 1941 cinematic masterpiece Citizen Kane.

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On 30 October, he directed and narrated the Mercury Theatre radio adaptation of HG Wells’ much-admired novel about an alien invasion, The War of the Worlds. The production made headlines the day after broadcast with claims that it incited fear and panic. Some of the listeners, the papers said, had believed the dramatised attack was really happening.

The story had been altered so that it was set on the American east coast in 1939 – a year into the future. Despite this clue, and a disclaimer at the beginning, the clever use of news bulletins gave the hour-long drama such realism that some listeners were struck with horror.

The height of its terror came when ‘reporter’ Carl Phillips described an alien incinerating people with its heat rays.

Many took to the streets, telephoned loved ones and wrapped wet towels around their heads as rudimentary gas masks. One woman was so hysterical she ran into her church screaming about the end of the world. But this reaction was not as widespread as the papers suggested in the following days.

Newspapers were more than happy to publish article after article blaming the production for stirring hysteria, as radio was a competitor and threat to advertising revenue.

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The myth of nationwide panic bloomed, and Welles lapped it up. In the aftermath, he expressed shock and regret but it was clear to see that he relished his newfound fame.