Orson Welles’ radio play based on H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds is arguably the most famous radio program of all time. The Mercury Theater’s 1938 dramatization was so effective that people thought it was an actual news broadcast, and panic ensued. Though there is much debate over how widespread that panic was, it cannot be denied that many people thought that the Martians were actually invading. Wells at first claimed it was just an honest attempt at giving listeners an entertaining fright that got out of hand. Years later, he changed his tune to say that it was a deliberate attempt to show that people shouldn’t always take what they hear, see, or read in the media at face value.
If it indeed was an experiment in mass psychology, the results were dramatic. While a major principle in scientific research is that any experiment must be reproducible, it’s likely that no one would want to reproduce this particular experiment. After all, who wants to deliberately cause a panic? And given the notoriety of the original broadcast, any scientist or radio producer would be hard-pressed to find virgin ears on which to conduct a follow-up.
No one is going to fall for the same stunt twice, right?
1944: Santiago, Chile
Writers William Steele and Paul Zenteno adapted the original play for Chile’s Cooperative Vitalicia Network, which would broadcast it nationwide on the night of November 12 1944. Locations were changed appropriately, and government officials were convincingly imitated. For a week before the air date, the network ran promotional spots for the show, which clearly labeled it a work of fiction. Even during the broadcast, they ran notices saying it wasn’t real.
But as the “Martians” landed outside Santiago and demolished local landmarks and military bases, people started to panic. They barricaded themselves into their homes or took to the streets to head for the hopeful safety of the hills. According to a report in Newsweek after the broadcast, an electrician from Valparaiso named Jose Villarroel was so frightened by the radio play that he died of a heart attack, earning him the dubious distinction of being the first person on Earth to be killed in an alien invasion.
The station was fined for the program under a law passed the year before, which banned incendiary broadcasts that could incite listeners to panic or riot. It is not known if that placated their “victims”.
1949: Quito, Ecuador
Surely, radio producers and station managers would have learned their lesson by now. And audiences wouldn’t fall for it again.
Even though it is Ecuador’s capital, in the late 1940s Quito could be described as a small provincial town where nothing ever happened. At Radio Quito, Ecuador’s top radio station, directors Leonardo Paez and Eduardo Alcaraz decided to do something about that. Since they figured it was just another drama program, they didn’t bother involving the station’s management. They did succeed in gaining the cooperation of El Comercio, Quito’s widely respected newspaper, whose offices shared the building with the radio station. In early February, the paper ran small articles about scientists picking up unusual activity on Mars. Radio Quito brought listeners in by saying that their weekly music show on Saturday, February 12, would feature a live performance from one of Ecuador’s most popular bands.
A few minutes in to the show, “static” began to interfere with the broadcast. The announcer apologized, and the show went on. Until an emergency announcement that Martians had landed some 20 miles outside the city.
With convincing detail, and spot-on impersonations of government officials, the show described the destruction of suburbs and military bases. People fled their homes, clogged the streets, and headed for the mountains. The commander of the local military was so convinced that he mobilized the troops without making a simple phone call to get either orders or confirmation of the “invasion”. The sight of military and police vehicles zooming towards the landing site only increased the panic. When Radio Quito realized what was happening outside their building, they tried to calm the mob, to no avail. When the show was over, and people realized they’d been duped, the mood outside went from panic to anger. Unfortunately, with all the military and police out fighting the “Martians”, there was no one around to maintain some semblance of order.
The mob turned on Radio Quito, and stormed the building. They smashed their way in to the ground floor, and demolished El Comercio’s presses. Unsatisfied, and unable to advance further into the building, the mob made room for torch-wielding locals to approach and set the building on fire. The flames were fanned by people throwing gasoline-soaked copies of El Comercio at the building, and the fire quickly spread, trapping those inside. By the time the military came with tanks and tear gas, it was too late. Only the front of the building was left standing. Damages were estimated at over $350,000 – in 1949 money. Worse, several people were killed in the riot.
The broadcast and riot made international news, with coverage as far away as London. Paez and Alcaraz were both indicted in the subsequent investigation, but only Alcaraz could be found. Paez had fled the country, never to return.
1968: Buffalo, New York
Of course, those panics happened outside the US, where people were most likely unfamiliar with either Wells’ novel or Welles’ adaptation. Surely, it couldn’t happen again in the same country where people already knew about the book, the radio play, and the panic.
Buffalo’s radio station WKBW was a 50,000 watt powerhouse of rock and roll. On a clear night, their signal could be picked up and down the eastern United States. They also had a tradition of broadcasting something a little scary every Halloween. In 1968, program director Jeff Kaye decided it was time for something out of the ordinary. As it was the thirtieth anniversary of Wells’ broadcast, he came up with the idea of doing the story again, but setting it in the Buffalo area.
In an early rehearsal, Kaye and engineer Danny Kriegler found that their cast, the station’s news team, wasn’t up to reading from a script. So they came up with a great idea: get the station’s news staff to report on the “invasion” as if it were a real news event. They were given the outline of the story and the invasion plans, and told to just ad lib accordingly. With the air date approaching rapidly, they were unable to add convincing sound effects to the recording in time. Kriegler would add them live.
Letters were sent to local police, fire departments, and other government agencies informing them of WKBW’s plans – just to be safe. The show was given plenty of promotional spots ahead of time, and was introduced with a proper announcement of the fact that it was a dramatization. The show opened at the end of the 11 o’clock news with a brief news item about explosions on Mars, and then went back to rock & roll. After several minutes, listeners started calling the station – to ask when the action was going to start! They were told to be patient, and were soon rewarded with a news bulletin about a mysterious explosion on nearby Grand Island.
Now the invasion could hit its stride. Reporter after reporter was “killed” by the Martians. Local landmarks were blown up. It seemed that nothing could halt the Martians, except the relentless March of Commerce. Commercial breaks aired at the proper intervals, along with more announcements that the show was a fictional dramatization. Even so, people flooded the station with calls from panicking listeners. Buffalo’s phone lines were jammed with calls coming in from all over the northeast as people wanted to check on friends and relatives. In the studio, Kaye himself began to panic. There were rumors that other radio and TV stations had actually sent out news teams to cover the invasion. Some reports even had Canadian troops heading for the border to repel the invaders! Worried that the show had gone too far, Kaye fought loudly with Kriegler to do a live disclaimer, threatening to yank the tape of the show right out of the playback machine. He got his way, but it did nothing to calm their audience. When the show finally ended, Kaye was so worried he would get fired that he slipped a letter of resignation under the General Manager’s door before he went home.
In the end, no one was fired and no real damage was done. Kaye would do other versions in 1971 and again in 1975, without causing a panic on either occasion. The Federal Communications Commission would later set rules about doing such on-air dramatizations.
Researchers into mob psychology have field days studying these and other similar panics. It seems that all that is needed to fall for a tale is to present it convincingly and with some authority behind it. From spaghetti harvests to alien autopsies to witches in the Maryland woods, people will believe almost anything.