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War of the Worlds: How a radio broadcast by Orson Welles sent a wave of panic through an entire country

Ahead of EPIX's re-imagination of the timeless classic by HG Wells, we revisit Orson Welles' 1938 radio hoax that sent Americans onto the streets fleeing from an apparent Martian attack
Orson Welles (IMDb)
Orson Welles (IMDb)

It was just another fine Sunday evening in America on October 30, 1938, as families relaxed with their radios on before sheer pandemonium ensued. Renowned ventriloquist, Edgar Bergen and his dummy "Charlie McCarthy" were on NBC.

Somewhere along, there was word dropped that Martians were apparently invading earth. When the channel turned to CBS, Orson Welles had just introduced his play and this was followed by an announcer reading a weather report. 

Putrid dance music took over before something unnatural happened. An announcer in an emotionless voice reported that "Professor Farrell of the Mount Jenning Observatory" had detected explosions on the planet Mars.

The music was back on and then there was another report that a large meteor had crash-landed in a farmer's field in New Jersey. 

Then came startling descriptions of the aliens. Here's a quick example of the transcript from History: "Good heavens," he declared, "Something's wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now here’s another and another one and another one. They look like tentacles to me…"

"I can see the thing’s body now. It’s large, large as a bear. It glistens like wet leather. But that face, it… it … ladies and gentlemen, it's indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, it's so awful."

"The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is kind of V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate." Now, this was a Martian supposedly emerging. 

The attacks soon followed. War machines and heat-ray weapons were in action. 7000 National Guardsmen were terminated, and the Martians released toxic gases in the air. The state-of-the-art radio effects Welles used were realistic enough to leave people quaking in their boots.

According to National Geographic, listeners were out on the streets loading their guns while close to 20 families on New Jersey rushed out with wet towels over their faces to stop inhaling the gases.  Ultimately, it was found to be a hoax, but one that gave people the chills.

According to the New York Times, Welles regretted the impact it has on people.  "I don't think we will choose anything like this again," he said. He had, in fact, hesitated about presenting it because "it was our thought that perhaps people might be bored or annoyed at hearing a tale so improbable."

And after all this, the world gets a chance to witness 'War of the Worlds' again and this time it is EPIX bringing out a reimagined version of the HG Wells classic. The synopsis reads: "A catastrophic attack on Earth by intelligent extraterrestrial life forces the remainder of humanity to struggle for survival."

Written and created by BAFTA winner Howard Overman, the sci-fi series is executive produced by Johnny Capps, Julian Murphy and Howard Overman through their company, Urban Myth Films. You can watch the trailer here:


'War of the Worlds' stars Gabriel Byrne, Elizabeth McGovern, Léa Drucker, Natasha Little, Daisy Edgar Jones, Stéphane Caillard, Adel Bencherif and Guillaume Gouix. It debuts on February 16 at 9 pm on EPIX.