Orson Welles’ TWotW

Why was Orson Welles’ 1938 production of “The War of the Worlds” so successful in causing widespread panic amongst listeners?

Did Orson orchestrate it? In this essay I will show that through the use of clever narrative, dramatic devices and sound effects, Orson Welles, despite claiming innocence in later interviews, contrived to panic the public. To this end, and with external, less controllable variables such as the political climate at the time, the way in which the audience operated their radios and the actions of other listeners, Welles constructed an artificial reality that was plausible and genuinely believed.

The Hoax

On the 30th of October, 1938 the Halloween edition of ‘The Mercury Theatre’ was broadcast by CBS and affiliates across America. An evocative extravaganza of science fiction, adapted for radio by Howard Koch from the H.G. Wells novel “The War of the Worlds”, the broadcast was heard by an estimated 6 million American families. In 2006 the 68 year old production seems somewhat amateur to contemporary, media savvy listeners, but in 1938 the performance achieved a hither to unknown level of verisimilitude in radio drama. After a short introduction the drama was presented as an interruption to ‘normal’ programming. Of the approximately six million [1] listeners it is estimated that at least 1 million were panicked to a higher or lesser degree, some preparing, or even daring, to leave their homes in an attempt to escape the invading army that the reported vanguard predicted (Cantril 1947, p.47).

It was not the first time that the media had conspired to deceive the public: On November 9, 1874 the New York Herald’s headline screamed ‘Escaped Animals Roam Streets of Manhattan’. The article went on to describe how a large number of wild animals had escaped from the zoo in Central Park, which is at the centre of the densely populated island of Manhattan. According to the reports, 27 people were already dead and another 200 injured. The militia was said to have been called to control the situation (Central Park Zoo Scare 2004).

It was entirely fake and even displayed a small disclaimer, but people still stayed in their homes, presumably scared to venture out in fear of being attacked and eaten. An early example of the power of hoaxes, it used some of the same techniques that Orson later employed in ‘The War of the Worlds’ subverting a normally serious and trusted medium for media delivery. A similar control of the public by the media was demonstrated by Father Ronald Knox’s 1926 BBC radio broadcast informing the public that London’s landmarks were under siege by a rioting unemployed mob and that Big Ben had been toppled. He presented the announcement in the place of the usual news and the “newspapers, police and radio stations were besieged with calls from frantic citizens” (Cantril 1947, p.ix) after the broadcast. These hoaxes – both the the New York Herald and the BBC examples – relied on common factors for their successful execution. Both held a ‘voice of authority’ and were believed to be factual representations delivered as they were through usually serious channels. Both examples chose plausible fictions and relied upon the fact that the information was not easily verifiable by the public at the time. I am not suggesting that Orson Welles knew of the existence of these previous attempts at what he so successfully achieved, but I am demonstrating the public acceptance of fiction delivered as fact, as long as the information is plausible and presented through authentic channels.

The Voice of Authority

In 1938 radio was still relatively young. In the 1930’s “reporters had just started filing live reports from the field” (Fornatale & Mills 1980, p.96) and Welles’ subversion of this style of broadcasting used intertextuality to lend credence and authority. “Of the millions who listen […] only a negligible fraction has been trained to asses and criticize what they […] hear” (Seldes 1950, p.137) and Welles’ audience was ill-equipped to deal with this onslaught of fiction furnished as fact. “On-the-spot human agents promise authenticity; next to ‘being there’ they offer the simulation of someone else’s ‘I was there’ (Paget 1990, p.32). It was the voice of authenticity of the eye-witness accounts and experts in their field that was so masterfully exploited. Welles himself stated:

Radio in those days, before the tube and the transistor, wasn’t just a noise in somebody’s pocket – it was the voice of authority. Too much so – at least, I thought so. It was time for someone to take the starch out of some of that authority: hence my broadcast.”
(Brady c1989, p.164)

Since the early days of radio the medium has been used to convey official information, such as election returns, and “important announcements of local, national and international significance have been repeatedly made” over the airwaves (Cantril 1947, p.68). An air of authority has been granted to the radio and even now news broadcasts are accepted as solid fact with little consideration for their merits as factual information. “Radio is the modern oracle” (Seldes 1950) and if a plausible news item is presented in a way that is consistent with what a listener is expecting to hear, then it will be accepted as news. As Cantril (1947, p.68) so eloquently puts it “the [War of the Worlds] broadcast fell within the existing standards of judgement of the listeners”. He goes on to explain that by standard of judgement he means “an organized mental concept which provides an individual with a basis for interpretation”. A listener interviewed after the event said “I believed the broadcast as soon as I heard the Professor from Princeton and the officials from Washington” and another added “if so many of those astronomers saw the explosions they must have been real. They ought to know” (Cantril 1947, p.71). So, confused by a blurring of entertainment and documentary, lacking the expertise to judge the nuanced modality cues, and, in any case, only having one modality – a serious informational broadcast – to judge against, the citizens can be forgiven for panicking.

The role of ‘official’ speech and radio’s ‘voice of authority’ is ascertained, but another facet of the work is the colloquial and natural speech used as a dramatic device to convey realism. In Carl Phillips’ correspondence from the field technical instructions such as “step closer please” (Cantril 1947, p.12), in reference to an interviewee and the microphone, add to the realism of the piece. They give the impression that rather than a rehearsed and acted presentation, we are hearing rushed, on-the-spot reporting. The interviewee, Mr. Wilbur, delivers eye-witness accounts in colloquial speech forms and this, in contrast to the official fact-giving of the various fake authority figures, provides a natural realism. Listeners have already been told by the authorities that there is an invasion happening, but it is now being described by members of the public – normal, everyday people like the listeners themselves.

Radio Usage

Television in the 1930’s was still a cutting edge technology. In 1935 there were fewer than 4000 electronic TV sets operating in America (Richie 1995). Radio was still the number one “news source for most Americans” (Fornatale & Mills 1980, p.95) and Marshall McLuhan cited in Fornatale & Mills (1980, p.17) makes an observation that now seems obvious: “People could be doing something else and still listen to the radio”. While this notion is usually used to demonstrate that the radio is a more portable and accessible medium than television [2], the information can be used to show that listeners do not have one hundred percent of their attention focused on the radio broadcast – they are often engaged in simultaneous activities such as driving, cooking, eating or even watching sports. Welles’ explanation that the ‘War of the Worlds’ was a fictional adaptation was a mere two minutes long at the beginning of the hour long show. “Since the beginning of the hour is concerned with station identifications and […] with advertising, it is [often] disregarded” (Cantril 1947, p.80). Anyone tuning in late or not paying full attention would not have heard another declaration of fiction until the 40th minute of the production, by then having already heard the radio station turned over to the State Militia, a call for the evacuation of New York City with suggested routes, an announcement that the army and air force had been wiped out and an eye witness account of the Martians reaching Times Square. In competition with ‘The War of the Worlds’ rival network NBC was broadcasting a very popular programme “The Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show” (Cantril 1947, pp.82-84; Seldes 1950, p.139) which was a variety show and gave ample opportunities for listeners to change their dials when facing the prospect of an act they were not interested in. Many audience members had tuned into the ‘The War of the Worlds’ late. These numbers were swelled by the listeners already engaged with Welles’ production calling their friends and relatives and compelling them to listen too (Seldes 1950, p.139). These audience members would also have missed the initial disclaimer and could, understandably, be thrown into panic.

Political Considerations

The political climate in 1938 was unstable in Europe. Spain was engulfed in civil war, the Germans under Hitler had invaded Austria in March and in September The Third Reich claimed, and annexed, part of Czechoslovakia known as Sudetenland (World History 2000). Europe was heading for war and America was worried about the imminent clash of capitalists, communists and fascists. For Welles this was an excellent foundation on which to build his story. Comments made by listeners later show “why they were suggestible” with one audience member saying “everything is so upset in the world that anything might happen” (Cantril 1947, p.157). Some of the listeners went as far as thinking that a German invasion was in progress. In the words of a frightened housewife: “People saw how excited I was and tried to quiet me, but I kept saying over and over to everybody I met […] ‘New Jersey is destroyed by the Germans – it’s on the radio'” (Cantril 1947, p.53). Many more considered the radio announcers to be incorrect in their assumptions that this was a Martian attack and instead chose to believe that the “catastrophe [they were hearing] was actually an act of war or some foreign attack, […] chiefly [from] Germany or Japan”. One man, seemingly influenced by fiction of the era such as “Amazing Stories”, proclaimed theories involving a camouflaged “airplane built to look like a meteor just to fool people” (Cantril 1947, pp.159-162). So, we can predict that insecurity about current political events and a general feeling of unrest in the world also contributed to the panic.

Dramatic Technique and Sound Effects

The realism of the broadcast was in part due to the excellent script by Koch (Cantril 1947, pp.4-43). The actors earnest portrayals elevated the production further and then the sound effects employed by Welles completed the dramatic triumvirate. Sound effects and music are “the adjuncts to dialogue [and] assist words in providing information or heightening dramatic impact” (Ash 1985, p.46) and in ‘The War of the Worlds’ Welles works with the script to provide only those sounds which we need to generate the “invisible drama” (Williams 1951, p.6) in our minds. This is demonstrated most effectively by Welles abundant use of silence which becomes “not just a nothingness in the middle but that which gives meaning to the somethingness all around it” (Ash 1985). Silence, used as a sound effect, is not just an absence of noise, it is instilled with meaning and in ‘The War of the Worlds’ it also normally signifies the death of a correspondent.

The death of Carl Phillips, a reporter at the scene of the Martian landings in Grover’s Mill is the first prolonged and purposeful use of silence. Over the sounds of screaming, flames and death rays, Phillips shouts his final report, his last utterance: the Martian is “about twenty yards to my right” (Cantril 1947, p.18) is delivered as the background calamity reaches a crescendo and then the radio falls suddenly silent. The dead air (a rather descriptive turn of phrase in this instance) is disconcerting and the pregnant silence throws the screams and panic of the previous seconds into sharp relief. The dramatic device, using silence to imply events rather than going to the trouble of describing an entire scene, is used to fantastic effect. “The ear, unlike the eye, cannot assimilate a complex combination of impressions” (Felton 1949, p.96) and sound effects in ‘The War of the Worlds’ are used sparingly, but almost in the same way that certain optical illusions encourage the brain to invent visual artefacts to complete a picture, Welles’ use of sound effects encourages us to build pictures in our own minds. When Carl Phillips is cut off the silence which follows is not empty, but filled with mental images of destruction, death and Welles’ genius stroke is to let the listener invent his own vision of the end of the world rather than having to meet an expectation in describing it. Hitchcock, and other horror film directors, have taken this technique to the screen. In the seminal 1960 horror thriller ‘Psycho’ (Hitchcock, 1960) an actual stabbing is never witnessed in the shower scene. Hitchcock shows a knife, a screaming woman and dripping blood – the mind of the viewer fills in and completes the picture. Audience members will swear they have seen a stabbing after being duped by the clever editing.

In conclusion

The original novel was adapted in an imaginative way, perfect for the microphone, and much of the panic was created by the very fact that people could not see their assailants. This broadcast was the perfect example of radio fulfilling its potential as a dramatic medium and rather than being seen as drawbacks, the attributes of radio were embraced and exploited to their fullest extent. Firstly, listeners were informed by a ‘voice of authority’ which they were inclined to believe. The radio set that delivered their news and important information turned traitor and used its persuasive influence of previous reliability and truthfulness to blur the lines between entertainment and documentary. These listeners, exposed to no prior experiences that would aid them, lacked the expertise to differentiate the science fiction from the science fact. In addition to this most of the panicked audience members had missed the initial disclaimer making clear that the broadcast was fiction and therefore had no reason to question whether what they were hearing was absolute truth. The political climate of 1938 with Europe teetering on the brink of World War II, an atmosphere of insecurity about current political events and a general feeling of unrest about the world was a large factor in the induced panic. Finally, Welles’ dramatic techniques and sound effects completed the onslaught faced by listeners that night.

Orson Welles knew exactly what he was doing when he directed this adaptation and although he was aided by fortunate events outside of his control, his production was successful in generating widespread panic in the American public because it skilfully and smoothly subverted their frameworks of reference.


[1] There is no completely reliable source for this data – surveys were affected by the leap in popularity experienced by ‘The Mercury Theatre’ after the broadcast on October the 30th. Please refer to Cantril (1947, p.56) for detailed citations of the reports from which the 6 million figure was drawn.

[2] The quote from Fornatale and Mills (1980, p.17) is taken from a passage describing the “liberation” of the radio from the living room and the original McLuhan statement is in the same vein.


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