PANIC ON THE STREETS OF NEW YORK
A fabricated Martian invasion hit a raw nerve in a country facing the prospect of war
Just after 8.30pm on 30 October 1938, the thousands of Americans tuned to the radio show ‘Mercury Theater on the Air’ suddenly heard an alarming news flash: huge Martian fighting-machines were emerging from meteor-like spacecraft that had landed near Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. What they were listening to was an adaptation of HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Many, however, mistook it for an invasion on American soil.
“Something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake,” a desperate voice shouted down the airwaves. “Now it’s another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me… There’s a jet of flame springing from the mirror, and it leaps right at the advancing men. It strikes them head on! Good Lord, they’re turning into flame!… Enemy now turns east…
Evident objective is New York City…”
The so- called Panic Broadcast, directed and narrated by 23-year- old radio actor and future filmmaker Orson Welles, caught America at a vulnerable moment. Still besieged by the Great Depression, which had seen half of its banks close and unemployment soar to 25 per cent, the nation was struggling, and many people felt themselves just a short mischance from disaster.
Adding to the sense of dread was the rise of German imperialism across the Atlantic. Hitler was now the dark colossus of Europe, annexing Austria just a few months before Welles’s broadcast. Following the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 (which enshrined anti- Semitic Nazi doctrine in law), New York, a city with some 1.7 million Jews, seemed an obvious target for German aggression. An invasion, Martian or otherwise, was no longer unthinkable.
Papers such as The New York Times seized on Welles’s broadcast (which you can listen to at youtube.com/
watch? v=Xs0K4ApWl4g), sparking a popular outcry against fake news. Congress even considered limiting freedom of speech, while the Federal Communications Commission launched an investigation to see if any laws had been broken. Ultimately, the real-life fears of 1938 overshadowed the fictional, and Welles escaped with an on-air apology.
Police distribute food to needy New Yorkers. Orson Welles’s Panic Broadcast preyed on the fears of a fragile nation