Weird History
6.9k readers

The 1938 Fake News Story That Mobilized The Navy... In Fear Of Aliens

Updated October 4, 2017 6.9k views10 items

In 1938, aliens attacked. Well, that's at least what Americans heard over the radio. Orson Welles and a group of actors interrupted a radio broadcast to warn the public that the planet had been invaded by aliens - really, they were just reading a script based off the novel, The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells. Unlike successful real-life alien hoaxes, this '38 fake news story spiraled the entire country into mass hysteria... Or did it? 

The War of the Worlds broadcast was definitely a false tale about aliens. However, its affect on the public is not as clear. Sources dispute the amount of panic actually caused by Welles's stunt, a Halloween prank with its effects hyped up by a newspaper industry out to damage radio's reputation. The fake news phenomenon impacted people beyond the US, and even worried the US Army enough to mobilize the Navy. Read on below to find out more about this wild alien stunt!

  • The Broadcast Came From The Mercury Theater Group On Halloween Eve

    Photo: Acme News Photos / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    On October 30, 1938, actor and director Orson Welles took to the radio to announce that aliens had landed on earth and were attacking New York. The town of Grovers Mills, New Jersey, was specifically brought into play by Welles and his group of actors, the Mercury Theater group.

    According to History:

    "The Martians mounted walking war machines and fired “heat-ray” weapons at the puny humans gathered around the crash site. They annihilated a force of 7,000 National Guardsman, and after being attacked by artillery and bombers the Martians released a poisonous gas into the air. Soon “Martian cylinders” landed in Chicago and St. Louis. The radio play was extremely realistic, with Welles employing sophisticated sound effects and his actors doing an excellent job portraying terrified announcers and other characters."   

  • The Newspaper Headlines The Very Next Day Reported That Thousands Were Convinced Of The Martian Attack

    Photo: The New York Times / Wikipedia Commons / Fair Use

    Some reports claimed that thousands spiraled into panic at the announcement of the alien invasion, and some even hike those numbers up to nearly a million. One of the more widespread rumors was that thousands of New Yorkers flooded the streets to see the invasion first-hand. It seemed Welles had properly upped the tension "with fake radio reports from the US infantry and air force." 

    The town of Grove Mills, New Jersey, seemed to take the brunt of the panic, with its residents reportedly being led to believe their water tower had been taken over by aliens - they proceeded to shoot at it to protect themselves.  

  • The War Of The Worlds Broadcast Probably Didn't Cause Mass Panic, Though

    Despite numerous newspaper reports of widespread panic in various cities, it probably never happened on the rumored scale. According to Slate, those who were tuned in recognized the broadcast as a prank. It probably helped that the broadcast was preceded by a voice on the radio saying: "The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the air in War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells."

    Welles also probably never meant the broadcast to cause panic, either - he was working off a script that would be recognizable to anyone who had read H.G. Wells's book. In addition, CBS required Welles to announce that the broadcast was fiction both before and during the act. 

  • Newspapers Spread The Rumor Of Panic To Get Back At The Radio Industry

    A big reason why the rumors of panic were so widespread was thanks to newspapers, which sought to discredit radio, a fairly "new medium." Not only this, but according to the Telegraph, newspapers had a specific bone to pick with radio.

    "Radio had siphoned off advertising revenue from print during the Depression, badly damaging the newspaper industry. So the papers seized the opportunity presented by Welles’s program, perhaps to discredit radio as a source of news. The newspaper industry sensationalized the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted." 

    Various major newspapers reported the supposed panic, such as the Chicago Herald, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Boston Daily Globe