War of the Worlds: The Original Broadcast, Aftermath, And Myths
By | October 25, 2019
No one thought a reality-style radio drama would work
As legend has it, Orson Welles's infamous radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Welles was such a polarizing piece of fiction that it sent listeners into the streets screaming with terror. Supposedly, people were so afraid of the Martian invasion playing out on their radios that panicked gripped the nation, but that's not what really happened. In reality, the fervor was created by the newspaper industry as a way to attack the burgeoning new media format of radio, and Welles, ever the edge lord, used the media's claim to his advantage. The story of The War of the Worlds radio drama, which broadcast on this day in 1938, is one that's steeped in myth.
During pre-production for The War of the Worlds, Welles and his crew strove to make the show sound as realistic as possible. The cast meticulously researched their roles, and the sound effects team attempted to formulate the actual sounds that a Martian space craft would make. Despite their hard work, no one on the crew thought that anyone listening would believe the drama was a real report, though Welles later claimed that he intentionally leaned into the realism of the piece.
I had conceived the idea of doing a radio broadcast in such a manner that a crisis would actually seem to be happening, and would be broadcast in such a dramatized form as to appear to be a real event taking place at that time, rather than a mere radio play.
Everyone working on the radio drama thought it was silly
Aside from Welles, who supposedly thought his alien radio drama bled authenticity, no one on the writing staff or in the cast believed that the show would scare anyone. It's clear from the handwritten notes in the margins of an early draft of the script that cast members from the Mercury Theater found the story to be a bit too silly and fantastic. They reworked the dialogue to make it sound real, as opposed to the stilted prose that served Welles in later works like Citizen Kane and The Stranger.
Even with all the work that the cast put into the show, they believed that they were trying to spit-shine a garbage can. Radio critic Ben Gross wrote in his autobiography that when he spoke to an actor about the upcoming broadcast, they told him "Just between us, it's lousy" and that it would "probably bore you to death."