War of the Worlds New York Times Headline
The New York Times headline the day after the famous "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast in 1938 Wikimedia Commons

Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast first aired on Oct. 30, 1938, and the infamous hoax’s legacy has only grown since then. The “War of the Worlds” broadcast about an alien invasion was presented without any indication that Welles was doing an dramatic reading of the H.G. Wells novel, and the legend goes that it created widespread panic as listeners thought an invasion was actually happening. That's been proven to be more fiction than fact, but it remains a big part of the event's legacy.

The broadcast was part of the “Mercury Theatre on the Air” series on the Columbia Broadcasting System, CBS, radio network, one of the most popular entertainment events of the time. The “War of the Worlds” broadcast changed a few details of Wells’ novel, such as setting the invasion in Grover’s Mill, N.J., and was presented as a set of two newscasts with the third act presented as a dialogue discussing the conclusion of the invasion. As with Wells’ novel, the aliens succumb to human germs.

The popular belief that no one knew the broadcast was merely a dramatic reading is easily debunked as there are three announcements that say the events are fictional. According to the legend, some of the panic was due to listeners tuning in after the start of the broadcast, and many believe Welles timed the start of the "invasion" right as a popular radio program was taking a musical break, and the second announcement occurs more than 40 minutes after the broadcast has been on air.

As noted by the Los Angeles Times, more than 6 million listeners tuned in to Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast, and while widespread panic may not have actually occurred, there was plenty of reaction. The New York Times headline on Oct. 31 read “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact” and opened with “A wave of mass hysteria seized thousands of radio listeners between 8:15 and 9:30 o'clock last night when a broadcast of a dramatization of H. G. Wells' fantasy, "The War of the Worlds," led thousands to believe that an interplanetary conflict had started with invading Martians spreading wide death and destruction in New Jersey and New York.”

Part of the appeal of, and response to, the broadcast was Welles’ timing and stoking of the fear of war as America dealt with the aftereffects of the Great Depression, reports the L.A. Times. Welles’ script was sold at auction to Steven Spielberg, who later directed a film adaptation of “War of the Worlds,” and the broadcast would become a part of pop culture, referenced in cartoons, television shows and movies. Welles, just 23 at the time, would go on to even bigger things, directing “Citizen Kane” in 1941.

The “War of the Worlds” broadcast script can be read here and the audio can be listened to below.