Invasion From Mars: The Greatest Radio Prank In History

It is 2010 and broadcasting has taken such a huge turn we barely realize how much things have changed. Let’s focus mainly on the world of radio. Gone are the days of crowding around a mic to recite a script or sing a song for an advertisement while on-air. Popular radio programs and personalities are all but forgotten. Nowadays, we have so many ways to report or discover news that the options seem endless. Newspaper, television, internet, and radio too. It’s surprising to know that we still have all these mediums available and all are put to use constantly, but have you ever wondered which will stand the test of time?

One fantastic and genius prank that was played on America in the 1930’s was the radio play, “Invasion From Mars”. Radio plays were pretty popular in those days. Amos ‘n’ Andy was one of the most popular comedy serials and played every weekday evening from 7-7:15pm. Short yes, but interesting and funny enough to attract 30 million Americans to drop whatever they were doing to tune in every evening. Radio plays were a bit like television sitcoms or daytime drama; the only difference is that everything had to be heard and our imaginations were put to more use.

The War Of The WorldsPhoto: PhantomS

“Invasion From Mars” was an idea presented by 23-year-old producer Orson Welles and written by Howard Koch – not to be mistaken with H.G. Wells who the credit was accidentally given to for the creation of the play and who was also the author of “War Of The Worlds” (remember Tom Cruise in the movie? Yeah, that story) and basically accredited with having the original idea.

The radio play took place on October 30th, 1938 as a Halloween joke which ended up freaking our nation out half to death. The script was that invaders from Mars landed in New Jersey (of all places) and were destroying our people and land with death rays. The way it was deemed to be credible was that broadcasts were simulated to announce this as real-time news! Pretty funny stuff, huh? Not for these thousands of Americans who after hearing this “news” were sent flying out of their houses, into their cars, and jamming up the roads with traffic for miles on end. In the state of New Jersey itself, there were families tying wet cloths to escape gas attacks, and one Pittsburgh woman apparently tried poisoning herself because she would “rather die this way” instead. (The woman however, did not die) People also phoned the newspapers, CBS (which was the station that harbored this radio program) and even police to ask what they should do about the invaders and how to stay safe!

Panic Stalks A City!Photo: Elia Kazan

At the end of “Invasion From Mars”, the quote, “If your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian… it’s Halloween” was said by Welles with a slight chuckle. However, you can imagine how most people would not have heard him say this as they were in a state of panic. CBS had to get on the airwaves to announce and reassure everyone that there was in fact no invasion from Mars in New Jersey ,or anywhere for that matter, and that it was meant to be a big joke. They must have realized the power of media right then and there! It took days, however, for the panic to fully disappear, but one person had apparently stated that all the intelligent people who did not panic had been listening to Charlie McCarthy instead that night.

Maybe they were right when they said you can’t believe everything you see and hear!

Read the actual script here But don’t laugh! People took this seriously at one point! (Okay, you can chuckle).