War of the Worlds Airs

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.

From the Meridian Room in the Park Plaza in New York City, we bring you the music of Ramon Raquello and his orchestra."

The sounds of "La Cumparsita" began to fill the airwaves. But within moments, the performance was interrupted by a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News, telling of strange explosions of incandescent gas occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars.

This dramatic approach - a performance interrupted by periodic news bulletins - is how writer Howard Koch adapted H. G. Wells's classic novel The War of the Worlds for radio broadcast. On October 30, 1938, the actors of The Mercury Theatre on the Air, led by twenty-three-year old Orson Welles, presented the adaptation on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). Within the first forty minutes of the program, the actors had vividly described Martians landing in New Jersey and decimating the state.

It was Halloween Eve. As Welles explained at the end of the broadcast, the adaptation of The War of the Worlds was a holiday offering - "The Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo!" But although CBS made four announcements during the broadcast identifying it as a dramatic performance, at least one million of the estimated nine to twelve million Americans who heard it were deeply scared by that "Boo" - scared into some sort of action.

In the days following the broadcast, newspapers across the country described both the fear and the actions. Headlines proclaimed, "Mars Invasion in Radio Skit Terrifies U.S.," "H.G. Wells's Book and Orson Welles's Acting Bring Prayers, Tears, Flight, and the Police," "Radio Fake Scares Nation," and "Here's the Story That Scared U.S." News stories told of the behavior of listeners. Thousands, particularly along the eastern seaboard, had telephoned local police stations for confirmation. It was estimated that more than two thousand calls came in to New York's police headquarters within one fifteen-minute span. Listeners in areas far from the East Coast called, too - mostly to check on the condition of loved ones. Others telephoned one or more of the ninety-two stations that broadcast the performance. Some called newspapers - the New York Times switchboard counted 875 calls. Many people headed for local police stations; others loaded their families into their cars and drove away from the areas mentioned in the broadcast. There were numerous stories of traffic jams.

After the performance, hundreds of listeners vented their emotions in writing. For example, 1,770 people wrote letters to the main CBS station (WABC in New York), and 1,450 wrote to the Mercury Theatre staff.

And more than six hundred contacted the newly formed Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The letters, telegrams, and petitions to the FCC now reside in two boxes within Record Group 173, Records of the Federal Communications Commission, at the National Archives.

The FCC had been established just four years earlier, by the Communications Act of 1934, to regulate interstate and international communications. Its establishment reflected the growing importance of radio in American life. Although the law specifically prohibited the commission from censoring broadcast material or from making any regulation that would interfere with freedom of expression in broadcasting, these restrictions were either misunderstood or overlooked by nearly 60 percent of those who contacted the FCC.

Many of the writers asked FCC chairman Frank P. McNinch to "do what you can to stop H G Wells [sic] Mercury Theatre." Others encouraged the commission to prevent such broadcasts in the future and to punish Orson Welles. Claude W. Morris of Chicago told the commission, "I hope you will lawfully prevent such broadcasts in the future and, if possible, severely discipline all participants." Most of those who complained also shared personal stories with the commission about how the broadcast affected them, their families, or their communities. Claude L. Stewart of Meadville, Pennsylvania, sent a telegram to the commission stating, "Mercury Theatre of air not only in bad taste but dangerous stop my wife and several other women confined to beds from shock and hysteria." The city manager of Trenton, New Jersey, asked the commission to take action "to avoid a reoccurrence of a very grave and serious situation . . . which completely crippled communication facilities of our Police Department for about three hours."

One week after the broadcast, Hadley Cantril, a Princeton University psychologist, began a study of the panic caused by the broadcast. Over a period of about three weeks, Cantril and his research team conducted detailed interviews with 135 people, 100 of whom were known to have been upset by the performance. In 1940 he published his findings in The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic.

In the interviews, the listeners revealed many reasons for their fear. Some said it was because the performance did not sound like a play. Radio had become an accepted vehicle for important announcements. In recent weeks, listeners had become accustomed to having broadcasts interrupted by important late-breaking news related to Neville Chamberlain's meeting with Adolf Hitler in Munich, Germany. Others said their fear was caused by the prestige of the speakers. The fictitious characters included professors, astronomers, military officials, and even a secretary of the interior. Still others indicated that they could readily imagine the scenes that were described. The places mentioned were familiar, particularly to listeners in New York and New Jersey. And the actors repeatedly indicated difficulty in believing what they were seeing. The listeners could relate to their confusion.

In addition to Cantril's study, numerous other surveys were conducted following the broadcast. Two of the largest were by CBS and the American Institute of Public Opinion. They found that between 40 and 50 percent of the listeners had tuned into the broadcast late. Many had turned their dials away from the most popular program of the week, The Chase and Sanborn Hour, starring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, after the first act had ended. Others tuned in at the suggestion of neighbors or relatives who had called them regarding the Martian broadcast.

Not everyone who listened was scared into some sort of action. Many who were initially frightened simply looked outdoors, turned the dial to see if another station was carrying the "news," or consulted a newspaper listing that described the evening's broadcast schedule.

Millions of other listeners were delighted by the performance. Many of them, too, wrote letters. Of the 1,770 people who wrote to the main CBS station about the broadcast, 1,086 were complimentary. In addition, 91 percent of the letters received by the Mercury Theatre staff were positive. And roughly 40 percent of the letters sent to the FCC were supportive of the broadcast.

These letters focused on the entertainment value of the program, discouraged censorship, encouraged rebroadcasting the performance, and in many cases, offered sharp criticism of those who had complained. The singer Eddie Cantor sent a telegram to the FCC urging the commission to consider the future of radio as public entertainment. He stated that "the Mercury Theater [sic] drama . . . was a melodramatic masterpiece . . . censorship would retard radio immeasurably and produce a spineless radio theater as unbelievable as the script of the War of the Worlds." Rowena Ferguson of Nashville, Tennessee, encouraged the commission to consider the consequences of potential censorship by warning, "The evils of a [sic] censorship are more far-reaching and harder to handle than instances of error in judgement on the part of broadcasters." Mrs. Lillian Davenport of Texarkana, Texas, told the commission that "how anyone with the intelligence above that of a two-year-old child could be frightened by it is utterly incomprehensible." And J. V. Yaukey of Aberdeen, South Dakota, characterized the Mercury Theatre as a "radio high-light" and poked fun at some of the other listeners. He told the commission,

I suppose that by this time you have received many letters from numerous cranks and crack-pots who quickly became jitterbugs during the program. I was one of the thousands who heard this program and did not jump out of the window, did not attempt suicide, did not break my arm while beating a hasty retreat from my apartment, did not anticipate a horrible death, did not hear the Martians "rapping on my chamber door," did not see the monsters landing in war-like regalia in the park across the street, but sat serenely entertained no end by the fine portrayal of a fine play.

M. B. Wales of Gastonia, North Carolina, suggested to the commission that "if you take them [broadcasters] to task over this [the broadcast], won't you also have to stop fairy tales and stories about Santa Claus to keep a gullible public from becoming excited." Even children wrote to the commission. In a handwritten note, twelve-year-old Clifford Sickles of Rockford, Illinois, told the commission, "I enjoyed the broadcast of Mr. Wells [sic] . . . I heard about half of it but my mother and sister got frightened and I had to turn it off."

In the aftermath of the broadcast, The Mercury Theatre on the Air obtained corporate sponsorship from the Campbell Soup Company and became The Campbell Playhouse. Orson Welles received a multifilm deal from RKO Pictures. And ordinary citizens, the broadcast industry, and the government all gained a much deeper awareness of the power of radio.

A version of this article with teaching activities appeared as the "Teaching With Documents" feature in the May/June 2002 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies. Since 1977, education specialists at the National Archives have been contributing "Teaching With Documents" articles to the journal, providing access to National Archives holdings and suggesting creative strategies for integrating primary sources into classroom instruction. For more information, write, call, or e-mail the Education Staff (NWE) at the National Archives and Records Administration, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740-6001; 301-837-3478; education@nara.gov.

The author wishes to thank National Archives colleague Tab Lewis for his research assistance with this article.
Note on Sources

Letters and telegrams cited in this article are in the Office of the Executive Director, General Correspondence files, 1927—46, Records of the Federal Communications Commission, Record Group 173, National Archives at College Park, Maryland.

The main secondary sources consulted were Hadley Cantril, The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic (1940), Susan J. Douglas, Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination, from Amos 'N' Andy and Edward R. Murrow to Wolfman Jack and Howard Stern (2000); Ron Lackmann, The Encyclopedia of American Radio: An A—Z Guide to Radio from Jack Benny to Howard Stern (2000); David Thompson, Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles (1996); Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, This Is Orson Welles (1998).

The audio of the broadcast is available online from the West Windsor Branch of the Mercer County, New Jersey, Chamber of Commerce at www.waroftheworlds.org.

MERC ANNOUNCER: The Columbia Broadcasting System and it's affliated stations pesent Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air in a radio play by Howard Koch suggested by the H.G. Wells Novel "The War of the Worlds."

(MUSIC: MERCURY THEATRE MUSICAL THEME)

MERC ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen: the director of the Mercury Theatre and star of these broadcasts, Orson Welles . . .

ANNOUNCER TWO: Ladies and gentlemen, here is the latest bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. Toronto, Canada: Professor Morse of McGill University reports observing a total of three explosions on the planet Mars, between the hours of 7:45 P.M. and 9:20 P.M., eastern standard time. This confirms earlier reports received from American observatories. Now, nearer home, comes a special announcement from Trenton, New Jersey. It is reported that at 8:50 P.M. a huge, flaming object, believed to be a meteorite, fell on a farm in the neighborhood of Grovers Mill, New Jersey, twenty-two miles from Trenton.

The flash in the sky was visible within a radius of several hundred miles and the noise of the impact was heard as far north as Elizabeth.

We have dispatched a special mobile unit to the scene, and will have our commentator, Carl Phillips, give you a word desription as soon as he can reach there from Princeton. In the meantime, we take you to the Hotel Martinet in Brooklyn, where Bobby Millette and his orchestra are offering a program of dance music.

(SWING BAND FOR TWENTY SECONDS . . . THEN CUT)

ANNOUNCER TWO: We take you now to Grovers Mill, New Jersey.

(CROWD NOISES . . . POLICE SIRENS)

PHILLIPS: I wish I could convey the atmosphere . . . the background of this . . . fantastic scene. Hundreds of cars are parked in a field in back of us. Police are trying to rope off the roadway leading to the farm. But it's no use. They're breaking right through. Cars' headlights throw an enormous spot on the pit where the object's half buried. Some of the more daring souls are now venturing near the edge. Their silhouettes stand out against the metal sheen.

(FAINT HUMMING SOUND)

One man wants to touch the thing . . . he's having an argument with a policeman. The policeman wins. . . . Now, ladies and gentlemen, there's something I haven't mentioned in all this excitement, but now it's becoming more distinct. Perhaps you've caught it already on your radio. Listen:

(LONG PAUSE) . . .

Do you hear it? It's a curious humming sound that seems to come from inside the object. I'll move the microphone nearer. (PAUSE) Now we're not more then twenty-five feet away. Can you hear it now? Oh, Professor Pierson!

PIERSON: Yes, Mr. Phillips?

PHILLIPS: Can you tell us the meaning of that scraping noise inside the thing?

PIERSON: Possibly the unequal cooling of its surface.

PHILLIPS: I see, do you still think it's a meteor, Professor?

PIERSON: I don't know what to think. The metal casing is definitely extraterrestrial . . . not found on this earth. Friction with the earth's atmosphere usually tears holes in a meteorite. This thing is smooth and, as you can see, of cylindrical shape.

PHILLIPS: Just a minute! Something's happening! Ladies and gentlemen, this is terrific! This end of the thing is beginning to flake off! The top is beginning to rotate like a screw! The thing must be hollow!

VOICES: She's movin'! Look, the darn thing's unscrewing! Keep back, there! Keep back, I tell you! Maybe there's men in it trying to escape! It's red hot, they'll burn to a cinder! Keep back there. Keep those idiots back!

(SUDDENLY THE CLANKING SOUND OF A HUGE PIECE OF FALLING METAL)

VOICES: She's off! The top's loose! Look out there! Stand back!

PHILLIPS: Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed . . . Wait a minute! Someone's crawling out of the hollow top. Someone or . . . something. I can see peering out of that black hole two luminous disks . . are they eyes? It might be a face. It might be . . .

(SHOUT OF AWE FROM THE CROWD)

PHILLIPS: Good heavens, something's wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now it's another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing's body. It's large, large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face, it . . . Ladies and gentlemen, it's indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate. The monster or whatever it is can hardly move. It seems weighed down by . . . possibly gravity or something. The thing's raising up. The crowd falls back now. They've seen plenty. This is the most extraordinary experience. I can't find words . . . I'll pull this microphone with me as I talk. I'll have to stop the description until I can take a new position. Hold on, will you please, I'll be right back in a minute.

(FADE INTO PIANO)

ANNOUNCER: We are bringing you an eyewitness account of what's happening on the Wilmuth farm, Grovers mill, New Jersey. (MORE PIANO) We now return you to Carl Phillips at Grovers Mill.

PHILLIPS: Ladies and gentlemen (Am I on?). Ladies and gentlemen, here I am, back of a stone wall that adjoins Mr. Wilmuth's garden. From here I get a sweep of the whole scene. I'll give you every detail as long as I can talk. As long as I can see. More state police have arrived. They're drawing up a cordon in front of the pit, about thirty of them. No need to push the crowd back now. They're willing to keep their distance. The captain is conferring with someone. We can't quite see who. Oh yes, I believe it's Professor Pierson. Yes, it is. Now they've parted. The Professor moves around one side, studying the object, while the captain and two policemen advance with somethingin their hands. I can see it now. It's a white handkerchief tied to a pole . . . a flag of truce. If those creatures know what that means . . . what anything means!. . . Wait! Something's happening!

(HISSING SOUND FOLLOWED BY A HUMMING THAT INCREASES IN INTENSITY)

PHILLIPS: A humped shape is rising out of the pit. I can make out a small beam of light against a mirror. What's that? 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!

(SCREAMS AND UNEARTHLY SHRIEKS)

PHILLIPS: Now the whole field's caught fire. (EXPLOSION) The woods . . . the barns . . . the gas tanks of automobiles . . . it's spreading everywhere. It's coming this way. About twenty yards to my right . . .

(DEAD SILENCE)

ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, due to circumstances beyond our control, we are unable to continue the broadcast from Grovers Mill. Evidently there's some difficulty with our field transmission. However, we will return to that point at the earliest opportunity.

ANNOUNCER TWO: Ladies and gentlemen, I have just been handed a message that came in from Grovers Mill by telephone. Just a moment. At least forty people, including six state troopers lie dead in a field east of the village of Grovers Mill, their bodies burned and distorted beyond all possible recognition. The next voice you hear will be that of Brigadier General Montgomery Smith, commander of the state militia at Trenton, New Jersey.

SMITH: I have been requested by the governor of New Jersey to place the counties of Mercer and Middlesex as far west as Princeton, and east to Jamesburg, under martial law. No one will be permitted to enter this area except by special pass issued by state or military authorities. Four companies of state militia are proceeding from Trenton to Grovers Mill, and will aid in the evacuation of homes within the range of military operations. Thank you.

ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make. Incredible as it may seem, both the observations of science and the evidence of our eyes lead to the inescapable assumption that those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars. The battle which took place tonight at Grovers Mill has ended in one of the most startling defeats ever suffered by any army in modern times; seven thousand men armed with rifles and machine guns pitted against a single fighting machine of the invaders from Mars. One hundred and twenty known survivors. The rest strewn over the battle area from Grovers Mill to Plainsboro, crushed and trampled to death under the metal feet of the monster, or burned to cinders by its heat ray.

Wait a minute . . . Enemy now in sight above the Palisades. Five -- five great machines. First one is crossing river. I can see it from here, wading the Hudson like a man wading through a brook . . . A bulletin's handed me . . . Martian cylinders are falling all over the country. One outside Buffalo, one in Chicago, St. Louis . . . seem to be timed and spaced . . . Now the first machine reaches the shore. He stands watching, looking over the city. His steel, cowlish head is even with the skyscrapers. He waits for the others. They rise like a line of new towers on the city's west side . . . Now they're lifting their metal hands. This is the end now. Smoke comes out . . . black smoke, drifting over the city. People in the streets see it now. They're running towards the East River . . . thousands of them, dropping in like rats. Now the smoke's spreading faster. It's reached Times Square. People trying to run away from it, but it's no use. They're falling like flies. Now the smoke's crossing Sixth Avenue . . . Fifth Avenue . . . one hundred yards away . . . it's fifty feet . . .

(BODY FALLS)

MERC ANNOUNCER: You're listening to a CBS presentation of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air in an original dramatization of "The War of the Worlds" by H.G. Wells. The performance will continue after a brief intermission. This is the Columbia . . . Broadcasting System

Suddenly, my eyes were attracted to the immense flock of black birds that hovered directly below me. They circled to the ground, and there before my eyes, stark and silent, lay the Martians, with the hungry birds pecking and tearing brown shreds of flesh from their dead bodies. Later when their bodies were examined in the laboratories, it was found that they were killed by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared. . . slain, after all man's defenses had failed, by the humblest thing that God in His wisdom put upon this earth.

(MUSIC SWELLS UP AND OUT)

Orson Welles: This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that The War of The Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo! Starting now, we couldn't soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night. . . so we did the best next thing. We annihiliated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the C. B. S. You will be releieved, I hope, to learn that we didn't mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian. . .it's Hallowe'en.

(MERCURY THEATRE THEME UP FULL, THEN DOWN)

Announcer: Tonight the Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations coast-to-coast have brought you "The War of the Worlds," by H.G. Wells, the seventeenth in its weekly series of dramatic broadcasts featuring Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air. Next week we present a dramatization of three famous short stories. . . . This is the Columbia Broadcasting System.

The War of the Worlds was an episode of the American radio drama anthology series Mercury Theatre on the Air. It was performed as a Halloween episode of the series on October 30, 1938 and aired over the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network. Directed and narrated by Orson Welles, the episode was an adaptation of H. G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds.

The first two thirds of the 60-minute broadcast was presented as a series of simulated news bulletins, which suggested to many listeners that an actual Martian invasion was in progress. Compounding the issue was the fact that the Mercury Theatre on the Air was a 'sustaining show' (it ran without commercial breaks), thus adding to the dramatic effect. Although there were sensationalist accounts in the press about a supposed panic in response to the broadcast, the precise extent of listener response has been debated. In the days following the adaptation, however, there was widespread outrage. The program's news-bulletin format was decried as cruelly deceptive by some newspapers and public figures, leading to an outcry against the perpetrators of the broadcast, but the episode launched Orson Welles to fame.

Welles' adaptation was one of the Radio Project's first studies.

The program, broadcast from the 20th floor at 485 Madison Avenue in New York City, starts with an introduction from the novel, describing the intentions of the aliens and noting that the adaptation was set in 1939, a year ahead of the actual broadcast date. The program continues as a weather report, then as an ordinary dance band remote featuring "Ramon Raquello and His Orchestra" (actually the CBS orchestra under the direction of Bernard Herrmann) that is interrupted by news flashes about strange explosions on Mars. Welles makes his first appearance as (the fictional) famous astronomer and Princeton professor Richard Pierson, who refutes speculation about life on Mars.

The news grows more frequent and increasingly ominous as a cylindrical meteorite lands in Grover's Mill, New Jersey. A crowd gathers at the site and events are related by reporter "Carl Phillips" (portrayed by Frank Readick). The meteorite unscrews, revealing itself as a rocket machine, and onlookers catch a glimpse of a tentacled, pulsating, barely mobile Martian before it incinerates the crowd with "Heat-Rays." Phillips' shouts about incoming flames are cut off in mid-sentence. (Later surveys indicate that many listeners heard only this portion of the show before contacting neighbors or family to inquire about the broadcast. Many contacted others in turn, leading to rumors and confusion.)

Regular programming breaks down as the studio struggles to keep up with casualty updates, firefighting developments and the like. A shaken Pierson speculates about Martian technology. The New Jersey state militia declares martial law and attacks the cylinder; a message from their field headquarters goes on about the overwhelming force of properly equipped infantry and the helplessness of the Martians in Earth's gravity until a tripod alien fighting machine rears up from the pit.

The studio returns to establish the Martians as an invading army with the obliteration of the militia force. Emergency response bulletins give way to damage reports and evacuation instructions while millions of refugees clog the roads. Three Martian tripods from the cylinder destroy power stations and uproot bridges and railroads, reinforced by three others from a second cylinder as gas explosions continue. An unnamed Secretary of the Interior advises the nation. (The "secretary" was originally intended to be a portrayal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, then President, but CBS insisted this detail, among others, be changed. The "secretary" did, however, sound like Roosevelt as the result of directions to actor Kenny Delmar by Welles.)

A live connection is established to a field artillery battery. Its gun crew reports damaging one machine and a release of black smoke/poison gas before fading in to the sound of coughing. The lead plane of a wing of bombers broadcasts its approach and remains on the air as their engines are burned by the Heat Ray and the plane dives on the invaders. Radio operators go active and fall silent, most right after reporting the approach of the black smoke. The planes destroyed one machine, but cylinders are falling all across the country.

This section ends famously: a news reporter (played by Ray Collins), broadcasting from atop the CBS building, describes the Martian invasion of New York City — "five great machines" wading across the Hudson River, poison smoke drifting over the city, people running and diving into the East River] "like rats", others "falling like flies" — until he, too, succumbs to the poison gas. Finally, a despairing ham radio operator is heard calling, "2X2L calling CQ. Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there.... anyone?"

After an intermission for "station identification", in which announcer Dan Seymour mentions the show's fictionality, the last third is a monologue and dialogue, with Welles returning as Professor Pierson, describing the aftermath of the attacks. The story ends, as does the novel, with the Martians falling victim to earthly germs and bacteria.

After the play, Welles informally breaks character to remind listeners that the broadcast was a Halloween concoction (the equivalent, as he puts it, "of dressing up in a sheet and saying, 'Boo!'"). Popular mythology holds this "disclaimer" was hastily added to the broadcast at the insistence of CBS executives as they became aware of panic inspired by the program; in fact, it had appeared in Koch's working script for the play, as detailed in his 1968 book The Panic Broadcast.

Some listeners heard only a portion of the broadcast, and in the atmosphere of tension and anxiety leading to World War II, took it to be a news broadcast. Newspapers reported that panic ensued, people fleeing the area, others thinking they could smell poison gas or could see flashes of lightning in the distance.[citation needed]

Richard J. Hand cites studies by unnamed historians who "calculate[d] that some six million heard the CBS broadcast; 1.7 million believed it to be true, and 1.2 million were 'genuinely frightened'". While Welles and company were heard by a comparatively small audience (in the same period, NBC's audience was an estimated 30 million), the uproar was anything but minute: within a month, there were 12,500 newspaper articles about the broadcast or its impact, while Adolf Hitler cited the panic, as Hand writes, as "evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy."

Later studies suggested this "panic" was less widespread than newspapers suggested. During this period, many newspapers were concerned that radio, a new medium, would make them defunct. In addition, this was a time of yellow journalism, and as a result, journalists took this opportunity to demonstrate the dangers of broadcast by embellishing the story, and the panic that ensued, greatly.

Robert E. Bartholomew suggests that hundreds of thousands were frightened in some way, but notes that evidence of people taking action based on this fear is "scant" and "anecdotal".[3] Indeed, contemporary news articles indicate that police were swamped with hundreds of calls in numerous locations, but stories of people doing anything more than calling the authorities typically involve groups of ones or tens and were often reported by people who were panicking themselves.

Later studies indicate that many missed the repeated notices that the broadcast was fictional, partly because the Mercury Theatre (an unsponsored "cultural" program with a relatively small audience) ran opposite the popular Chase and Sanborn Hour over the Red Network of NBC, hosted by Don Ameche and featuring comic ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and singer Nelson Eddy, three of the most popular figures in broadcasting. About 15 minutes into the Chase and Sanborn program the first comic sketch ended and a musical number began, and many listeners began tuning around the dial at that point. According to the American Experience program The Battle Over Citizen Kane, Welles knew the schedule of the Chase & Sanborn show, and scheduled the first report from Grover's Mill at the 12-minute mark to heighten the audience's confusion. As a result, some listeners happened upon the CBS broadcast at the point the Martians emerge from their spacecraft.

Many listeners were apparently confused. It must be noted that the confusion cannot be credited entirely to naïvete. Though many of the actors' voices should have been recognisable from other radio shows, nothing like The War of the Worlds broadcast had been attempted in the United States, so listeners were accustomed to accepting newsflashes as reliable.

The problem is that the working script had only three statements concerning the fictional nature of the program: at the beginning, at 40 minutes, and at the end. In fact, the warning at the 40-minute mark is the only one after the actors start speaking in character, and before Welles breaks character at the end. This structure is similar to earlier Mercury Theatre broadcasts: due to the lack of sponsorship (which often included a commercial message at the 30-minute mark during an hour-long show), Welles and company were able to schedule breaks at will, depending on the pacing of a narrative. Furthermore, the show's technique of jumping between scenes and narratives made it hard for the audience to distinguish between fact and fiction, so it is understandable that they were no more likely to perceive the three statements of the fictional nature of the program as being 'outside' the narrative, than they were to perceive the introduction (and subsequent interruption) of the music as being 'inside' the narrative.

While War of the Worlds was in progress, some residents in northeastern cities went to ask neighbors what was happening (many homes still did not have telephones). As the story was repeated, rumors began and caused some panic.

Contemporary accounts spawned urban legends, many of which have come to be accepted through repetition. Several people reportedly rushed to the "scene" of the events in New Jersey to see the unfolding events, including a few geologists from Princeton University who went looking for the "meteorite" that had fallen near their school. Some people, who had brought firearms, reportedly mistook a farmer's water tower for a Martian Tripod and shot at it.

Initially Grover's Mill was deserted, but crowds developed. Eventually police were sent to control the crowds. To people arriving later in the evening, the scene really did look like the events being narrated, with panicked crowds and flashing police lights streaming across the masses.[citation needed]

Some people called CBS, newspapers or the police in confusion over the realism of the news bulletins. There were instances of panic throughout the US as a result of the broadcast, especially in New York and New Jersey.

Future Tonight Show host Jack Paar did announcing duties that night for Cleveland CBS affiliate WGAR. When the phone lines to the studio started to light up with panicking listeners calling in, Paar attempted to calm them on the phone and on-air by saying, "The world is not coming to an end. Trust me. When have I ever lied to you?" When the frightened listeners started charging Paar with 'covering up the truth,' Jack then called WGAR's station manager for help. Oblivious to the situation, the manager advised the usually emotional Paar to calm down, saying it was "all a tempest in a teapot."

Seattle CBS affiliate stations KIRO and KVI broadcast Orson Welles' radio drama. While this broadcast was heard around the country, it made a deep impact in Concrete, Washington. At the point where the Martian invaders were invading towns and the countryside with flashes of light and poison gases and the lights were going down, there was a loud explosion and a power failure plunged almost the entire town of 1,000 into darkness. Some listeners fainted while others grabbed their families to head into the mountains. Others headed for the hills to guard their moonshine stills. One was said to have jumped up out of his chair and, in bare feet, run two miles to the center of town. Some men grabbed their guns, and one Catholic businessman got his wife into the car, drove to the nearest service station and demanded gasoline. Without paying the attendant, he rushed to Bellingham, Washington (50 miles away) to see his priest for a last-minute absolution of sins. He reportedly told the gas-station attendant that paying for the gas "[wouldn't] make any difference, everyone is going to die!"

Because phone lines as well as electricity were out, residents were unable to call neighbors, family or friends to calm their fears. Of course, the real story was not as fantastic as the radio drama: all that had occurred was that the Superior Portland cement company's sub-station suffered a short-circuit with a flash of brilliant light, and the town's lights went dark. The more conservative radio-listeners in Concrete (who had been listening to Charlie McCarthy on another station), calmed neighbors by assuring that they hadn't heard about any "disaster". Reporters heard soon after of the coincidental blackout of Concrete and sent the story over the newswire and soon the town of Concrete was known worldwide.

Edgar Bergen and Don Ameche, who were continuing their Chase & Sanborn Hour broadcast on NBC, are often credited with "saving the world". It is said many listeners were reassured by hearing their tones on a neighboring station.

On October 30, 1938, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) broadcast an adaptation of The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. The hour-long radio program began with an announcer introducing a musical performance and moments later interrupting with a special news bulletin describing the landing of Martians in New Jersey and their subsequent attacks with death rays. Although CBS made four announcements during the broadcast identifying it as a dramatic performance, millions of Americans who heard it were scared into some sort of action, many wrote letters. The newly created Federal Communications Commission received more than 600 letters about the broadcast.