BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — It was after 7 p.m. on Oct. 30, 1938, when telephone operators began receiving calls about a smoky fog creeping over Birmingham.
In fact, according to reports at the time, the cloud was the result of several wildfires in the area. However, many in the area believed it was the end of the world.
The outcry and fear came when the CBS Radio Network aired a radio adaptation of HG Wells’ novel “War of the Worlds,” about a Martian invasion of Earth. Narrated by Orson Welles, the play began as a reading of the story, but then reimagined the story after the play as if the invasion was happening then, complete with fake radio reports.
According to reports at the time, an estimated 6 million people across the country listened to the broadcast, some of whom believed it to be true.
Here’s what newspapers at the time reported after the broadcast:
- “During the play, one of the actors reported ‘a heavy black mist hanging over the earth…of extreme density, nature unknown. Concerned residents of Birmingham flooded newspapers and radio asking if the smoke was part of a Martian ‘invasion.'” (United Press International)
- “A motorist pulling up to a gas station to fill up got this response from a resigned-looking operator. “You don’t need gas, mate. Haven’t you heard of them saying the world is coming to an end?'” (The Birmingham Age-Herald)
- “A Birmingham woman complained that her husband was in bad health and her sister had just arrived from Mississippi in the hospital, and that both of these members of her family were seriously affected.” (The Birmingham News)
- “One Birmingham resident who has a son in Princeton reported that four of his friends called to see if his son was safe in Princeton after it was reported over the air that Martians had landed there.” (The Birmingham News)
- “A West End resident said female neighbors ran from their homes to seek shelter from the reported attack.” (The Birmingham News)
- “Bessemer shared the excitement, and members of the National Guard rushed to call to see if they were needed. The Naval Reserves did the same.” (The Birmingham News)
- “A hysterical woman from Mobile called frantically to the newspaper if it would be safer to stay in town or go to higher ground.” (Birmingham Age-Herald)
- “The Advertiser’s phones were busy last night non-stop for almost an hour with radio listeners wanting to know if it was true that Mars had collided with the Earth and that people in the New York area were being murdered by the thousands (Montgomery Advertiser)
- “A prayer meeting was called to pray for the salvation of the world. Two women passed out.” (United Press International)
- “One woman said that a guest at her house from New York fainted when it was stated that Times Square was in ruins and that New Yorkers were seeking safety in the river. There were other reports of fainting and prayers. (Montgomery Advertiser)
- “Women in nightgowns ran into the streets of Montgomery, and a preacher in the pulpit announced that he had just heard ‘the world is coming to an end.'” (Birmingham Age-Herald)
- “One man telephoned to say that his invalid wife had become hysterical and that her condition had not improved when she learned that she had been listening to fiction.” (Montgomery Advertiser)
- “A few minutes later, while the broadcast was still describing the incredible giants, a three-engine plane with passengers from the city airport arrived at a low altitude above the city. Its engines created an almost deafening roar as it sailed overhead.” (The Birmingham News)
- “Morton Mestel, a student from Brooklyn, NY and president of the Psi chapter of Phi Sigma Delta fraternity, said this morning that his fraternity plans to telegraph a protest to the Federal Communications Commission. He said several classmates heard the broadcast in his room. One boy was from Princeton, NY, near the dramatized scene of the disaster. He said the young man and others were terrified of the program and tried in vain to call their parents long distance. After the announcer ended his drama by saying “They got me”, another announcer explained that it was just a radio show. This broke the tension, but one of the boys burst into uncontrollable sobs, others began breaking chairs, and one damaged the radio, such a shock.” (The Tuscaloosa News)
- “WF Hutchins, operator of the Selma linotype, received a head injury while rushing to a neighbor’s house to spread the news and struck a wire in the dark.” (Birmingham Age-Herald)
- “Apparently few Anniston residents heard the Sunday night radio program that upset people across the country when they did not understand the point of the program. A check at the switchboard here revealed that there had been no unusual number of calls during the duration of the program. Usually when an ambulance or fire department calls, people in all parts of town start calling for information.” (Anniston Star)
The national response to the play led sociologist Hadley Cantril to write “Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic” in 1940. In his research, Cantril estimated that of the 6 million people who heard the broadcast, 1.7 million believed it. was real.
However, current research questions how widespread the hysteria surrounding the broadcast actually was.
“Far fewer people heard the broadcast—and even fewer panicked—than most people today believe,” Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow wrote in a 2013 article for Slate. “How do we know? On the night the program aired, the CE Hooper ratings service called 5,000 households for its national ratings survey. “What program are you listening to?” the respondent service asked. Only 2 percent answered the radio “play” or “Orson Welles program” or something similar, suggesting CBS. None listed “news broadcast” according to the summary published in Broadcasting. In other words, 98 percent of those polled were listening to something else or nothing at all on October 30, 1938.”
In their article, Pooley and Socolow argued that some of the newspaper coverage at the time may have been exaggerated to delegitimize radio, which had become a staunch competitor to their business.
“During the Depression, radio siphoned advertising revenue from print, seriously hurting the newspaper industry,” they said. “So the newspapers seized the opportunity offered by the Welles program to discredit radio as a source of news.” The newspaper industry has created a panic to prove to advertisers and regulators that radio management is irresponsible and cannot be trusted.”