War of the Worlds was a Mischief Night prank on a grand scale in 1938

Few among us today can recall the radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds broadcast by Orson Welles on Mischief Night, 1938 that threw some people into a panic. The program’s format simulated a live newscast of developing events. The press later reported that the program had induced hysteria in some of the Depression Era audience already on edge with daily newscasts filled with rumors of war.

Brave New Jersey, released 2017

I was reminded of that event by viewing recently a 2017 film called “Brave New Jersey,” which is currently running on Epix, Prime Video, and Peacock. During an evening of few program choices, the movie title drew me in to investigate further.

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) fi;m synopsis reads:

A comedy about a small New Jersey town on the night of Orson Welles’ legendary 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, which led millions of listeners to believe the U.S. was being invaded by Martians.

Still looking for something good to watch an hour and 26 minutes later, I decided instead to check our online archive of local newspapers to see if Riverton was duped into believing that the planet was under alien attack in 1938.

The New Era, Nov 3, 1938, p1

There it was, on page one of The New Era’s issue of November 3, 1938.

Of course, Riverton’s hometown weekly paper claimed that the radio program that threw other New Jersey communities into a “frenzy” had little effect on the local citizenry.

The New Era, Nov 3, 1938, p11

Still, this news snippet buried on page 11 suggests that at least some who were fooled by this fake news Sunday evening broadcast had “…considerable explaining to do on Monday.”

I am reminded of times I played my vinyl recording of that 1938 broadcast to students I instructed at Riverton School. They weren’t impressed, but it was better than doing work when their young minds were on trick or treating.

We welcome any first-hand recollections of that dramatization and offer a way for the modern audience to imagine what it was like to gather around the family wireless in the fall of 1938. Hear the 57 minute recorded broadcast on YouTube:

The following 3m36sec video investigates the reports that Welles’ program caused mass hysteria.

Stay safe, kids, on this Halloween to remember. -JMc

Published by

John McCormick

Teacher at Riverton School 1974-2019, author, amateur historian, Historical Society of Riverton Board Member 2007-2023, newsletter editor 2007-2023, website editor 2011-2023

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