“The War of the Worlds” is an episode of the American radio drama anthology series The Mercury Theater on the Air.
It was performed as a Halloween episode of the series on Sunday, October 30, 1938, and aired over the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network. Directed and narrated by actor and future filmmaker Orson Welles, the episode was an adaptation of H. G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds (1898). It became famous for allegedly causing mass panic, although the reality of the panic is disputed as the program had relatively few listeners.
The first two-thirds of the one-hour broadcast was presented as a series of simulated news bulletins, which suggested an actual alien invasion by Martians was currently in progress. The illusion of realism was furthered because the Mercury Theater on the Air was a sustaining show without commercial interruptions, and the first break in the program came almost 30 minutes into the broadcast. Popular legend holds that some of the radio audience may have been listening to Edgar Bergen and tuned in to “The War of the Worlds” during a musical interlude, thereby missing the clear introduction that the show was a drama, but recent research suggests this only happened in rare instances.
In the days following the adaptation, widespread outrage was expressed in the media. The program’s news-bulletin format was described as deceptive by some newspapers and public figures, leading to an outcry against the perpetrators of the broadcast and calls for regulation by the Federal Communications Commission. The episode secured Welles’s fame as a dramatist.