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How the great ‘War of the Worlds’ radio panic is the Halloween hoax that won’t die

By in Press Enterprise on October 31, 2017

By Richard Wagoner

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard about the night that panicked America.

Seventy-nine years ago this week – October 30, 1938 – was the night that Orson Welles scared the nation into believing that the earth was being taken over by Martians through his presentation of a radio adaption of H. G. Wells’ book, “War of the Worlds,” on his CBS program “Mercury Theater on the Air.”

I’ve heard about it for years. In 1975, ABC Television aired a television drama depicting the event, and even National Public Radio, as I recall, got into the act by producing a contemporary version of the play back around 1988.

According to the story, people listening to the program didn’t realize they were listening to a play, instead thinking that the live news broadcasts from Grover’s Mill, New Jersey were real. Around the country, people panicked, running into the street, filling highways trying to escape, and begging law enforcement for gas masks to save them from the effects of toxic gasses.

There’s only one problem: It never happened.

Oh, certainly, the broadcast happened. I’ve heard recordings of the original broadcast; I’m sure you have, too. But one thing always seemed a bit out of place. I know we are cynical people these days, but even though I always heard the panic stories, I kept thinking to myself: “Were people truly that naive to be misled into a panic by what I consider such an unbelievable storyline?”

I remember asking my parents. “It may have happened on the East Coast,” my Mom told me, “but no one on the West Coast panicked.” Still, I kept the story in my mind as an example of the power of radio … for better of worse.

Until last week when I was watching cable network TruTV’s “Adam Ruins Everything.” In an episode centering on […]    

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