Halloween show caused ‘mass panic’ among Americans who thought Mars was invading

We like to think of fake news and misinformation as a modern problem of social media, but it's been around almost as long as the radio.

In 1938 though, the American radio network CBS put out a special Halloween broadcast of H.G. Wells The War Of The Worlds, read by legendary actor Orson Welles.

The radio adaptation of the iconic sci fi novel transformed the story into a series of fake radio news bulletins reporting a Martian invasion of New Jersey.


However, the broadcast was so realistic-sounding that some people reportedly panicked and fled their homes, while police surrounded

The radio play, which was based on the British story of the same name, replaced English towns and cities with American locations, describing Martian armies destroying power stations and uprooting railways. 

Although both Welles and the radio station ended the broadcast by reminding people it was Halloween and that the broadcast was a fictional radio play, that didn't stop police trying to 'burst' into the studio while the phone calls poured in.

Welles made public apologies and appeared on the front page of newspapers on Halloween morning, saying he "anticipated nothing unusual" and said he was "terribly sorry."

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The famous actor later added: "If I'd planned to wreck my career, I couldn't have gone about it better."

Today, the incident is held up as an example of the mass hysteria that fake news can cause. However, some researchers have since discovered that the hysteria was nowhere near on the scale described by the media at the time⁠. While local media and police apparently received 40% more telephone call than normal, the streets of New York were said to be normal and there was no widespread panic. 

According to Orson Welles, this didn't stop the newspapers from spending 'days' on the issue—meaning that the supposed panic caused by the so-called 'fake news' could itself have been 'fake news'.

So, if you hear anything suspiciously spooky on the TV or social media tonight, just be sure to double check it's not a Halloween trick. 


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