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War of the Worlds 1x53

The night of October 30th, 1938 began as any other peaceful Sunday evening, with millions of listeners tuned to their radios. Yet the outward calm hid a nation tense with apprehension: the Great Depression refused to let up, and the threat of war in Europe loomed larger every day. Then, at 8:15 p.m., there was a report on the radio that Martians had landed in New Jersey.

Almost instantly, people listening in responded to the shocking news. Newspapers were flooded with calls from worried listeners; many feared that New Jersey had been laid to waste and that the Martians were heading west. In cities and towns throughout the country, people stopped a moment to pray— then grabbed their loved ones and fled into the night. What began as a broadcast performance of H.G. Wells’s fantasy, The War of the Worlds, turned into one of the biggest mass hysteria events in U.S. history.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE examines the elements created this frenzy, including our longtime fascination with life on Mars; the emergence of radio as a powerful new medium; and the creative wunderkind Orson Welles, the twenty-three-year-old director of the drama and mischief-maker supreme.