An illustration from a 1906 edition of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds by Henrique Alvim Corrêa.
Image: British Library

Radio dramas have made a comeback over the past few years, with podcasts like Welcome to Night Vale, The Bright Sessions, and Limetown (whose second season launched this week) reviving the bygone era of fictional stories told through spoken word. But back in the 1930s, radio plays were one of the most popular forms of entertainment. And sometimes, they got a little dangerous.

Today is the 80th anniversary of Orson Welles’ classic reading of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. During the broadcast, which aired on October 30, 1938, Welles posed as a news announcer who was interrupting some scheduled programming with news of a horrifying alien invasion. There were constant warnings that it was a theatrical presentation, but that didn’t stop some people from taking to the streets in a mass panic. Or did they?

Probably not. Historians believe that the number of people who actually freaked out about the broadcast was about 50—far fewer than the million or more reported by the news at the time. According to the Washington Post, this suggests news outlets exaggerated the problem because it made for more salacious stories, which wasn’t exactly surprising back then. This was a time when journalists would actually tamper with crime scenes so they’d make for better photographs. Standards were a bit different.

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Even though the actual response to War of the Worlds may be more myth than fact, that doesn’t change the fact that the radio drama holds up really well, even after 80 years. Here’s just a snippet from the script, which you can read in full here:

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed . . . Wait a minute! Someone’s crawling out of the hollow top. Someone or . . . something. I can see peering out of that black hole two luminous disks . . are they eyes? It might be a face. It might be. Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now it’s another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing’s body. It’s large, large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face...

I highly recommend taking an hour out of your day to listen to this iconic piece of science fiction history. It may not be real (and the hysteria it supposedly inspired back in 1938 may have been slightly overblown), but it is still really cool to hear.

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