from The New Yorker
On the evening of October 30, 1938, a seventy-six-year-old millworker in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, named Bill Dock heard something terrifying on the radio. Aliens had landed just down the road, a newscaster announced, and were rampaging through the countryside. Dock grabbed his double-barrelled shotgun and went out into the night, prepared to face down the invaders. But, after investigating, as a newspaper later reported, he “didn’t see anybody he thought needed shooting.” In fact, he’d been duped by Orson Welles’s radio adaptation of “The War of the Worlds.” Structured as a breaking-news report that detailed the invasion in real time, the broadcast adhered faithfully to the conventions of news radio, complete with elaborate sound effects and impersonations of government officials, with only a few brief warnings through the program that it was fiction.
The next day, newspapers were full of stories like Dock’s. “Thirty men and women rushed into the West 123rd Street police station,” ready to evacuate, according to the Times. Two people suffered heart attacks from shock, the Washington Post reported. One caller from Pittsburgh claimed that he had barely prevented his wife from taking her own life by swallowing poison. The panic was the biggest story for weeks; a photograph of Bill Dock and his shotgun, taken the next day, by a Daily News reporter, went “the 1930s equivalent of viral,” A. Brad Schwartz writes in his recent history, “Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News.”