Orson Welles and the 1938 The War of the Worlds Broadcast

A Short Course Overview of the Background, Event, Panic and Legacy
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Instructed by Gerald Franz Academics / Humanities
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  • Lectures 9
  • Length 1.5 hours
  • Skill Level All Levels
  • Languages English
  • Includes Lifetime access
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About This Course

Published 8/2013 English

Course Description

In the 19th century, the planet Mars became the darling of astronomers, and there was a lot of speculation about life on Mars. Science fiction writers like H. G. Wells picked up on this, so that Mars became the origin of many hostile invasions in literature and the emerging electronic media in the 20th century. This media included radio, which by 1938 had become an important source of both entertainment and news. The overseas news bulletins were especially esteemed because they brought up-to-the-minute news concerning the growing threat of a major war because of militant leaders in Japan, Germany and Italy. Many were saying that America would be drawn in to such an awful conflict.

Orson Welles, always working to increase the ratings of their Mercury Theater, decided to adapt H. G. Wells’ novel “The War of the Worlds” to their present time, using special news bulletins to draw the audience into the spreading invasion. Our society could hardly have been primed better for the effectiveness of this broadcast.

Many tuned in to the broadcast after the introduction, and became convinced through those news bulletins that America was being invaded by powerful aliens from Mars. The resultant panic choked communication lines and befuddled city and police officials. This class will provide a broad introduction to the broadcast, links to listen to or read the original broadcast, and a survey of the reactions across this nation and Canada. A final section will consider the legacy of the radio program and a conclusion.

There are supplemental documents that provide recommended resources, and a final bibliography in APA format. The course comprises 6 Sections, with approximately an hour and a half of video storytelling, and links to the listen to or read the original play (approximately 45 minutes). Students should be able to complete the course in about 2 hours and 15 minutes.

What are the requirements?

  • The only requirement needed for this course is a computer that can play the video lectures, with either headphones or speakers for sound.

What am I going to get from this course?

  • Course Goal: By the end of this course, you should be able to intelligently provide an overview of the background and events (including the panic responses) concerning the Mercury Theater’s 1938 production of The War of the Worlds.
  • Objective 1. By the end of this course, you should be able to explain in broad, outline fashion, how the popular sinister views of the planet Mars, along with the absolute trust Americans possessed concerning the radio news programs, contributed together to make the 1938 broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” especially convincing.
  • Objective 2: By the end of this course, you should be able to explain how persons reacted who believed the radio program to be true.
  • Objective 3: By the end of this course, you will grow in your appreciation concerning the genius and creativity of Mr. Orson Welles of the Mercury Theater.

Who is the target audience?

  • This course is accessible to all adults, high school age and above, and my intended audience is anyone who loves a good story. This course might also be helpful to students looking for a good speech or paper topic.

What you get with this course?

Not for you? No problem.
30 day money back guarantee.

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Lifetime access.

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Desktop, iOS and Android.

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Certificate of completion.


Section 1: On the Way to Invasion

This video begins with a few minute introduction to the whole course, followed by Lecture one, which introduces H. G. Wells and his novel, "The War of the Worlds." The lecture also discusses the study of the planet Mars in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many astronomers speculated concerning intelligent life on Mars, and popular media picked many of their sinister characters from there. Last, the lecture summarizes the important place radio played in Americans' lives, radio being a well-trusted source for both entertainment and news, especially news concerning pending military conflict and war in both Asia and Europe. All of these factors played into the success of the War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938.


This lecture introduces Orson Welles, including his early career and his partnership with John Houseman. Together they formed The Mercury Theater, which soon began to be broadcast coast to coast by CBS. Houseman and Welles originated the idea of dramatizing H. G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds", using emergency news bulletins for realism. Howard Koch was the main writer of the script, though others provided editing help. Just in time, they finished the script for their exciting Halloween Eve broadcast.

Section 2: The Invasion and the Panic Reactions

This lecture consists of a few paragraphs describing listeners to the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast, along with a few other introductory matters. Links are then provided to listen to the original 1938 broadcast or to read the original script.


This lecture provides information concerning the many panic responses to the 1938 broadcast, including many quotations taken from later interviews. The panic responses were not limited to the immediate area of NJ, PA and NY, but included the rest of the United States and parts of Canada.


This lecture concludes the coverage of the panic responses, and includes newspaper coverage concerning the nation-wide panic from the broadcast.

Section 3: Aftermath: Where It All Landed

This lecture considers the aftermath of the 1938 broadcast, including the immediate circumstances within the CBS Studio, the public anger and lawsuits, and the press coverage. Soon the anger diminished, and more congratulatory responses came to Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater.


This lecture surveys some of the important results from the three major research studies launched after the 1938 broadcast. Emphasis is placed upon Hadley Cantril and his work with the Princeton Radio Project. The research results help us to understand the extent of the population who believed the news bulletins of the broadcast, along with many other details. Hadley Cantril also speculated concerning the psychological reasons why people believed the broadcast.


This lecture introduces three later radio programs that replayed the War of the Worlds drama. The first two took place in South America, as the script was adapted to local cities and put in the Spanish language. Both of these broadcasts caused local panics. The third program happened when a radio station in Buffalo, New York updated the War of the Worlds drama to the year 1968, and adjusted the location to the Buffalo area. Despite a lot of advertising and press notice, there were still many who panicked when they heard this broadcast.

Section 4: Conclusion and Legacy

This final lecture surveys the later careers of Orson Welles, John Houseman, and Howard Koch, along with the enduring legacies of the Mercury Theater, Grovers Mill, NJ, and the War of the Worlds plot. The lecture concludes with the irony of the United States space program that is regularly 'invading' Mars.

20 questions

A basic, true and false quiz just for fun.

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Instructor Biography

Gerald Franz, Professor of history

Dr. Franz has been teaching history for 32 years in various colleges, and sometimes to high school students. He has written a number of historical dramas for his history students, and after one season's performance, he received a letter of commendation from former president George Bush, Sr. for making history alive to students today. He has also taken history students on a number of field trips to various important historical locations. He hopes to continue putting short history courses on Udemy in order to share his favorite historical events. He currently teaches many online history courses for various universities, along with various live classes in his area.

He has been married for over 33 years to Wendy, and they have a son and daughter, both adults. They also have a few cats and a big German Shepherd dog. In their spare time, they love to walk, jog, swim, and ride their bikes.

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