Some listeners heard only a portion of the broadcast, and in the atmosphere of tension and anxiety leading to World War II, took it to be a news broadcast. Newspapers reported that panic ensued, people fleeing the area, others thinking they could smell poison gas or could see flashes of lightning in the distance.
Professor Richard J. Hand cites studies by unnamed historians who "calculate[d] that some six million heard the CBS broadcast; 1.7 million believed it to be true, and 1.2 million were 'genuinely frightened'". While Welles and company were heard by a comparatively small audience (in the same period, NBC's audience was an estimated 30 million), the uproar was anything but minute: within a month, there were 12,500 newspaper articles about the broadcast or its impact, while Adolf Hitler cited the panic, as Hand writes, as "evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy."
Later studies suggested this "panic" was less widespread than newspapers suggested. During this period, many newspapers were concerned that radio, a new medium, would make them defunct. In addition, this was a time of yellow journalism, where newspapers were not held to the same standards as today. As a result, journalists took this opportunity to demonstrate the dangers of broadcast by embellishing the story, and the panic that ensued, greatly.
Robert Bartholomew and Hilary Evans suggest in Panic Attacks that hundreds of thousands were frightened in some way, but note that evidence of people taking action based on this fear is "scant" and "anecdotal." Indeed, contemporary news articles indicate that police were swamped with hundreds of calls in numerous locations, but stories of people doing anything more than calling the authorities typically involve groups of ones or tens and were often reported by people who were panicking themselves.
Later studies indicate that many missed the repeated notices that the broadcast was fictional, partly because the Mercury Theatre (an unsponsored "cultural" program with a relatively small audience) ran opposite the popular Chase and Sanborn Hour over the Red Network of NBC, hosted by Don Ameche and featuring comic ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and singer Nelson Eddy, three of the most popular figures in broadcasting. About 15 minutes into the Chase and Sanborn program the first comic sketch ended and a musical number began, and many listeners began tuning around the dial at that point. According to the American Experience program The Battle Over Citizen Kane, Welles knew the schedule of the Chase & Sanborn show, and scheduled the first report from Grover's Mill at the 12-minute mark to heighten the audience's confusion. As a result, some listeners happened upon the CBS broadcast at the point the Martians emerge from their spacecraft.
Many listeners were apparently confused. It must be noted that the confusion cannot be credited entirely to naÃ¯vetÃ©. Though many of the actors' voices should have been recognisable from other radio shows, nothing like The War of the Worlds broadcast had been attempted in the United States, so listeners were accustomed to accepting newsflashes as reliable.
Compounding the problem is that the working script had only three statements concerning the fictional nature of the program: at the beginning, at 40 minutes, and at the end. In fact, the warning at the 40-minute mark is the only one after the actors start speaking in character, and before Welles breaks character at the end. This structure is similar to earlier Mercury Theatre broadcasts: due to the lack of sponsorship (which often included a commercial message at the 30-minute mark during an hour-long show), Welles and company were able to schedule breaks at will, depending on the pacing of a narrative. Furthermore, the show's technique of jumping between scenes and narratives made it hard for the audience to distinguish between fact and fiction, so it is understandable that they were no more likely to perceive the three statements of the fictional nature of the program as being 'outside' the narrative, than they were to perceive the introduction (and subsequent interruption) of the music as being 'inside' the narrative.
While War of the Worlds was in progress, some residents in northeastern cities went to ask neighbors what was happening (many homes still did not have telephones). As the story was repeated, rumours began and caused some panic.
Contemporary accounts spawned urban legends, many of which have come to be accepted through repetition. Several people reportedly rushed to the "scene" of the events in New Jersey to see the unfolding events, including a few geologists from Princeton University who went looking for the "meteorite" that had fallen near their school. Some people, who had brought firearms, reportedly mistook a farmer's water tower for a Martian Tripod and shot at it.
Initially Grover's Mill was deserted, but crowds developed. Eventually police were sent to control the crowds. To people arriving later in the evening, the scene really did look like the events being narrated, with panicked crowds and flashing police lights streaming across the masses.
Some people called CBS, newspapers or the police in confusion over the realism of the news bulletins. There were instances of panic throughout the US as a result of the broadcast, especially in New York and New Jersey.
Seattle CBS affiliate stations KIRO and KVI broadcast Orson Welles' radio drama. While this broadcast was heard around the country, it made a deep impact in Concrete, WA. At the point where the Martian invaders were invading towns and the countryside with flashes of light and poison gases, a power failure plunged almost the entire town of 1,000 into darkness. Some listeners fainted while others grabbed their families to head into the mountains. Others headed for the hills to guard their moonshine stills. One was said to have jumped up out of his chair and, in bare feet, run two miles to the center of town. Some men grabbed their guns, and one Catholic businessman got his wife into the car, drove to the nearest service station and demanded gasoline. Without paying the attendant, he rushed to Bellingham, WA (50 miles away) to see his priest for a last-minute absolution of sins. He reportedly told the gas-station attendant that paying for the gas "[wouldn't] make any difference, everyone is going to die!"
Because phone lines as well as electricity were out, residents were unable to call neighbors, family or friends to calm their fears. Of course, the real story was not as fantastic as the radio drama: all that had occurred was that the Superior Portland cement company's sub-station suffered a short-circuit with a flash of brilliant light, and the town's lights went dark. The more conservative radio-listeners in Concrete (who had been listening to Charlie McCarthy on another station), calmed neighbors by assuring that they hadn't heard about any "disaster". Reporters heard soon after of the coincidental blackout of Concrete and sent the story over the newswire and soon the town of Concrete was known worldwide.
Edgar Bergen and Don Ameche, who were continuing their Chase & Sanborn Hour broadcast on NBC, are often credited with "saving the world". It is said many listeners were reassured by hearing their tones on a neighbouring station.