By Jessica Dunkel, Reference Department
It’s the evening before Halloween, October 30th, 1938, a Sunday. If you were alive on that particular Sunday in 1938 and were fortunate enough to have a radio set, you’d probably be gathered around listening to either one radio channel or the other; there were only two. You’d have taken your pick between a light comedy series or a dramatic play. Perhaps you tuned in to the play a little late at 8:12pm, switching channels after the comedy musings of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen ended, and missed the broadcaster’s announcement that the program you were about to hear was a fictional play put on by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre.
That night, Welles and his Mercury Theater Company were presenting an updated radio version of H.G. Wells’ (no relation) War of the Worlds – a science fiction novel published in 1898. After the Mercury Players were announced, however, the listeners did not hear the opening lines of a play as they might have expected. Instead, several minutes of Spanish tango music played before a series of unsettling, although dramatized, news-flashes:
“Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News.”
The news flashes weaved in and out of the musical program to keep listeners up-to-date on the recent gas explosions on Mars. Listeners were taken to the Princeton Observatory where the (fictitious) world-famous Professor Pierson relayed breaking news as he gazed through the lens of his giant microscope. Although the professor could not account for the sudden eruptions on the red planet, the announcer assured everyone that Mars was “a safe enough distance” at 40 million miles away. Professor Pierson was then handed a special news bulletin:
“…Seismograph registered shock of almost earthquake intensity occurring within a radius of twenty miles of Princeton. Please investigate.”
Professor Pierson dismissed this as a coincidental meteorite of an unusually large size that had nothing to do with the Mars explosions. After another round of musical entertainment, however, a breaking news bulletin confirms – the object was no meteorite. Our announcer, now at the scene, describes the strange object:
“Yes, I guess that’s the . . . thing, directly in front of me, half buried in a vast pit. Must have struck with terrific force. …Doesn’t look very much like a meteor… It looks more like a huge cylinder.”
According to the announcer, a crowd begins to form near the yellow-white object made of strange metal. The police attempt to push the mounting crowd back. And then, an unnamable noise is heard from inside of the object. Is it scraping? No one seems to know, until:
“She’s movin’! Look, the darn thing’s unscrewing! … 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, it . . . Ladies and gentlemen, it’s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate.”
It is difficult to say at which point the radio audience, thousands of them across the country, started to panic. Weather they’d forgotten this was a dramatization or missed the opening announcements altogether, the bombardment of realistic “news flashes” were taken seriously and grew more terrifying by the minute:
“A humped shape is rising out of the pit. I can make out a small beam of light against a mirror. What’s that? There’s a jet of flame springing from the mirror, and it leaps right at the advancing men. It strikes them head on! Good Lord, they’re turning into flame!”
(SCREAMS AND UNEARTHLY SHRIEKS)
“Now the whole field’s caught fire. (EXPLOSION) The woods . . . the barns . . . the gas tanks of automobiles . . . it’s spreading everywhere.”
Firefighters rush to the scene. Fortunately the monster has gone back into its cylinder. With forty dead, New Jersey under martial law, and our faithful announcer lying charred in a nearby hospital, a second announcer informs us that it’s “all quiet in the pit”. The media decides to dedicate all radio coverage to the event, and in a statement that will later ring with irony, exclaims:
“In view of the gravity of the situation, and believing that radio has a responsibility to serve in the public interest at all times, we are turning over our facilities to the state militia at Trenton.”
“The battle… has ended in one of the most startling defeats ever suffered by any army in modern times; seven thousand men armed with rifles and machine guns pitted against a single fighting machine of the invaders from Mars. One hundred and twenty known survivors. The rest strewn over the battle area…, crushed and trampled to death under the metal feet of the monster, or burned to cinders by its heat ray. The monster is now in control of the middle section of New Jersey and has effectively cut the state through its center… By morning the fugitives will have swelled Philadelphia, Camden, and Trenton, it is estimated, to twice their normal population… We take you now to Washington for a special broadcast on the National Emergency…”
Back in reality, the news of a Martian invasion was spreading through telephones and streets. Weeping, frantic women called police stations, cars packed full of children and luggage clogged the roads. An Indianapolis woman barged into a church service, screaming, “New York destroyed; it’s the end of the world. You might as well go home to die. I just heard it on the radio.” And on the radio, the Martians kept coming. New ships were spotted in the air and discovered on land while the gas explosions on Mars continued.
“They seem to be making conscious effort to avoid destruction of cities and countryside. However, they stop to uproot power lines, bridges, and railroad tracks. Their apparent objective is to crush resistance, paralyze communication, and disorganize human society.”
By that time the fictional war was in full swing. An officer shouted coordinates. The audience heard gun shots, coughing, and voices muffled by gas masks. The Martian’s heat rays sprayed over the troops. Their poisonous black gas, undeterred by the masks, poured through the streets of New Jersey. They effectively destroyed the entire army. Frantic, the announcer relayed the final news:
“This is the end now. Smoke comes out . . . black smoke, drifting over the city. People in the streets see it now . . . thousands of them, dropping in like rats. Now the smoke’s spreading faster. It’s reached Times Square. People trying to run away from it, but it’s no use. They’re falling like flies. Now the smoke’s crossing Sixth Avenue . . . Fifth Avenue . . . one hundred yards away . . . it’s fifty feet . . .”
OPERATOR: “2X2L calling CQ . . . 2X2L calling CQ . . . 2X2L calling CQ . . . New York. Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there anyone . . . 2X2L”
With the announcer dead, it was time for intermission.
If you weren’t already shouting warnings in the streets, moving your living room furniture in preparation for an alien ambush, running on foot to a nearby park, preparing to poison yourself, rushing to your nearest church for some last-minute saving, or flooding radio and police stations with questions about evacuation procedures (all of which really happened), and were still listening to your radio, this intermission may have assured you that the hysteria was all fiction.
But the reaction was so overwhelming that the Associated Press sent out a news bulletin at 8:48 PM informing everyone that this was “a studio dramatization”. As soon as news of the hysteria reached Orson Welles in the studio, he was said to have broken character and to also reassure listeners that this was a fictional event.
After the public had been informed that the play was intended for nothing more than Halloween entertainment, people were infuriated. Some speculated that Orson Welles was trying to create hysteria, but his reaction suggests otherwise. In his own words he was “just stunned” by the audience’s panic, stating, “Everything seems like a dream”.
Thomas Doherty, Professor of American studies, considers the event to be “… among the top five mass-communications events in history — along with the Kennedy assassination, Pearl Harbor, 9/11 and the Lindbergh baby kidnapping.” We may overlook this mass-communication event because in this case, there was no event. Panic was created by smoke, mirrors, and what this author assumes to be the most talented voice actors and sound effects men of all time.
In order to understand the reaction, Doherty reminds us to first understand the audience. The people of 1938 were anticipating a German invasion. They were becoming uncomfortably familiar with the sound of breaking news broadcasts, which the Mercury Theater duplicated in detail, including reporters fumbling over words, crackling static, and the buzzes of short-wave radio.
Now-a-days we have Google, which makes it unlikely for an event of this type and magnitude to happen again. But you have to admit, although unintended to cause such chaos, it must be one of the most successful Halloween “pranks” of all time. And in the spirit of Halloween, I leave you with Orson Welles’ final words in the play that horrified a nation:
“So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian. . .it’s Hallowe’en.”