1938: War of the Worlds

Decades before "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" and the golden age of the cartoon special, Halloween Specials were a regular feature of the radio shows of the 1930s and 40s. Jack Benny, Charlie McCarthy, Fibber McGee and Molly, and, well, just about every major show did a special Halloween episode at one time or another. By the far the most enduring of these was the Mercury Theatre's Halloween special of 1938 - "The War of the Worlds," a dramatization of HG Wells' novel that sent terrified listeners running into the streets and made Orson Welles a legend. I suppose I should classify this as a "halloween-themed episode" rather than a special, but, well, it's just too...special.

Orson Wells - then still in his early 20s - had been taking the theatrical world by storm - people are still talking about his version of "Julius Caesar" set in fascist Italy, as well as his "Voodoo Macbeth." In 1938, he and his company, the Mercury Theatre, were given a radio program on CBS. Every week, they dramatized a story from the world of classic literature.

For the episode to be broadcast on October 30th, they decided to take things a bit further than a plain dramatization. Rather than simply acting out the story of a martian invasion, they would act out fake news reports for the first 2/3rds of the program.

The show starts out sounding like any other dull radio program - listeners who tuned in a minute late would have missed the opening announcement and thought they were hearing a dance band broadcasting from a New York hotel (such broadcasts were common at the time). But the music was interrupted frequently by reports of mysterious flashes seen on the surface of Mars, then of a strange meteor falling into New Jersey, then of live reports on a space ship opening up and containing murderous martians, who have come to take over the world with heat rays and poison gas.

For listeners in on the joke, it probably sounded pretty funny - the way they keep cutting back to dance music interludes between stories of a spaceship landing in New Jersey early on is hilarious. But to listeners who tuned in a minute late, and hadn't checked a schedule to see that it was supposed to be Mercury Theatre on CBS, not some dance music show, and who had never heard of a fake news broadcast, it was hard to tell that it was all an act. Stories of mass hysteria among the listeners are now generally said to be exaggerated, but some of them certainly were fooled into thinking that Mars had invaded earth, destroyed New York, and landed in St. Louis, Chicago, and other major cities.

The radio station was flooded with calls, and some say that the police and army phone lines were clogged with people offering their services. Roads leading to Grover's Mill, NJ, where the ship landed, were said to be jammed. In Orange, NJ, some guy was reported to have run into a movie theatre and shouted that Earth had been invaded. As far away as Indianapolis, a guy was reported to have run into a church screaming "New York is destroyed. It's the end of the world!" The newspaper reports may have been based on rumors and hearsay, but the FCC launched a prompt investigation of the script and the broadcast.

So, were these guys running out into the streets to protect their family from martians serious? Most probably weren't. On the night before Halloween, how would YOU react if some guy ran into a movie theatre and told you that Mars had invaded? Would YOU leave the theatre? I wouldn't. Plenty of people, even at the time, thought the panic was all just a big joke. After all, it was Halloween. The Chicago Tribune wrote "Of course, its being New Jersey explains much."

A couple of years after the broadcast, when HG Wells and Orson Welles happened to be in the same city, a radio station arranged for them to have a chat on the air. Wells had seemed very annoyed by the whole thing in the UK papers the day after the broadcast, largely because of the liberties taken with the story, but was totally charming talking with Orson. He pointed out that it wouldn't have been very funny in England, where the specter of war was looming over them all the time, but that it sounded like good fun for Americans. Of the panic, he said "well, haven't they ever heard of Halloween? Americans always pretend they've seen ghosts on Halloween!"

But it's totally conceivable that many people would have fallen for it; I remember that in the 1990s, some radio station in Des Moines re-did the broadcast, using their own reporters, and rewriting the story so that the spaceship landed in a local park. At least one person called the station to ask "my god, what's going on down there in Des Moines?"

Today, you can download the original broadcast (and, indeed, almost every episode of Mercury Theatre) right here, along with a recording of the HG Wells/Orson Welles chat (during which Wells very graciously goes out of his way to let Welles plug the new movie he was working on - Citizen Kane.)


Anonymous said...

The orignal 1938 radio play filmed in SUPER ANIMATION with dolls. Located at: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-7042462133804816308#

StevenMcFlyJr said...

That's kinda cool Anonymous. Very neatly done.

Anonymous said...

Oh, good grief. I honestly don't know where to start. I love your blog. It's one of the most amazing things I've ever found on the world wide web. Thank you so much for finding all these things. I'm going to have to set aside an entire day to watch some of these things. Thank you so much.

C-Man said...

RIP H.G. Wells


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