By Charles Keller
"FAKE RADIO WAR STIRS TERROR THROUGH U.S." Or so went the headline on Halloween day 1938. The previous evening a 23 year-old Orson Welles brought the famous H.G. Wells classic The War of the Worlds to life in a New York City studio with his Mercury Theater on the Air. It was the seventeenth in its weekly series of dramatic broadcasts, and the effects of that broadcast have reached truly mythical proportions. It is still considered by many, myself included, to be the most famous radio broadcast of all time.
Howard Koch, whose credits also include the classic film Casablanca, wrote the actual script during a six day and night marathon, and went to sleep early the night of October 30, 1938 completely missing the broadcast. The next morning he rose at his usual time and walked down 72nd Street to his barber for a haircut. On his way he heard partial conversations using words like "war" and "panic." Alarmed, when in the shop he asked his barber, "Are we at war?" The barber smiled and held up a newspaper with the headline "Martian Broadcast Panics Nation."
Welles's radio dramatization moved the Martian invasion from outside London, England, to the tiny town of Grover's Mill, New Jersey, not far from New York City. The original Wells story was barely recognizable as the radio version hit the listener rapid fire with "special bulletins," real locations, frenzied "eyewitness" accounts, realistic impersonations of government officials appealing for "the urgent need of calm and resourceful action," and (of course) horrific sound effects. Although beginning as a typical evening of dance music programs to soothe America's war jitters, it rapidly evolved into a series of news bulletins about "several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars."
A reporter, Carl Phillips, is sent to Princeton University to interview Professor Richard Pearson (played by Orson Welles) "noted astronomer." During the interview, Professor Pearson is given a message that a large meteorite has fallen somewhere near Grover's Mill in central New Jersey. Pearson and Phillips make the trip to the site to find it has already drawn quite a crowd.
First Phillips interviews an "eyewitness" of the meteorite’s impact; the owner of the farm where it landed. Then one end of the cylinder shaped thing begins unscrewing from within. It drops off with a loud thump, and the Martians begin to emerge. Strangely enough, Phillips' remarkable powers of description fail him when describing a living Martian, but what he does say matches them with H.G. Wells's creatures. Octopus-like, large brown leatherish bulks with coal black eyes, and "V" shaped mouth under a fleshy protrusion, and sixteen tentacles in groups of eight on either side of the body.
The Martians then begin their Blitzkrieg by killing nearly everyone in sight with what Professor Pearson (who miraculously survived despite being so close to them) later described as a "Heat Ray." The state militia is called in to contain the Martians, but are routed when the first of the Martian "Fighting Machines" emerges. "7000 men armed with rifles and machine guns, pitted against the single Fighting Machine of the invaders from Mars. 120 known survivors."
The Martians build more machines, decimate central New Jersey and then sweep north towards a panicking New York City. We hear a broadcast from an artillery post that engages the advancing Fighting Machines, and even scores a hit on one before they are overcome by the Martian's other diabolical weapon, poisonous black smoke. After the artillerymen are heard choking to death on this black smoke, we are switched to an Army Air Force bomber out of Langham Field as it attacks a Fighting Machine. The Martian lifts his Heat Ray effortlessly and sprays the doomed plane with flames...
Abruptly we are taken to a broadcaster on the roof of his "broadcasting building" in New York City. He reports that the streets and bridges are jammed with frantic human traffic fleeing the coming Martians. His tone of voice colors blood red the picture of Armageddon he is painting:
"No more defenses. Our armies - wiped out. Artillery, Air Force... everything wiped out. This may be the - last broadcast. We'll stay here to the end...A bulletin is handed to me. Martian cylinders are falling all over the country. One outside of Buffalo, one in Chicago, St. Louis; they seemed to be timed and spaced."
Five Martian machines arrive, appearing above the Palisades.
"Now they're lifting their metal hands - this is the end now - smoke comes out, black smoke drifting over the city. People in the streets see it now - they're running towards the East River, thousands of them, dropping in like rats. Now the smoke's spreading faster, its reached Times Square. People are trying to run away from it but its no use, they're falling like flies. Now the smoke's crossing Sixth Avenue, Fif.. Fifth Avenue. Uh, hundred yards away, its, its fifty feet...uhhhhhhh!" Then a heavy, lifeless thump...
Its now a little over a half an hour into the broadcast and a very confident voice begins speaking, "You are listening to an original dramatization of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells." The broadcast resumes with Professor Pearson as narrator. He makes his way from a little house he's been hiding in from the Martins at Grover's Mill into an utterly deserted New York City. He wanders around the city for a time, then climbs a small hill around 60th Street and sees a line of limp and motionless Fighting Machines. Flocks of black birds circle to the ground at their feet to peck and tear strips of brown and red flesh from the dead bodies of the Martians. Despite their advanced technology, the Martians had failed to take into account Earthly disease bacteria, the sort of bacteria they had eradicated from their own planet. Their immune systems were unable to cope with the onslaught of bacteria and viruses that human bodies have developed an immunity to over the eons.
Professor Pearson then turns philosophical when he realizes the folly of his previously held persuasion that life was unique to Earth. "But now we see further... Maybe the destruction of the Martians is only a reprieve - to them and not to us."
After the play concludes, Orson Welles appears; "out of character to assure you that The War of the Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be; The Mercury Theater's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo!! Starting now we couldn't soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night, so we did the next best thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears and utterly destroyed the CBS."
The morning papers shrieked their horror over the previous night with many stories of terror and panic. The Associated Press gathered specific instances:
From Pittsburgh, "A man returned home in the midst of the broadcast and found his wife, a bottle of poison in her hand screaming: ‘I'd rather die this way than like that.'"
Indianapolis: "A woman ran into a church 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.' Services were dismissed immediately."
Boston: "One woman declared she could ‘see the fire' and told the Boston Globe she and many others in her neighborhood were ‘getting out of here.'"
There was even an instance of a man climbing to the roof of a building in Manhattan with binoculars and seeing "the flames of battle."
But the most amusing story to emerge from that night's panic was of a group of farmers from central New Jersey who set out to combat the Martians with their trusty shotguns. No Martians were found, but they did damage a not-very-alien water tower with buckshot after mistaking it for a Fighting Machine in the darkness.
But just how much panic was there really? Reports of suicides and heart attacks proved unfounded, and reappraisals of other "evidence" of the panic show it to have been much less than many have perceived it over the last sixty-two years. Media hype seems to be the real monster here, that and the age old American love for "urban legends."
Even the evidence of the 40% increase in telephone calls to Law Enforcement agencies and the local media in New Jersey that night fails to differentiate the types of calls in percentages. Some people simply wanted to know where they could donate blood, some to know where to find casualty lists, some realized the show was a dramatization but were furious that such a realistic production was allowed on the air, and still others sought to congratulate CBS on such a fantastic Halloween program.
Another radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds was performed by The Lux Radio Theater on February 8, 1955 also on CBS, and later rebroadcast over the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service. This particular production was based more on George Pal's 1953 Academy Award winning film adaption of The War of the Worlds than on Orson Welles' radio play.
But there are documented instances of genuine and violent panic from radio dramatizations of The War of the Worlds. November 12, 1944, Santiago, Chile: An adaptation with an impersonator of the Chilean Minister of the Interior caused many to barricade themselves in their homes, sent others fleeing into the streets, and even caused a local governor to mobilize artillery and troops. Also, a minor scare occurred around Providence, Rhode Island after a 1974 adaptation, and yet another in northern Portugal during 1988.
But the most tragic instance occurred in Quito, Ecuador on February 12, 1949. A realistic adaptation was performed that night on a local radio station. In it they convincingly obliterated the neighboring town of Latacunga before turning the invaders towards the capital. Again, "eyewitnesses" were interviewed, including an impersonator of the Mayor. The use of real locations gave the broadcast just the right amount of realism to cause a riot in the streets that lead to fifteen people being burned to death when an angry mob poured gasoline on the radio station and set it ablaze.
But what of the "original?" Its collectibility is obvious. Since the broadcast in 1938 there have been a couple of long playing albums released that contain the entire one hour production. "The Longines Symphonette Society" released one during the 1960's; its cover features sensational newspaper excerpts about the panic, as well as a piece of artwork by Warwick Goble that was drawn especially for the serialization of the original H.G. Wells novel in Pearson's Magazine during April - December 1897. I have recently seen a couple of CD versions as well, one being from 1994 by "Metacom Inc." which also contains a 1967 copyright date by Howard Koch.
As for the masterminds behind the event, H.G. Wells and Orson Welles met publically for the first time at radio station KTSA, San Antonio, Texas on November 7, 1940. H.G. was initially dismayed by Orson's dramatization because he felt it distorted the fundamental message of his book which was the destructive imperialism of a technologically advanced race. Fortunately by this time his dissatisfaction had been mitigated by a curiosity about the stir the broadcast had caused. Interestingly enough, Adolf Hitler mentioned the "panic" stirred by the broadcast in one of his many infamous oratories, and Orson refers to this particular "Great Munich Speech" during their meeting:
"Mr. Hitler made a good deal of sport of it, you know... Its supposed to show the corrupt condition and decadent state of affairs in democracy that The War of the Worlds went over as well as it did."
We must remember also that the Second World War had been raging for the British for fourteen months already, and H.G. was high on the Nazi list of banned authors, and many of his books had already been burned during bonfire rallies. Wells was more pragmatic about the way the world was going and said to Orson, "You aren't quite serious in America yet; you haven't got the war right under your chins. And the constant is you construe, [you] play with ideas of terror and conflict... It's the natural thing to do until you're right up against it... Then it ceases to be a game."
Few events in broadcast history have made the sort of profound impact that Welles' production did. The lesson to draw from all of this is that you only need to fool a few to make an impact. As society and technology evolve along side one another, the old formulas for sensationalizing something will no longer work, but history is loaded with examples that prove there will be new formulas that most certainly will work. 20/20 historical hindsight can serve us well in this regard, but how many of us are paying attention?
The War of the Worlds original Orson Welles/Howard Koch scripted CBS/Mercury Theater on the Air broadcast.
The Lux Radio Theater production of The War of the Worlds Lp with recording of the Wells/Welles meeting.
H.G. Wells, Desperately Mortal by David C. Smith.The Martian Panic Sixty Years Later, What Have We Learned? by R. E. Bartholomew, Skeptical Inquirer, November/December 1998.