When The Martians Landed in New Jersey

My first read of the story was from my Classics Illustrated comic version.

During the week, I wrote a post about two fellow Rutgers College alums who have published books. One of those writers is Robert Kaplow who wrote the novel, Me and Orson Welles: A Novel (which was made into a 2009 film that’s in theaters).

The novel and movie revolve around Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre group putting on a production of Julius Caesar on Broadway.

But, writing that post led me back to reading about Welles (whose films I was a bit obsessed with in my college days) and that led me to the famous 1938 radio broadcast they did of War of the Worlds that had folks in my home state in a panic.

The program mixes believable “real” radio with fiction, which is why listeners were taken in by it.  It starts with the introduction from the novel, talks about the aliens and even gives the play’s setting as the following year, 1939.  There’s a weather report (they were doing the show from New York City) and some dance music. Then, it is interrupted by news flashes about strange explosions on Mars.

You can listen to the War of the Worlds original radio broadcast and it’s interesting to hear, but I doubt that you’ll be taken in, or that you can really imagine what it must have been like to hear it on the Halloween night in 1938.

The news breaks get more frequent and there is a report of a “cylindrical meteorite” that lands in Grover’s Mill, N.J. We go to a live remote from there (Did listeners believe that CBS had reporters in the Grover’s Mill area?)  The “meteorite’ is, of course, a spaceship, and when the top unscrews they see a tentacled Martian who promptly zaps the crowd with a heat ray.

Apparently, this was the key part of the broadcast where listeners in the New Jersey & New York area left the radio and started talking to neighbors, or calling the police and the radio station.

Back to the radio – an all-out battle ensues, the infantry has an edge on the Martians at first because they are weak in Earth’s gravity, but then a “tripod” machine comes out of the pit where their spaceship landed and starts destroying soldiers, citizens, power stations, transportation and buildings. (Luckily, not the radio crew.)

The “Secretary of the Interior” (Who sounds like F.D.R.)  talks to the nation and the news is not good. Air Force bombers get burned up by the heat ray and there are reports of cylinders falling all across the country. Five tripods cross the Hudson River and attack New York City.

Then – intermission.  I’ll bet a lot of listeners left the house then. Too bad they did because after a “station identification” the announcer reminds listeners that it is all a story.

The last third of the show is kind of a letdown as Welles (as Professor Pierson) describes what happened after the attacks and the story ends the same way as H.G Wells’ The War of the Worlds novel ends. The Martians are defeated by our “alien” germs and bacteria.

What Welles was doing was something new and listeners had no reason not to accept the news flashes as anything but true. Because many homes still did not have telephones, neighbors started talking to other neighbors, missing bits and pieces of the play and probably furthering the confusion.

People who had been listening to Edgar Bergen and Don Ameche on another station told neighbors that there were no news reports on that station. I’m guessing that either calmed people down – or convinced them that the government was doing a cover-up of the disaster!

There are plenty of “urban legends” about the numbers of people in New Jersey who were on the roads in panic, or the geologists from Princeton University who went looking for the “meteorite” that had fallen, or about people who shot at a farmer’s water tower in Grover’s Mill thinking it was a Martian tripod weapon.

Grover’s Mill did draw enough crowds to require police to control the crowds. The crowds and flashing police car lights probably added to the panic.

I can identify with the reaction of the little town of Concrete, Washington to the program, because I had a similar experience watching the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still for the first time as a kid as they did listening to Welles’ broadcast. (Read about my viewing experience here.)

That small town of 1000 had an explosion and a power failure in their town just as Welles was broadcasting. The town dropped into darkness and their radios failed. It is said that some listeners who had been listening to Welles fainted or grabbed their families and guns and headed into the mountains. It turned out that the Superior Portland cement company’s sub-station had suffered a short circuit causing the flash of light and the power failure.

It is often said that the panic had something to do with pre-World War II fears and there were people who thought the Martians would turn out to be Nazis invading the U.S. using rockets and death rays.

This kind of mass hysteria turns up in other movies and TV shows that followed. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is often pointed to as the 1950s take on the “Red Scare” of Communism that was strong in the U.S. at that time.

I fondly recall seeing an episode of The Twilight Zone called “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” when I was a kid. Originally broadcast in 1960, it scared me and I didn’t even know there was a Red Scare. It’s a great lesson on the dangers of prejudice and mass hysteria.

In the episode, a neighborhood goes into panic mode thinking there are aliens attacking – or that there are aliens living on their block. The “monsters” of the title might be aliens from outer space or the prejudiced folks who live on Maple Street. I won’t spoil the ending because you should try to watch it.

I do buy into the idea that the event might have caused U.S. Air Force officials to cover up any “unidentified flying object” reports that came in later years for fear of a news report causing a similar panic.

If such a thing happened today, it would probably start on social media.

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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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