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 revolves 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 (who 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.
In the radio play, Welles is a fictional astronomer and Princeton professor who, at first, refutes talk about life existing on Mars.
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 it 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.
In rapid succession, the radio gives updates, firefighters and the NJ state militia is involved (declaring martial law!)
An all out battle ensues. The infantry has an edge on the Martians (pretty weak in Earth’s gravity) until some kind of tripod machine comes out of the pit and started destroying soldiers, citizens, power stations, transportation and buildings. (Luckily, not the radio crew.)
The “Secretary of the Interior” (sounding like F.D.R.) advises the nation. Even Air Force bombers get burned up by the Heat Ray. Then there are reports of cylinders are falling all across the country. Five tripods cross the Hudson River and attack New York City. A reporter atop the CBS building in NYC is knocked out by the gas and, after a silence, a ham radio operator is heard calling, “2X2L calling CQ. Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there…. anyone?”
Then – intermission. I’ll bet a lot of listeners left the house then. Too bad they did.
After a “station identification” and the announcer reminding listeners that it is all a story, the last third of the show is kind of slow. 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 – with the Martians being defeated by our “alien” germs and bacteria.
Even though Welles broke character after the play to remind listeners (which was part of the script) for a third time that the show was just a Halloween story, many radio listeners who heard only an earlier portion of the broadcast took it to be a real news broadcast and believed that aliens had landed in New Jersey.
Newspapers reported that panic ensued. People started to flee the area. When I was a kid, my parents told me that people in our hometown headed for the South Orange Mountains. People reported smelling poison gas. Others saw flashes of lightning – or ray guns – in the distance.
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. I had a similar experience watching the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still on TV as they did listening to Welles’ broadcast.
Though the town of 1000 was far from New Jersey, at the same time that the Martians invaders were shooting their ray guns, releasing poison gases and knocking out power stations in NJ, there was an explosion and a power failure in their own town. As the town dropped into darkness (and their radios failed), listeners fainted or grabbed their families and guns and headed into the mountains. Without phone service, residents couldn’t call anyone for confirmation or help.
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.
What did it all mean?
A lot of people think that the panic had more to do with pre-World War II fears. Supposedly, some who panicked thought that the Nazis had invaded – not Martians. The panic is a great example of mass hysteria and is echoed in many other movies and TV shows that followed. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is often pointed to as a 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 show, 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 – but I will say that when I used the episode in classes, I tied the ending to Nikita Khrushchev.)
If you are a conspiracy theory fan, Wikipedia reports that:
It has been suggested War of the Worlds was a psychological warfare experiment. In the 1999 documentary, Masters of the Universe: The Secret Birth of the Federal Reserve, writer Daniel Hopsicker claims the Rockefeller Foundation funded the broadcast, studied the panic, and compiled a report available to a few. A variation has the Radio Project and the Rockefeller Foundation as conspirators. In a theatrical trailer for his film F For Fake, Welles joked about such theories, jesting that the broadcast indeed “had secret sponsors”.
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.
I visited the “landing site” when I was in the Princeton area once. No sign of aliens. (I was hoping that a few UFO conspiracy types might be hanging out there, at least.)
If it happened today, it would probably start on Twitter.