Halloween, Martians and Radio Terrorists

On Halloween back in 1938, Martians invaded the United States.

They did it in the form of a radio play. Orson Welles was behind this invasion and he used H.G. Well’s classic story, The War of the Worlds, as the blueprint.

I have written before about when the Martians landed in New Jersey that Halloween (October 30, 1938) but I had listened to an episode of Radiolab that told me more about not only the events of that day but about the similar events that have occurred since. (The episode unfortunately does not seem to be available anymore.)

The 1938 broadcast fooled over a million people when it originally aired. That includes regular folks listening to their radios, particularly in the area around Grover’s Mill, New Jersey where the Martians supposedly landed, but also the military, police and government officials.

The amazing thing I learned is that the broadcast was imitated a number of times since then in places like Santiago, Chile, Buffalo, New York and in a quite tragic fashion in Quito, Ecuador.

In this age of heightened security and alerts, it is strange to learn that when Orson Welles played his little Halloween stunt he was labeled by the FCC as a “radio terrorist.”

The audience’s reaction of panic and mass hysteria was more than Welles had expected, though he loved the attention. It certainly had something to do with the pre-WWII atmosphere of that time. Radiolab said that some reports in New Jersey that night were that Nazis had invaded.

In the broadcast, Welles plays the role of a Princeton professor of astronomy who is called on as an expert.

I would assume that an audience today listening to the original broadcast would not be fooled by its corniness. It mixes “real” radio music and talk with the radio play and that was why listeners were taken in by it. The news breaks – which were a fairly new radio thing – get more frequent until they become all that we hear.

Of course, anyone in 1938 could have turned to another station and discovered that no one else was reporting news of an invasion by Martians. But most people didn’t change the channel.

Welles
Welles on the air

Some people after the broadcast suggested that it was all planned by Welles, but that is like planning a viral video. It just doesn’t work that way. If you are a conspiracy theory fan, you’ll like this Wikipedia report:

“It has been suggested that 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.”

monument
The Martian “landing site” now has a monument in Van Nest Park in West Windsor Township, New Jersey.

I actually drove to the “Martian landing site” near Princeton. I didn’t expect to see Martians, but I was hoping for a few UFO conspiracy people to have a conversation with – but it was deserted.

Go ahead and listen to the War of the Worlds original radio broadcast and you will probably be amused and a bit bored. That is how I reacted to hearing it years ago. And that is why I was so interested in the Radiolab show that took it further.

Could it happen again? Could more modern audiences be fooled? In 1949, Radio Quito did the play in a version for their Ecuadorian listeners and it was taken quite seriously and resulted in a riot that burned down the radio station and killed at least seven people.

I think the story of how people reacted to news of a “cylindrical meteorite” landing in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey is a fascinating study in psychology. When that meteorite unscrews and a tentacled Martian comes out and blasts the crowd with a heat ray, all hell breaks loose.

Why Martians? They were well established as the lines to worry about in the science fiction of the 1940s and 50s.

In the program, police, firefighters, and the NJ state militia get involved, Martial law is declared in Jersey. The Martians get out their tripod machines and soldiers, citizens, power stations, transportation, and buildings fall before them.

The “Secretary of the Interior” advises the nation and there are reports of cylinders falling all across the country. Tripods cross the Hudson River and attack New York City. A reporter atop the CBS building in NYC is knocked out by some strange gas. Then we hear a ham radio operator (How did he get on the CBS bandwidth?) calling, “2X2L calling CQ. Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there…. anyone?”

After a station identification, the announcer reminded listeners that this was all a story. But by then people must have been packing and heading outside. My parents, who lived through it and listened to it live, told me that people in our hometown of Irvington, NJ headed for the South Orange Mountains. People reported smelling poison gas. There were reports of flashes of light – ray guns – in the distance.

If you hung in there for the end of the original program, you got the same ending as in H.G Wells’ original The War of the Worlds novel. The Martians were defeated not by our weapons, but by our own “alien” germs and bacteria that killed them off. Orson Welles told listeners for the third time after the play that the show was just a Halloween story, but the damage (or fun) was already done.

updated post

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Ken

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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