War of the Worlds, radio play

Broadcast across the United States on October 30, 1938, this production revealed the extent to which the fear of hostile aliens had become entrenched in the public mind. For several months, the CBS radio network had been staging plays by Orson Welles, John Houseman, and their Mercury Theater on the Air. Now it was Halloween, time for something a little special and scary: an updated version of H. G. Wells's classic, scripted by Howard Koch (who later co-wrote the screen play for Casablanca).


Orson Welles


At 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, the production began, innocently enough, with a weather forecast that commented on slightly unusual happenings for the time of year. Then the smooth-talking announcer led into an outside broadcast, from a New York hotel, where Raymond Raquello and his orchestra were playing ballroom dance music. The bandleader introduced the tune, but abruptly the sound faded. A studio announcer broke in, apologized for the interruption, and read a news flash about explosions on Mars seen from observatories at Mount Jennings and Princeton. More snatches of music followed, punctuated by increasingly alarming news reports. The Government Meteorological Bureau requested that all observatories across the nation train their instruments on Mars... A meteorite, subsequently described as a "huge, flaming object" had landed on a farm at Grovers Mill, New Jersey, not far away ... The station's reporter, Carl Phillips, was on his way there with a mobile crew.


Relentlessly, the tension grew. Amid the hubbub of an excited crowd, Phillips spoke in turn to a semi-coherent eye-witness and to an expert, interviewed earlier in his observatory but now clearly shaken by the turn of events, a Professor Richard Pearson (played by Welles). And then the meteorite, now revealed to be an alien spacecraft, opened. Phillips described the frenzied scene, the monster crawling out, the pointing by it of some kind of device at the radio crew and ... silence. The similarity in tone with that of the commentary on the Hindenburg airship disaster, a year earlier, was striking – and entirely uncoincidental: Welles and his company had thoroughly studied the unforgettable recording of that event. "Due to circumstances beyond our control ...," cut in a studio voice, followed by piano music, interspersed with more confused and totally credible reporting. An official statement from Washington referred to the "gravity of the situation." Seven thousand soldiers had surrounded the object. Most were killed. Washington warned that New Jersey was seeing "the vanguard of an invasion from Mars ..."


Many listeners tuning in late hadn't heard Welles introduce the play for what it was and took the events to be real. Thousands of families in New York and New Jersey fled their homes, freeways were jammed, people called each other on the phone to wish fond farewells, one distraught individual tried to commit suicide, and groups gathered in New England, Harlem, and the Deep South to pray for divine intervention. There were miscarriages, heart attacks, lootings, and brawls. In New Jersey, the National Guard was called out. The CBS switchboard was jammed with callers, some frantic with fear, others bravely volunteering to help repel the alien onslaught. Even weeks later, Red Cross volunteers were trying to persuade families who had fled to the mountains that it was safe to return home. According to research based on interviews begun by Princeton University in the week following the broadcast, well over one million listeners, or more than one in ten of the audience, had been actively frightened by what they heard.


In the aftermath, CBS publicly apologized, Welles (saved from a sacking and police prosecution only by the skin of his contract) vowed it would never happen again, and the Federal Communications Commission passed rules to ensure that it never could. But legislating against human nature is not so simple. The panic triggered by Welles's superb performance exposed graphically the ease with which large numbers of people can be misled and driven over the edge into mass hysteria. With hindsight, it seems obvious that events could not have unfolded in real life with the speed depicted in the play. One moment there are explosions on Mars, a few minutes later a spacecraft has arrived on Earth, and a few minutes later still a large contingent of troops is at the scene. It is hard to imagine listeners being so utterly convinced it was live action. But when people have been conditioned to believe that something is possible, and when in addition they want to believe in the extraordinary, surprisingly little is needed to evoke a spectacular response. Nine years after the Halloween scare, the Martians would be back – with a vengeance (see saucer flap, of 1947).