“Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News.
At twenty minutes before eight, central time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving toward the Earth with enormous velocity.
Professor Pierson of the Observatory at Princeton confirms Farrell’s observation, and describes the phenomenon as, quote, “Like a jet of blue flame shot from a gun,” unquote.”
On the evening of October 30th, 1938, 80 years ago tonight, Orson Welles did no less than scare the unfettered crap out of a whole bunch of people who had done nothing more than tune in to listen to the latest weekly episode of Welles’ Mercury Theatre on the Air.
Adapting H.G. Wells’ seminal novel of the same name while updating it for the “modern” era of 1938 and moving the action from London to Grovers Mill, New Jersey, Orson Welles presented The War of the Worlds as a series of radio news broadcasts pretending to interrupt other “regular” programming. Many of those who missed the announcement at the start of the show or Welles’ remarks at the end of the broadcast actually thought they were hearing real news interruptions reporting on disturbances in and around Grovers Mill, along with frightening descriptions of the otherworldly machines and the destruction they were wreaking as they advanced across the countryside.
The actual impact of the show, so far as how many people might’ve believed it to be real or with respect to any ensuing public panic, has been the subject of debate pretty much since that night, but there’s no denying the broadcast’s contributions to pop culture. The War of the Worlds remains a staple of Halloween programming on radio stations to this day. Schools and radio stations often perform their own versions of the play, and it has been officially updated/remade on at least two separate occasions, including one performance by L.A. Theatre Works and featuring Leonard Nimoy, John DeLancie and a host of other actors from the different Star Trek series.
The original broadcast has been referenced and parodied or provided story springboards in numerous films, television series, books and comics, and the events of the invasion at Grovers Mill even were included into the backstory of the War of the Worlds television series, itself a sequel to the 1953 film and which celebrates its own milestone this year, having premiered 30 years ago on October 10, 1988. During festivities to observe the 50th anniversary of the radio broadcast, a permanent monument marking the “Martian Landing Site” was unveiled in Grovers Mill:
Also in 1988 as part of the anniversary festivities, AT&T video newsmagazine Directions interviewed telephone operators from across the United States who were working that evening, and dealt with the huge influx of calls from terrified listeners. Decades before cell phones or even 911, operators were the first point of contact for those seeking emergency assistance. Needless to say, those folks had a rough night. Check out an archived version of the video at the AT&T Archives: “Operators Help Save the World from Martians.”
Meanwhile, the Newseum (among other sites) has the entire broadcast available for free listening. What? You say you want to listen to this for yourself, and see what all the fuss is about? BOOM. Here you go:
Enjoy. I plan to. It’s a Halloween tradition for me, too.
“Strange to watch the sightseers enter the museum where the disassembled parts of a Martian machine are kept on public view. Strange when I recall the time when I first saw it, bright and clean-cut, hard and silent, under the dawn of that last great day….”