It’s Halloween Eve, everybody!
On this evening 83 years ago, Orson Welles and the cast of CBS radio seriesThe Mercury Theater on the Air set out to present a new episode of their weekly program. For this latest installment, the 17th of the still fairly new program, Welles and his company of actors performed an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ seminal science fiction novel from 1898, The War of the Worlds.
Perform they did…to such a successful degree that a whole bunch of people listening to the show that night apparently lost their minds, certain in the knowledge that Earth was being invaded by aliens from Mars.
Updating Wells’ story so that the action takes place the “present day” of that night in 1938, Welles along with writer Howard Koch also moved the events from Victorian London to Grover Mill, New Jersey. The adaptation 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 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.
Accounts vary as the effectiveness of the unintended ruse as well as public reaction, but we know CBS received a number of phone calls both from private citizens as well as police asking what Welles and his group were
smoking thinking to pull such a crazy stunt. There was also speculation that newspapers–dealing with drops in revenue as more people tuned into radio programs to get their news–may even have exaggerated the reports of panic as a means of “punching back” against radio as a credible news source, particularly if they allowed such irresponsible decisions as allowing fictional programs to “masquerade” as news.
The broadcast long ago earned its place in pop culture. It remains 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.
In 1988 as part of the the program’s 50th anniversary celebration, AT&T video newsmagazine Directions interviewed surviving 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 an interesting evening. Check out an archived version of the video at the AT&T Archives: “Operators Help Save the World from Martians.”
Meanwhile, you can listen to the original broadcast available for free by visiting this link on YouTube:
Freedom Forum: “War of the Worlds 1938 Radio Broadcast”
Have a listen. Just remember….it’s not real.
At least, that’s what they want you to think.