Monday, September 5, 2011


October 30, 1938 - Contrary to the historical reference in the movie Buckaroo Banzai (1984) the public panic that happened in 1938 during the broadcast of War of the Worlds does not appear to have been caused by real aliens. What did happen though has been the stuff of speculation ever since Orson Wells and the Mercury Theater Players decide to "experiment" with a new formula for producing a radio play. Did Wells create the mass hysteria that night on purpose? Was it actually a government tactic to discover how the country would react to other worldly encounters? Or were the people of the 1930's just not as, well, bright as we are today? As easy as it might seem to laugh at the gullibility of those listeners that famous night, it should be considered that to not learn from our past is to be doomed to repeat it. 
Father & daughter listening to the radio
by Lee, Russell, 1903- photographer.
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34- 037961-D] Photo part of Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)
 The Audience:

The American public that autumn night was not looking for trouble, quite the opposite. The news in Europe, that they listened to intently via the fairly new medium of the radio, gave them the constant rumble of war. To the consternation of President Roosevelt most people of the United States wanted no part of the conflict heating up between Great Britain, Germany, Poland, and Russia. They wanted even less to become involved in the aggressions across the Pacific. Since World War I they had experienced one piece of hard luck after another. The long party of the Roaring Twenties had ended with the Stock Market Crash of 1929, an economic down slide that was made even more unendurable by the ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl. Not since the Native Americans had been removed from their homes and transported to reservations had so many in this country been displaced and left homeless after banks foreclosed on one farm after another throughout the heartland. Cities had filled with people looking for work with few skills and almost no resources. The American people had been resilient and determined, but they wanted a chance to enjoy what opportunities they had found. The economy was beginning to look better, many individuals had adjusted to an industrial city existence after a life spent on a farm. Farmers who had managed to hold on were slowly but surely beginning to breathe easier. They gathered together as families and neighbors to listen to radio broadcasts that threatened this recovering equilibrium with nervousness. Arguments as to who was responsible to stop the trouble elsewhere in the world broke out frequently even among family members. That October 30th, a tension lay across the landscape of America like dry straw waiting for a carelessly tossed match to ignited it.

Orson Wells

Orson Wells found success early in his life. Considered a "wunderkind" he wore many hats in the field of entertainment: writer, actor, and director. That he was gifted is obvious, perhaps in this case almost too gifted. As Halloween neared and the final touches on the script for the War of The World radio play were being worked in, Wells made a decision based on his instincts as a writer. Science Fiction was not as popular a genre as it is today, and Wells had an inspiration for a way of pulling the audience into the story. His ideas were good ones perhaps, again, a little too good.

He used a formula that many Science Fiction authors would employ with success later. Getting the reader's or listener's attention often means having them suspend their disbelief. Just as a magician will use misdirection, patter, and style to distract his audience from paying too much attention to what he is really doing with that silk scarf, so does a writer use believable characters and realism to draw his audience into a fantasy. Simply showing or describing a frightening alien to an audience would not catch them up in the story. Instead he needed to make the play sound as real as possible, give the listeners characters they would care about then have these fictional creations menaced by the monsters.

Later it would be speculated that Orson Wells knew very well what would happen when he decided to base the opening scenes on actual radio news broadcasts. That he would know ahead of time the series of factors that caused the hysteria is doubtful, more likely he simply felt he had hit on a novel way of grabbing his audience's attention. He paced the studio at CBS where the Mercury Theaters Players were organizing props and writing dialog and emphasized that their audience would not believe in the aliens if they couldn't place themselves in the story and see a clear picture of the action. Drawing from actual broadcast such as the Hindenburg disaster, and first hand accounts of the news from Europe he added touches to the script by Howard Koch that would dramatically change the feel of the play and make the listener feel he was actually experiencing an invasion by creeping denizens of another world. Actually this was not the first time he would use a documentary style, in fact an earlier Mercury Theater play "Dracula", based on Bram Stoker's novel, had many of these same effects.

The book War of the Worlds written by H. G. Wells had a similar technique of using first person narrative to describe events as if they were actually occurring to the main character. The story was to some degree upbeat. The aliens who shrug off the might of men succumb to the smallest defense the planet earth has to offer.

Orson Wells wanted that same touch of dramatic human interest for his program. He asked that sounds effects be especially authentic and substantial. The actors were directed to imitate radio newsmen, and the names of the cities used in the book were changed to locations within the United States. He was ready by Halloween to terrify anyone listening to the show. He probably had no idea how much he would scare some of them.

But Officer I heard it on the Radio, it has to be true!

One of the factors that Wells had doubtless not taken into account was the general publics attention span and habits. As the actors gathered around in the studio and waited to go live on the air most Americans were tuned into another show. A popular comedy was just coming to a conclusion as the Mercury Theater Players announced the name of their play and made clear their intentions to give their audience a truly frightening performance. Those audience members who sat waiting to be entertained either looked forward to a scary evenings diversion or reached for the dial on their radio to find another program. Meanwhile other listener's hands were also on the dial as the comedy had ended and the next program didn't capture their fancy.

The play began with orchestra music. Those who had heard the first announcement knew this was just a prelude to the action. Those who had been searching the radio dial thought they had found a program featuring pleasant music and settled back to listen to the soothing sound. Likewise when the music was interrupted and an actor broke into the program to make an announcement of a sighting of something strange in the sky those in the know were not fooled, and those who had tuned in late sat forward in their chairs wondering what the objected could possible be.

As the play progressed the unknown object turned into a spacecraft. Then the spacecraft landed in the very real location of Grover's Mill, New Jersey. Amid the realistic sound effects an actor using the same hushed tones heard in the voice of the newscaster during the Hindenburg crash gave an account of the alien's emergence from the ship. The audience could heard the man's voice overcome by horror as the dastardly extra-terrestrials produced a weapon and laid waste not only to the landscape but also to several extras playing the tortured voices of the crowd surrounding the craft. For many tuning in late who did not know they were listening to a science fiction story that was more than enough to send them into hysteria.

While it could be argued that all anyone swept up in panic had to do was turn the dial to realize that no such invasion was underway, the nature of hysteria is to be incapable of rational thought. By the time the first break came in the program that announced the name of the night's piece of fiction it was too late for many of the terrified audience members. They were engaged in activity related to what they perceived was happening. Hard to imagine what you would do if you thought aliens were taking over New Jersey right this moment isn't it? But that was exactly what many hapless people thought was happening and they reacted to that information.

Roads became jammed in some locations as people fled the mythical Martian visitors to earth. Unfortunate listeners hid terrified in basements, they covered doors and windows in an effort to keep out the poison gas the "announcer" had warned them about. Some even managed to convince others who had not even been listening to the show that the world was coming to an end. They armed themselves and prepared to fight to their deaths.-All for nothing.- 

We Didn't Mean It

As the nature of the curious panic became clear to police they arrived at the studios at CBS to request that the program be stopped. Instead as the program was by this time so close to completion the actors finished the broadcast of the play. If you are tempted to believe that Wells deliberately tricked his audience that Halloween night, listen to an actual recording of that radio program if you can. As the program ends Orson Wells stepped forward to make an unscripted announcement from his own notes he had hastily written.

"This is Orson Wells, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that The War of The Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theater's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo! Starting now, we couldn't soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night. . . so we did the best next thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the C. B. S. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn't mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian. . .it's Hallowe'en."

Simply reading what he had to say does not convey what his emotions might have been that night. There is an audible gulp between the words "tomorrow night", and "so we did.." And in the phrase "we didn't mean it" his voice raises a few octaves. He sounds very much like any other young man who, in the middle of a very serious time, simply wanted to have some fun and can't quite understand what all the fuss is about.

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