Disturbances observed on the Planet Mars

Original movie poster, 1953

On this day in 1938, residents of New Jersey were terrified to hear, as they tuned in to local radio stations transmitting a broadcast from Trenton, that in nearby Grover’s Mill, a ‘huge cylinder’ had plummeted to earth, and crashed on Mr. Wilmot’s farm.

Listeners were shocked to learn that a “greenish streak” had shot through the sky, making an enormous sound as it hit Wilmot’s farm.

Martian Landing Site

In towns all over the state of New Jersey, and indeed, in towns across the United States, families prepared for the coming invasion from Mars.

My own grandmother and grandfather packed up my mother, a four month-old baby, born that July, in preparation to evacuate Newark, New Jersey, a city threatened in the broadcast, with imminent invasion.

They weren’t alone; their credulousness was shared by thousands influenced by the menacing tone and immediacy of the radio
play, which made use of news updates to simulate the ‘reality’ of its scary news story, that ‘creatures’ had landed on Earth, with the intention of destroying humanity.

The broadcast sounded entirely believable. It relied on ‘grave announcements’ from New Jersey State Militia, professors, even the Secretary of the Interior in Washington D.C., all of whom convinced the listener that indeed, invaders from Mars had ‘cut the state through its center,’ threatening the entire eastern seaboard, and eventually, the rest of the United States.

Of course, what really happened is that Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre broadcast a scary radio drama for Hallowe’en:

On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre On The Air broadcast a radio dramatization of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) coast-to-coast network. The story of invading Martians is presented realistically, but disclaimers stating that the presentation is entirely fictional are aired four times during the hour-long show. Nevertheless, a nationwide panic ensues that reaches as far as Seattle.

Orson Welles, 23 at the time he wrote and produced “The War of the Worlds.” Brilliant, annoying, wunderkind, shocked the nation and changed the future.

The wonderful story this radio broadcast was based on is H. G. Well’s book The War of the Worlds, one of the earlier modern pieces of science fiction, in which an apocalyptic vision of the future was drawn for the reader. It was a terrifying vision in 1898, its year of publication, and has spawned any number of movies and inspired many subsequent science fiction stories.

The next day, an apparently contrite Welles appeared in front of the press to apologize to the pubic, but also to express surprise that his retelling of the original H. G. Wells’s story would have “such an immediate and profound affect” upon radio listeners:

http://youtu.be/ho_9XTnlJKM

To listen to the original radio broadcast, click here. Click on the title of the book to read the full text of  The War of the Worlds. Here is a Youtube version of the radio broadcast, including illustrations.

The myth of mass panic is considered ‘highly anecdotal,’ and has its share of disbelievers, although my grandparents would not have been among them. This fact is embarrassing, but understandable, given their lack of a formal education. I imagine that for those who had never read the book, Orson Welles’ assumption that a story commonly read “by children,” that should be known by everyone, would not have been terribly reassuring to hear the day after the end of the world.  

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