Orson Welles and “The War of the Worlds” 85

I have long had an enormous fascination with H. G. Wells‘s 1898 novel, The War of the Worlds and its many adaptations, from board games, video games, comic books, and musicals to six different television series and four films—including my absolute favorite, the classic George Pal-produced 1953 version starring Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, who make a cameo appearance at the end of the more graphic 2005 Steven Spielberg version.

But it was on this date that Orson Welles provided a shocking radio adaptation whose cultural impact has only been magnified in the 85 years since it first aired. On October 30, 1938, between the hours of 8 and 9 pm (ET), the CBS Radio Network presented a Mercury Theater on the Air dramatization of this sci-fi classic, recrafting it as a real-time broadcast with news interruptions that informed the audience of an unfolding, horrifying crisis in New Jersey. Alas, some folks tuned in a little late and didn’t realize that this was not news—fake or otherwise. They had no idea that the invasion from Mars was pure fiction.

It has been said that in the depths of the Great Depression and with an ever-present memory of the high casualties and slaughter of a World War, many Americans looked on world events with both caution and concern. In March of 1938, Hitler had annexed Austria. At the beginning of October, just days after British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had declared “Peace for Our Time,” Hitler moved into Sudetenland, Bohemia, and Czechoslovakia. Perhaps more than a few people were a bit ‘jumpy’ given the tenor of the times.

Still, there has been much debate as to how widespread the panic was to this broadcast. Newspapers hyped a nationwide meltdown the next day and the tale has been retold so many times that it has taken on a life of its own. It seems clear, however, that more than a few people were alarmed. The event has been immortalized as a demonstration of the power of a relatively new social medium. Today, as media has expanded exponentially from radio and television to streaming platforms and the Internet, we are more aware than ever of its power to provoke anger, frustration, and fear.

Whatever its impact, the broadcast itself—especially as it unfolds in its first 20-30 minutes—is quite a listen. Though Orson Welles’s introduction clearly states that this is a dramatization, you wouldn’t know it from the minutes that follow. As we’re enjoying the dance music of Ramón Raquello and His Orchestra from the Park Plaza Hotel’s Meridian Room, there’s an interruption from Intercontinental Radio News telling us of explosions on the planet Mars, with objects “moving toward Earth with enormous velocity”. Our program of dance music—that of Raquello and of Bobby Millet and His Orchestra at the Hotel Martinet in Brooklyn—is interrupted continuously by special news reports. Most concerning is the one coming out of Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, where an odd-looking ‘meteor’ has slammed into a local farm. The horrors that unfold in the ‘eyewitness’ report of what is apparently a Martian attack have a similar tone to the live radio newscast of the May 1937 Hindenburg tragedy [YouTube link], as that craft, engulfed in flames, crashed to the grounds of Lakehurst, New Jersey. Boy, New Jersey, you’ve got all the luck, from a German dirigible disaster in 1937 and a Martian invasion in 1938 to Snooki on the Shore and the Real Housewives both crashing into our culture in 2009! Damn!

In any event, for those who have never heard this broadcast, try to suspend your twenty-first century sophistication for a little while and check out this iconic moment of Halloween-eve history [YouTube link].

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