Historical Hysteria: War of the Worlds

Orson Welles, of Citizen Kane fame, is also justifiably noteworthy for creating and broadcasting War of the Worlds on October 30, 1938.  The show was one of the most notable radio hoaxes in history, panicking millions of Americans, altering perceptions about the impact of the mass media, and raising questions about citizens’ capacity for mass delusion.

War of the Worlds was part of the weekly Mercury Theater on the Air, a company founded by Orson Welles and John Houseman in July 1938.  The program succeeded in impressing critics, who were drawn to their radio treatments of literary classics such as Dracula, The Count of Monte Cristo, A Tale of Two Cities, and Treasure Island.  Actual radio listeners, however, were less impressed, preferring the popular ventriloquist-dummy combination on the Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy Show, which played opposite the Mercury Theater on the Air, and drew approximately ten times as many listeners.

By October of 1938, Welles wanted to shake things up. On October 24th, he commissioned one of the scriptwriters, Howard Koch, to adapt the H.G. Wells’ science fiction War of the Worlds to radio, instructing him to modernize the language and dialogue, set the story in the United States, and, importantly, suggested that he advance the narrative through a series of fake news stories interrupting the program.

Orson Welles on Radio

Orson Welles on Radio

The program, consisting largely of music from the fictional Ramon Racquello orchestra (actually Bernard Herrman), was broadcast the day before Halloween, 1938.  It was soon interrupted, however, by “reports” alleging that numerous “incandescent explosions” had been observed on the surface of Mars.

Subsequently, a “shock of almost earthquake intensity” was reported within a twenty-mile radius of Princeton.  A mobile unit was dispatched.  The reporter, arriving at the site, came upon “curious spectators” who were, perhaps unwisely, “pressing close to the object,” which was a “yellowish-white” cylinder rather than a meteorite.

And this is where things got ugly.

A creature with tentacles, according to the reporter, began to emerge from the top of the cylinder: “It glistens like wet leather. But that face.…I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it — it’s so awful. Its eyes are black and they gleam like a serpent. The mouth is a kind of V-shaped, with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate.”

The “curious spectators,” understandably, began to question their curiosity.  But it was too late.  According to the reporter, a “humped shape” emerged and fired a “jet of flame” upon the spectators, turning the field “on fire—the woods, the barns, the—gas tanks of the automobiles—it’s spreading everywhere.  It’s coming this way now.  It’s about twenty yards to my right”—and then the signal went silent.

But Welles had more tricks up his sleeve.  The connection was reestablished, and his program of fiction continued in a most realistic manner.  The state militia, according to radio reports, was summoned to combat the creature’s mysterious “heat ray.” Captain Lansing, leader of the militia was confident: “we ought to see some action soon. One of the companies is deploying on the left flank. A quick thrust and it will all be over….What?  It’s standing on its legs…now it’s reaching up above the trees…Hold on!”

After a silence, a reporter broke in to issue a “grave announcement.”  The militia had been destroyed by a “vanguard of the advancing army of the planet Mars.”

Mass hysteria ensued.

War of the Worlds Headlines

War of the Worlds Headlines

Later studies indicated that approximately six million people heard the broadcast directly.  Some studies suggested that three-fourths of the listeners believed the story be authentic.  Shortly after the program, Alexander Woolcott sent a telegram to Welles reading: “This only goes to prove, my beamish boy, that the intelligent people were all listening to the dummy [Charlie McCarthy], and all the dummies were listening to you.”

In New Jersey, the Newark police reported 2,000 phone calls from “terrified listeners.”  In one neighborhood, scores of families fled to the streets with towels over their heads in an attempt to survive the Martians’ poisonous gases.

In New York, “communications were virtually immobilized.”  The New York Daily News, overwhelmed with phone calls, stopped saying “Hello,” and simply answered the line with “There are no men from Mars. It’s just a radio show.”   Churches held end-of-the-world meetings.  In Harlem, according to The New York Amsterdam News, children “screamed in terror and women fainted.”

In Pittsburgh a man rushed home to find his wife in their bathroom, clutching a bottle of poison, screaming “I’d rather die this way (gesturing to the poison) than that (gesturing outside).”  The residents of Concrete, Washington, were especially unfortunate.  A fluke power outage occurred in the midst of the broadcast, convincing terrified listeners that the end was, indeed, near.  Folks in Virginia fled to the Appalachian Mountains, where they were found by law enforcement personnel days later.

The hysteria led to delusions.

In Boston, citizens rushed to rooftops, where they swore they witnessed the “burning of New York.”  In Selma, Louisiana, a man fled his house in the dark only to be cut down by a nearby clothesline, which hit him in the neck.   “I thought,” he said, “I had been hit by a death ray.”  Others were convinced they heard President Franklin Roosevelt on the radio, informing the nation of a Martian invasion.

In those days, The Huntsville Item was a weekly, and the event missed the paper’s news cycle.  The Houston Post, however, ran a story on the “calamity.”  Callers “clogged” the Post switchboard wanting to know whether the “eastern seaboard was being invaded,” whether a “meteor had devastated New Jersey,” and “whether the world had reached its millennium.”

war_of_the_worlds_welles

In retrospect, such hysteria seems amusing.  Modern audiences are too media savvy to fall for such a media concoction, and too mesmerized by such sophisticated fare as the Casey Anthony Trial to be diverted by purported planetary invasions.  Shows about extra-terrestials are fine for the radio and the movies, but if these creatures really did exist, wouldn’t they have made their presence known by now?  In fact, if they were that smart and technologically advanced, wouldn’t they just zap all of our communication systems and shut down ou

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