“We know now that in the early years of the 20th century, this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own. We know now that as human beings busied themselves about their various concerns, they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”
So began a particular Sunday evening on October 30, 1938.
Orson Welles was behind the microphone that evening as he opened up the broadcast of Welles’ Mercury Theater Company’s production of The War of the Worlds.
Only 23-years-old, Welles was already an established radio presence.
When he began his War of the Worlds program at 8 p.m. that Sunday, he didn’t intend for the program to be considered a hoax or fill his audience with terror.
Before the golden age of television, Sunday evenings were for families to gather around the radio and listen to the evening’s broadcast.
8 p.m. on a Sunday night was a prime time for radio programs, but most radio listeners didn’t tune on automatically to Welles’ drama production on CBS; rather, it is estimated that at 8 p.m., the majority of Welles’ eventual audience had their radios tuned onto NBC, where ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his wooden dummy were performing a comedy sketch.
At 8:12 p.m., the sketch ended and a little-known singer came on the NBC radio channel.
This was when many believe that Welles’ listeners turned their radio dials to CBS – where the Martian invasion drama was already taking place.
Beginning the program, Welles had introduced the story as a play of fiction that was being produced for the air by the Mercury Theatre Company.
Listeners who had been tuned in the entire time would have heard the opening introduction, but for the many listeners who tuned into the CBS channel later in the program, they would have been met with a drama that sounded frighteningly real.
The radio program was designed to appear as a simulation of normal evening radio broadcast, complete with a weather report and musical pieces provided by the fictional ‘Ramon Raquello’ and orchestra (including a musical piece that, humorously, was titled ‘Stardust’).
After a few minutes of peaceful instrumental music, a news flash interrupted the program to inform the listeners about strange explosions that had been observed on Mars.
Again, the music returned only to be broken again by an interview between two of the Mercury Theater Company’s characters, Reporter Carl Phillips and Professor of Astronomy Richard Pierson, the latter who was voiced by Welles himself.
Pierson dismissed the speculation that life could exist on Mars, perhaps setting up the mood for the radio drama that would follow.
Following the pleasant ‘interview’, the musical program returns, only for it to once again be broken by a breaking news announcement regarding an object had fallen from space and landed in the field of a New Jersey farm.
The characters of Reporter Phillips and Professor Pierson transported listeners to the scene of the crash, where the two conversed over the scene while background ambiance of a large crowd, emergency noises, and a generally chaotic atmosphere were played.
When Reporter Phillips began to verbally document the chaos of the crash scene, the strange fallen object began to open, and a martian machine emerged.
At this point, the program had not reached its first radio break, so to incoming listeners who had missed Welles’ beginning disclaimer and introduction, everything sounded real.
The Reporter Carl Phillips continues to ‘report’ the first contact to listeners as law enforcement officers approached the fictional martian monster, and radio listeners hear as the first attack takes place, as the Martian machine fires a heat ray that incinerates the officers; the crowd in the background screams, Reporter Phillips shouts about incoming flames – and the radio program enters dead air.
What follows was a chaotic documentation of a completely fictional war for Earth as the martian forces (they would later be described as an army) invade; the program describes explosions, the destruction of the broadcasting studio, the spread of poisonous black smoke, and the futility of mankind’s war equipment against the Martians.
After another (fictional) news reporter took to describing the scene of the invaders taking over New York City, spreading the black smoke and choking out the population, silence once again reigns as listeners hear only the sounds of the machines attacking the city.
Eventually, the ambiance is broken by a Ham Radio operator calling out into the broadcast, asking: “2X2L calling CQ, New York. Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there… anyone?”
After a period of silence, the program announcer Dan Seymour broke program to inform listeners that they were currently listening to Orson Welles and Mercury Theatre’s dramatization of The War of the Worlds.
After a brief intermission, the drama program returned and completed itself with the return of Professor Pierson (who survived the attack in New Jersey).
As Pierson travels to New York, he witnesses the death of the Martians, who died after falling victim to pathogenic germs from Earth, of which they had no resistance.
With the dramatization over, Orson Welles returned to the programming, and popular legend claims that Welles’ final announcement after the program was due to the realization that his dramatized broadcast had caused panic, and it was both Welles’ and CBS’ attempt at regaining their reputation with the public.
“This is Orson Welles, 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!’” said Welles, adding: “We couldn’t soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night, so we did the next best thing: we annihilated the world before your very ears and utterly destroyed the CBS.”
While Welles made it clear, both in his announcement and afterward in his talks with the media, that he had never intended to cause alarm with his program or for it to be taken seriously, there was an aspect of the dramatization that did help shape future regulations; the incident caused the Federal Communications Commission to place a ban on faux news bulletins being played within a dramatic radio program.
The legend of the hysteria and panic that followed The War of the Worlds broadcast episode may also be a bit more of an urban myth than pure fact.
While some people might have experienced panic after listening to Welles’ broadcast, there were three breaks that advised the listeners to the fictional nature of what they were hearing.
But with this rumored ‘hysteria’, there was an opportunity to make money, and newspapers quickly cashed in.
The New York Times headlined the event, calling it “Terror By Radio”, and plenty of other newspapers followed suit; whether or not the general public had actually experienced widespread terror can be debated – but the newspapers made sure to make it appear like Welles’ program had frightened millions.
Even H.G. Wells, the author of the War of the Worlds book, didn’t believe that the rumors of mass hysteria were to be believed, instead, he passed off the rumors of America’s terror as a play act by those who heard the dramatized program and wanted in on the Halloween prank.
Whether or not America was actually terrorized by Orson Welles’ program, or whether it was all a myth to sell newspapers, there are two definite facts: the first, that October 30, 1938, turned the young Orson Welles into a well-known name with a reputation that lasts even today, and that the program was meant as nothing more than an interesting dramatization of a story fit for the night before Halloween.
“So remember, for the next day or so, the terrible lesson you learned tonight: that grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the Pumpkin Patch,” said Welles in the final seconds of his legendary program. “And if your doorbell rings and nobody is there, that was no Martian – it’s Halloween.”
Article Originally Written By Moi For ECB Publishing, Inc. Republished Here Too Because It Is Just Too Fun A Story To Miss Out On.