When Martians attacked us

“Radio listeners in panic, taking war drama as fact — Many flee homes to escape ‘Gas raid from Mars’ — phone calls swamp police at Broadcast of Wells fantasy,” is the headline from the New York Times on Oct. 31, 1938. The night before, audiences were so convinced Orson Wells radio play was real that a minor public emergency occurred. Today we mark the 75th anniversary of that historic broadcast.

Welles’ Mercury Theater on the Air production was an adaptation of science-fiction legend H.G. Wells’ classic, “The War of the Worlds.”

The genius of Welles’ performance came in his use of typical radio programming punctuated by clipped, desperate interruptions for “breaking news.” The “news” concerned an invasion of Martians who had just landed in a sleepy town called Grovers Mill. It sounded so real some listeners couldn’t discern between fact and fiction.

It began like so many other radio shows — an announcer, a musical theme, Welles’ introduction, a weather report and pitch to a New York hotel where a Spanish orchestra was playing.

Then came the Earth-shattering moment. An announcer said there had been a series of explosions on Mars, and that blue flames of gas were moving at a high velocity toward Earth.

The musical interlude resumed, only to be broken again by the announcer. The announcer was introduced as “world-famous astronomer, professor Richard Pierson,” (Welles) at the Princeton Observatory in Princeton, N.J. During the interview, Pierson reassured the public that there was no life on Mars and that it was a safe 40 million miles away.

Then came another interruption, along with news that something with a ground-shaking velocity had hit Earth near Princeton.

“Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake,” Pierson exclaims, “Now it’s another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing’s body. It’s large, large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face, it… Ladies and gentlemen, it’s indescribable…”

An estimated 12 million listeners heard the broadcast. Many panicked, convinced Martians really had invaded the Earth at Grovers Mill, N.J.

One of the more amusing details about the production concerns the selection of the targeted town. The process was hardly scientific. Scriptwriter Howard Koch was visiting relatives in the area when he closed his eyes while pointing a pencil at a map of New Jersey.

With the Great Depression in full tilt and the specter of yet another war looming in Europe, the nation was ill at ease. Media moguls, like William Randolph Hearst, had raised slanted journalism to a high art. The public was primed to accept almost any outrageous claim on its face. Adding to this, New Jersey had born witness to the Hindenburg disaster just a year before. Not much seemed right in the world; and fright from above was just too believable.

October 30, the day before Halloween — “mischief night” as it is commonly called — was pregnant with anxiety. Welles’ theater company knew exactly how to induce labor.

Induce they did. Not only did the CBS broadcast evoke fear in New Jersey, audiences all over the country scrambled to make sense out of what they heard. As far away as Chicago, Baltimore, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Memphis, Minneapolis, and Salt Lake, listeners scurried for cover and made frantic calls to the authorities.

Three quarters of a century later we are arguably a bit more media savvy, but an increase in skepticism does not necessarily equate with sophistication. Perhaps we would be slower to panic, but the profusion of “reality” television, “talking head” pundits and bathroom humor certainly don’t suggest much greater audience maturity. As we clamor for a Halloween scare, that might be the most startling truth of all.