The evening of October 30, 1938 is still remembered as the night that terrified America. On that long-ago Halloween Eve, the 23-year-old wunderkind of the wireless, Orson Welles, and his Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcast a live radio adaptation of H.G. Wells novel, The War of the Worlds.Welles, with all the arrogance of a young genius, had initially panned the script as “corny.” To avoiding putting his audience to sleep, he demanded spine-chilling sound effects and increasingly impassioned performances from his actors. He was aiming for realism, and he got more than he bargained for.
Because of a lull in the program on a competing channel, impatient listeners began twisting their radio dials in search of something more interesting. They found it. At about 8:12 p.m., a small but significant portion of the nation’s radio audience tuned in to Mercury Theatre just in time to hear a chilling “news announcement” that a flying saucer from Mars had landed at Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. Hideous death-dealing aliens had emerged to destroy the human race.
As the story has come down to us, what followed was one of the most extraordinary cases of mass hysteria ever recorded. Some listeners dropped to their knees in prayer. Others grabbed their families and fled. Massive traffic jams choked the motorways. Churches were crammed with distraught worshippers convinced that the world was coming to an end. At least one woman gave birth prematurely, and others were injured in the inevitable accidents that ensued.
But in his current book, Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News, author A. Brad Schwartz documents that there were in fact few incidents of real panic in reaction to the broadcast. What happened was that eager newspaper reporters pounced on these isolated incidents and hyped the story after the fact. That’s why the event acquired legendary status.
But if there was no panic in the world outside, there was definitely one within the broadcast studios of CBS. Enough listeners had been frightened by the radio program to jam the switchboards with calls, and rumors of everything from mass suicides to terrified thousands fleeing the Martians were filtering in by the time the broadcast was half over.
Fearing possible lawsuits, CBS executives wanted to stop the show on the spot, or at least insert an announcement that it was just a radio play. Failing that, they wanted to prevent Welles from delivering the brief curtain speech he had prepared to conclude the broadcast.
Welles frequently ended his productions this way, and his speeches generally had a humorous, mocking tone. He felt that a bit of friendly banter would build a bond between himself and his listeners. But by this point, banter was the last thing that the anxious CBS executives wanted.
Unfortunately, Welles was sealed in a soundproof stage and blithely disregarded the frantic signals meant to alert him that something had gone terribly wrong. When he finally got a glimmer of the havoc he was causing, it was too late for him to do anything but stick to the script and read his speech.
And so, the ill-fated production of War of the Worlds ended with the worst possible attempt at damage control:
“This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that The War of the Worlds has no further significance than the holiday offering it was intended to be: the Mercury Theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying, ‘Boo!’ Starting now, 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 Columbia Broadcasting System. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn’t mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So good-bye everybody, and remember, please, for the next day or so the terrible lesson you have learned tonight: That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian—it’s Halloween.”
To the still-jittery listeners, Welles’ speech gave the impression that he had set out deliberately to spook his audience as a Halloween prank, and that he was gloating over the result. Some were so angry that they called in death threats. Others would hold the broadcast against him for years.
Though I had not yet been born in 1938, I can verify that last statement from personal experience. When I was in college, I became fascinated by Welles and his work. As my admiration grew, I innocently confessed my new-found enthusiasm in a conversation with my mother.
To my astonishment, my mother winced at the mere mention of Welles’ name. Thus did I learn that she had been one of the listeners who had tuned in to the Mercury Theatre at the wrong moment on that fateful Halloween eve. Even thirty years had not dimmed her recollection of the fright she had felt then. For her, Orson Welles would always remain that terrible man who had scared her half to death.
Hal Gordon, who has written speeches for the White House and General Colin Powell, currently freelances in Houston. www.ringingwords.com.