Jacqueline Hochheiser, Corporate Communications
Since the dawn of civilization, human curiosity has flourished through creative story-telling and the many innovative methods societies have devised to share their lore with the rest of the tribe. The ways we share knowledge, pass on traditions and entertain each other are central to our sense of history and cultural identity. But then there are times we can get carried away.
In the 1930s, radio broadcasting had fully emerged as the preeminent source of news, music and home entertainment. This age of rapid technological advancements and scientific inquiry pushed the popular imagination beyond the boundaries of Earth itself to conjure worlds and lifeforms that lay beyond. In 1938, American actor and theater director, Orson Welles, rose to fame for inciting mass panic with his radio drama, War of the Worlds, regaling listeners with reports of Martians landing in New Jersey and wreaking havoc across the globe.
The radio drama was adapted from the classic novel, War of the Worlds, by British author H.G Wells. Published in 1898, War of the Worlds was one of the earliest science-fiction novels to involve extraterrestrial life. In fact, the science-fiction genre itself was a relatively new concept, then referred to as Scientific Romance. The novel was set in Wells’ hometown of Surrey, England, which he used as the first landing sight of the Martians in his novel.
Forty years later, as part of a Halloween special, Orson Welles decided to adapt the novel to present day, setting it on October 31st, 1938, and positioning the first Martian landing close to home in Grover’s Hill, New Jersey. CBS Radio invited Welles, already successful as the director and owner of the Mercury Theatre, to create his own broadcast drama series. Keen to try his hand at the new venue that radio represented, Welles agreed and named his show Mercury Theatre on Air. The show consisted of an hourlong broadcast once a week that presented classic literary works often performed by Welles himself.
Eager to make a splash, Welles decided to perform War of the Worlds (click to listen to the original broadcast) for his Halloween show, using the idea of an alien invasion as a scare tactic – evidently a highly effective one, going down in history for provoking mass hysteria. The broadcast begins with Welles reading the novel’s prologue, explaining the monotonous routines of human behavior that continue despite an unknown intelligence looking on, waiting for the right moment to strike.
The broadcast then cuts to a live orchestra playing in New York at the Plaza Hotel, seeming to continue as usual programming. Suddenly, the music cuts out and is interrupted by an urgent “bulletin” announcing mysterious explosions on the surface of the planet Mars, events taken from the context of the original novel. Over the course of the next 30 minutes, the orchestra is repeatedly interrupted to bring listeners critical news as the situation escalates.
A reporter, played by one of Orson Welles’s actors, describes arriving at the scene and witnessing what appears to be a meteor heading toward the earth. It crash-landed, so the reporter says, on a farm in Grover’s Hill, New Jersey, where upon closer inspection, the surface of the cylindrical object resembles some sort of shiny metal. Half buried in the ground, the huge 30-yard diameter cylinder opens and lets loose ugly Martians armed with “fighting machines,” tall metal tripods equipped with heat-rays.
The reporter describes the police and state militia arriving on the scene only to be incinerated by the heat-rays. As the reporter and the people around him resort to panic, the audio cuts out. As the broadcast drama continued, following the progression of events straight from H.G Wells novel, the listeners are ushered through a series of Martian attacks including the release of toxic gas in New York and the tripod fighting machines taking down United States Air Force fighter planes.
When all seems lost, an unnamed survivor played by Orson Welles, takes over the broadcast, detailing his trek through abandoned New York City streets in the aftermath of the Martian attacks. The survivor notices an unusual gathering of black crows farther into the city and pursues it. He stumbles upon empty Martian tripods, decrepit and hanging haphazardly on their three legs. Below the tripods are the dead bodies of the Martians, killed not by human weapons, but by human pathogens that the Martians’ bodies were unequipped to fight off. The broadcast ends with a solemn victory as the human population regroups and begins where it had left off, a monotonous tide of activity.
Legend has it that after hearing Orson Welles broadcasts, many Americans panicked and those native to New Jersey jumped in cars and fled the state. Whether this is hyped-up hysteria or not, newspapers eagerly lapped up the rumors and released articles about the massive disruption the radio drama inflicted on American people. In reality, the broadcast didn’t cause mass panic on its own, but the newspaper coverage of the show made it seem so.
In the 1930s, radio had taken precedence over newspapers, offering a “more modern” approach to daily news and entertainment. In an attempt to debase radio, newspaper articles claimed that Welles’s drama was so realistic in mimicking a national emergency broadcast and fooled so many people, that radio simply could not be trusted as a viable source of news.
Despite the warring news sources, Orson Welles went down in history as the man who captured human curiosity of the unknown and was wildly successful as a result. Fascination with extraterrestrials and unidentified flying objects (UFOs) remains an integral part of popular culture today and a subject of interest in the sciences, film and literature. As our world carries on, do we really know if some extraterrestrial intelligence is watching from a far, determining when to attack? It may be impossible to tell until it is too late.