If you didn’t read my post from last year, you best catch up first.
Since last year, not much has changed. Justification for cultural appropriation is still the scariest part of Halloween. But, remember when as a population we could be scared into full blown panic?
Sunday, October 30th, 1938 — 81 years ago today — Orson Welles narrated an adaptation of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, which was broadcasted nationally by The Mercury Theatre on the Air. That broadcast started one of the largest unintended, but well known public panics of American history.
The 1938 War of the Worlds radio episode started off as a typical radio broadcast. There was no direct mention that any of what would be said was true or false. The episode was set up by a brief mentioning of the possibility of extra terrestrial life, followed by a weather report. After introducing a song, the broadcasters subsequently interrupt it for the fictional notice that sent people into a real panic:
Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. At twenty minutes before eight, central time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the earth with enormous velocity. Professor Pierson of the Observatory at Princeton confirms Farrell’s
observation, and describes the phenomenon as “like a jet of blue flame shot from a gun.” We now return you to the music of Ramón Raquello, playing for you in the Meridian Room of the Park Plaza Hotel, situated in downtown New York.
(MUSIC PLAYS FOR A FEW MOMENTS UNTIL PIECE ENDS . . . APPLAUSE)
For as significant as they made it sound, they immediately returned to the live music broadcast — leaving listeners perplexed, if they cared at all. They not only returned to the first song, but introduced a second one just to interrupt that one too:
Ladies and gentlemen, following on the news given in our bulletin a
moment ago, the Government Meteorological Bureau has requested the large observatories of the country to keep an astronomical watch on any further disturbances occurring on the planet Mars. Due to the unusual nature of this occurrence, we have arranged an interview with noted
astronomer: Professor Pierson, who will give us his views on the event. In a few moments we
will take you to the Princeton Observatory at Princeton, New Jersey. We return you until then to
the music of Ramón Raquello and his orchestra.
(MUSIC . . .)
At this point listeners are not only confused, but also distressed, especially those near New Jersey. The music plays for some time until they are “ready to take [listeners] to the Princeton Observatory at Princeton where Carl Phillips, [their] commentator, will interview Professor Richard Pierson” the esteemed astronomer.
Phillips interviewed Pierson, who is looking through his telescope at Mars. The professor assures the reporter, and listeners, that he sees “nothing unusual,” and the possiblity of intelligent life on Mars are “a thousand to one,” against it. For reference, they also mentioned that Mars is about 40 million miles from Earth, even tho at the time of broadcast Mars was as close to Earth as it ever gets in their orbit patterns.
Mid interview, Pierson is handed a message which tells him of an earthquake like event near Princeton. The professor dismisses the report as a more explainable extra terrestrial event, like a small meteorite striking the Earth.
Phillips ends the interview with Pierson & the broadcast moves from New Jersey to New York:
Ladies and gentlemen, here is the latest bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. Toronto, Canada: Professor Morse of McGill University reports observing a total of three explosions on the planet Mars, between the hours of 7:45 P. M. and 9:20 P. M., eastern standard time. This confirms earlier reports received from American observatories. Now, nearer
home, comes a special announcement from Trenton, New Jersey. It is reported that at 8:50 P.
M. a huge, flaming object, believed to be a meteorite, fell on a farm in the neighborhood of Grovers Mill, New Jersey, twenty-two miles from Trenton. The flash in the sky was visible within a radius of several hundred miles and the noise of the
impact was heard as far north as Elizabeth. We have dispatched a special mobile unit to the scene, and will have our commentator, Carl Phillips, give you a word description as soon as he can reach there from Princeton. In the
meantime, we take you to the Hotel Martinet in Brooklyn, where Bobby Millette and his orchestra are offering a program of dance music.
That musical interlude didn’t last 30 seconds before getting interrupted & the broadcast was back in New Jersey:
Ladies and gentlemen, this is Carl Phillips again, at the Wilmuth farm, Grovers Mill,
New Jersey. Professor Pierson and myself made the eleven miles from Princeton in ten minutes. Well, I . . . I hardly know where to begin, to paint for you a word picture of the strange scene before my eyes, like something out of a modern “Arabian Nights.” Well, I just got here. I haven’t had a chance to look around yet. I guess that’s it. Yes, I guess that’s the . . . thing,
directly in front of me, half buried in a vast pit. Must have struck with terrific force. The ground is covered with splinters of a tree it must have struck on its way down. What I can see of the . . . object itself doesn’t look very much like a meteor, at least not the meteors I’ve seen. It looks more like a huge cylinder.
Phillips & Pierson discuss the dimensions of the object, while they are herded by police to one area of the farm. Phillips then interviewed the owner of the farm, Mr. Wilmuth.
Wilmuth is the most relatable person in the broadcast at this point. He speaks of the incident from the same ignorant point of view that the listeners have. He is, in a sense, the personification of the listeners to the listeners. His recollection of the incident gets many skeptical listeners on board. A humming noise cut off Wilmuth’s interview, and the focus shifts to the rowdy crowd.
Phillips & Pierson continue discussing the scene:
PIERSON: I don’t know what to think. The metal casing is definitely extraterrestrial . . . not found on this earth. Friction with the earth’s atmosphere usually tears holes in a meteorite. This thing is smooth and, as you can see, of cylindrical shape.
PHILLIPS: Just a minute! Something’s happening! Ladies and gentlemen, this is terrific! This
end of the thing is beginning to flake off! The top is beginning to rotate like a screw! The thing
must be hollow!
VOICES: She’s movin’! Look, the darn thing’s unscrewing! Keep back, there! Keep back, I tell
you! Maybe there’s men in it trying to escape! It’s red hot, they’ll burn to a cinder! Keep back
there. Keep those idiots back!
(SUDDENLY THE CLANKING SOUND OF A HUGE PIECE OF FALLING METAL)
VOICES: She’s off! The top’s loose! Look out there! Stand back!
At this point listeners are turning up the volume or turning off the radio out of fear. New Jerseyians are flocking to Grovers Mill. Emergency dispatchers are getting calls from all over about all types of sightings.
Phillips reports an entity, or several, crawling out of the top of the craft. As “indescribable” as he says it is, he claims it to be as large as a bear, with black eyes, a v-shaped mouth & tentacles.
As the broadcast continues on, Phillips goes back to speak with Wilmuth, but before he can:
PHILLIPS: A humped shape is rising out of the pit. I can make out a small beam of light against a mirror. What’s that? There’s a jet of flame springing from the mirror, and it leaps right at the advancing men. It strikes them head on! Good Lord, they’re turning into flame!
(SCREAMS AND UNEARTHLY SHRIEKS)
PHILLIPS: Now the whole field’s caught fire. (EXPLOSION) The woods . . . the barns . . . the gas tanks of automobiles . . . it’s spreading everywhere. It’s coming this way. About twenty yards to my right . . .
(CRASH OF MICROPHONE … THEN DEAD SILENCE)
It is at this point that full blown panic ensues. The broadcast pings away from Grovers Mill, due to “circumstances beyond [their] control.” They attempt to return the broadcast to normal, but that doesn’t last long. They once again interrupt the musical interlude:
Ladies and gentlemen, I have just been handed a message that came in from Grovers Mill by telephone. Just a moment. At least forty people, including six state troopers
lie dead in a field east of the village of Grovers Mill, their bodies burned and distorted beyond all
possible recognition. The next voice you hear will be that of Brigadier General Montgomery
Smith, commander of the state militia at Trenton, New Jersey.
Smith places the affected areas in Middlesex & Mercer counties under martial law, and band travel into said area. An announcer reports that the creatures have returned to their craft & tho the assaults have stopped, the fires rage on. They’re then connected back to our good friend Professor Pierson:
Of the creatures in the rocket cylinder at Grovers Mill, I can give you no authoritative
information — either as to their nature, their origin, or their purposes here on earth Of their
destructive instrument I might venture some conjectural explanation. For want of a better term, I shall refer to the mysterious weapon as a heat ray. It’s all too evident that these creatures have scientific knowledge far in advance of our own. It is my guess that in some way they are able to generate an intense heat in a chamber of practically absolute nonconductivity. This intense heat
they project in a parallel beam against any object they choose, by means of a polished parabolic
mirror of unknown composition, much as the mirror of a lighthouse projects a beam of light. That
is my conjecture of the origin of the heat ray . . .
The “I’m sure it’s nothing” professor is now at a loss for fancy words about a fictional incident that causes real widespread panic. An announcer reports that the Red Cross has dispatched emergency aide, the fires are under control & the VP of Operations, Harry MacDonald, claims they need full control of all radio broadcasting facilities to fulfill the “responsibility to serve in the public interest at all times.”
Captain Lansing then comes on the air to declare that “all cause for alarm, if such cause ever existed, is now entirely unjustified,” as the creatures have retreated to their craft & the craft is surrounded by miliary personnel. He was the final recorded eye witness of the events on Wilmuth Farm:
Well, we ought to see some action soon. One of the companies is deploying on the left flank. An quick thrust and it will all be over. Now wait a minute! I see something on top of the cylinder. No, it’s nothing but a shadow. Now the troops are on the edge of the Wilmuth farm. Seven thousand armed men closing in on an old metal tube. Wait, that wasn’t a shadow! It’s something moving . . . solid metal . . . kind of shieldlike affair rising up out of the cylinder . . . It’s going higher and higher. Why, it’s standing on legs . . . actually rearing up on a sort of metal framework. Now it’s reaching above the trees and the
searchlights are on it. Hold on!
The announcer reports that only 120 people survived the attack, “the rest
strewn over the battle area from Grovers Mill to Plainsboro, crushed and trampled to deathunder the metal feet of the monster, or burned to cinders by its heat ray.” New Jersey left a shadow of doom.
Communication lines are down from Pennsylvania to the Atlantic Ocean. Railroad tracks are
torn and service from New York to Philadelphia discontinued except routing some of the trains through Allentown and Phoenixville. Highways to the north, south, and west are clogged with frantic human traffic. Police and army reserves are unable to control the mad flight. By morning
the fugitives will have swelled Philadelphia, Camden, and Trenton, it is estimated, to twice their normal population. At this time martial law prevails throughout New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania.
Expect for one problem: those living in the areas reportedly incinerated, or otherwise affected, weren’t. It is at this point the fiction becomes more apparent to many listeners. Only those away from the “affected area” could still be effectively stuped.
The Secretary of the Interior gives a quick pep talk about while this whole situation is extra, everything is fine because it’s only in New Jersey. Except then an announcer reports a sighting of another similar craft in Morristown, New Jerswey. We are then pinged directly to a temporary military base nearby to listen directly to the orders of officers to blow up the second craft before it can be activated. They are able to hit & possibly damage the craft, but then an unknown smoke pours out. Other crafts are located by pilots, with a total of 6 counted at this point, one being damaged. Another lifts an arm to incinerate 8 army bomber aircrafts, including the one reporting to us, so the broadcast switches to another input.
At this point, the broadcast has lost the interest of anyone who lives in or near New Jersey. The scale they pushed is to was not a feasible lie, as too many listeners would have had to die (or at least lose service) for anyone in NJ to fall for it.
Reports come in that more crafts have landed on Earth & the offending planet is Mars. Additionally the black smoke from earlier is being used on entire cities & it’s toxic.
ANNOUNCER: You are listening to a CBS presentation of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air in an original dramatization of The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. The performance will continue after a brief intermission. This is the Columbia . . .Broadcasting System.
PIERSON: As I set down these notes on paper, I’m obsessed by the thought that I may be the
last living man on earth. I have been hiding in this empty house near Grovers Mill — a small
island of daylight cut off by the black smoke from the rest of the world.
……uhh. you just told everyone, for this first time in this broadcast, that this story is fictional……
I couldn’t even be bothered to write about the rest of the broadcast, not would I make you read anymore.
Popular culture is an interesting topic. As a sociologist, I find it especially intriguing. Pop culture events like these can be looked at thru many lenses & will be talked about for generations.
Someone born in 1938 would only be 81 this year. Their parents likely listened to the broadcast & likely told them the stories. Those stories are the functional cultural history of those families.