The War of the Worlds

A hoax that will be remembered for all time, Welles’ broadcast of an adaptation of H.G. Wells“War of the Worlds” on Oct. 30, 1938, stands as a vivid reminder of the power of the media and of the general public’s vulnerability when it is gripped by fear.

In Fall of 1938, Europe was at war. Hitler had just stormed into Czechoslovakia and had earlier taken the Sudetenland. He was a force the likes of which the world, including the American public had never seen.

Welles was interested in exploring the evils of fascism, which he was doing with his current project for Mercury Theatre, Danton’s Death. Clearly, the idea of powers large enough to wreak an apocalypse was on his mind as Halloween approached and he was pressed to choose programming for his “Mercury Theatre on the Air” radio series.

While re-tellings of the episode suggest that Welles merely read “The War of the Worlds” by the science fiction author, his colleagues in fact did adapt it into an original script. Howard Koch, relieved of his duties on “Danton’s Death” (on which Welles was working feverishly) set about to map out a timely adaptation. He bought a map of New Jersey, closed his eyes, and dropped his pencil point, having decided to choose the location of the fictional Martian invasion in this way.

He’d landed on Grover Mill, New Jersey, and the rest is history.

“Mercury Theatre on The Air” had been alive for only a month, and so far, despite Welles’s rising star in the world of theatre, wasn’t competing well against its Sunday night competition, Edgar Bergen’s Chase and Sanborn Hour, featuring the ventriloquist and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy. The only thing Welles had going for him was a well-known phenomenon in which listeners would turn the dial when a guest performer came on Bergen’s show.

The timing of “The War of the Worlds” capitalized on this. At the top of the hour, the announcer made it clear that Welles was broadcasting an adaptation of H.G. Wells“The War of the Worlds.” That segued into ballroom music performed by Ramon Raquello and his Orchestra.
An interruption came in not long before Bergen’s listeners would be cruising stations:
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.
More orchestra music, and then another news update with some words from a Professor Pierson of Princeton (played by Welles). In the next update, which of course now had many more listeners than the first, a reporter named Carl Phillips, on the scene at Grovers Mills, gave a play-by-play, exclaiming, “This end of the thing is beginning to flake off! The top is beginning to rotate like a screw! The thing must be hollow!” He continues, “I can see peering out of that black hole two luminous disks...Are they eyes? It might be a face...Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake.” Phillips would hit his stride describing a creature with a body like a bear’s, gleaming eyes and saliva-dripping lips. Pierson came on describing a heat ray.

Welles seemed motivated to play with his audience, have a little fun with conventions, making them wonder whether what they were hearing was real. But instead he incited a panic. In New York City, people mobbed the subway system, one woman screaming “the world is coming to an end!” Electric companies in Rhode Island were asked to turn off the power so the Martians would have to steer their craft in the dark. Families in Newark ran from their homes with heads shrouded by towels and noses covered by handkerchiefs.

The mayor of a midwestern city called the Mercury Theatre, got Welles on the phone and screamed, “If this is just some crummy joke, then I’m coming right to New York and beat you up!”

Network officials arrived at the studio as the broadcast was concluding, forcing Welles, Houseman, and the crew into a back office while CBS staffers ran around collecting and destroying every copy of the script. Welles was released in the early morning, a few hours later finding himself on the front page of The New York Times. The lawsuits would follow, but ultimately Welles would emerge unscathed, but for criticism from the press, and much more famous.

Clearly, his radio program was now more than on the map, and while Welles would become best-known for his film masterpiece Citizen Kane, this hoax, whether it was intended to be one or not, would live on in American memory to this day.

Welles biographer Charles Higham says the incident revealed “that America was ill prepared for anything approaching a confrontation with an enemy power. Far from marshaling...a coherent response to what they believed were invading forces, red-blooded Americans had fled like children before Welles’s Halloween gimmick. What would happen if there were a real invasion?”

Leaming, Barbara. Orson Welles. New York: Viking. 1983.
Higham, Charles. Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of An American Genius. New York: St. Martin’s. 1985.


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