Orson Welles's Hoax of the Century: The Halloween Broadcast of 1938

Culture Watch

Mr. Beres, a graduate of Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, was sports information director at Northwestern, and later at the University of Oregon.

As the air gets nippy, clear autumn evenings are the time to stand outside and gaze at the stars. Never are they sharper in focus than in mid-autumn, though they eventually will fade from view behind the cloud cover of the weeks ahead.

Scanning the heavens, I don't scoff at recurring stories of UFOs with aliens spying on earth. I stay uncertain because of a childhood experience: the Halloween night in 1938, when a realistic radio drama convinced a naive audience (radio was brand new then) that the country had been invaded by monsters from Mars.

Today, photos sent back to earth by space probes show Mars to be a lifeless, benign planet. Back in '38, Americans, not yet weaned from comic strips like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, were emerging from the Great Depression with a high anxiety level. There also were rumblings that a Herr Hitler in Germany was plotting world conquest. It was a time ripe for paranoia. A five-year-old, I saw those fears emerge in adults around me as The War of the Worlds, a book by H.G. Wells, was dramatized by Orson Welles on a popular weekly radio program,"The Mercury Theatre."

At our home in Illinois, Mom had tuned in on our Zenith radio set. She either had not paid attention when the announcer gave early disclaimers that"this is fiction," or like many others, had tuned in too late to hear them. I can't remember the broadcast. What I do remember is Mom suddenly leaving her chair to go to the radio, which she clutched with both hands. Then she swooped me up, and ran to the phone.

Years later, she told me she had called Dad at work. He and his customers had heard nothing. Mom called a friend, who said her radio wasn't on. As her panic grew, she called a neighbor."Calm down," Mr. Green urged her."I've got it on, and it's an exciting show. But that's all it is-- a radio play. Didn't you hear them say so at the start?"

Like others across the country, she had missed the disclaimer. What I best remember of that Halloween is that when she put me down after the series of phone calls, my legs had red welts where she had clutched me in panic.

As this"hallowed eve" approached, 64 years later, I learned that"the radio hoax," as some called it, caused desperation even on the West Coast, far from the New Jersey site where the aliens reportedly landed. In the hamlet of Concrete, Wash., listeners raised the alarm for their neighbors, and residents scurried by horse-drawn wagons up into the nearby mountains to hide. Not until the next night did they get word of the hoax, sheepishly returning to their homes. This suggests how radio's use of imagination--for an audience that had no pictures to watch-- could make it psychologically more potent than its successor, television.

The fictional Martian landing was at Grovers Mill, N.J. According to the Associated Press,"Weeping and hysterical women swamped the switchboard of the Providence (R.I.) Journal for details of the massacre and destruction. Officials of the electric company got scores of calls urging them to turn off all lights so the city would be safe from the enemy."

That was ironically prophetic, as a year later at the onset of World War II, Hitler's attacks by air at night put a frightening new word into the vocabulary: blackout.

Welles, only 23, rode the notoriety of the broadcast into a distinguished career as a film actor and director. His"Citizen Kane" still heads most movie anthologies as the industry's greatest film.

For this Halloween, I got a copy of the 1938"War of the Worlds" broadcast, which is available on audio cassettes. I will unplug the TV, and turn out the lights. Then, starting the recorder, I will discover once again what the magic of sound can do to your imagination when manipulated by a master like Orson Welles.

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More Comments:

John Matzko - 11/2/2002

KDKA in Pittsburgh went on the air 82 years ago, on November 2, 1920, and two years later, three million American homes had radios.

Editor Replies - 10/31/2002

Editor: We erred. Grovers Mill does exist. We apologize.

Richard Butsch - 10/31/2002

your article on the 1938 radio broadcast has two errors, one minor another major.

The broadcast placed the landing at Grover's Mill (not Grover's Hill), a very real place that I drive through every week outside Princeton, NJ.

More important, a careful read of the evidence in Hadley Cantril's 1940 book on the event indicates that the long held belief in a mass panic does not hold up. Far fewer people panicked about Martians than has become the popular assumption among historians and others. For more on this see Michael Denning's discussion of this in his recent book as well as my own paper in Journal of Popular Film and Television, Fall, 2001.