On Halloween, 1938, an Unearthly Invader Entered Homes Throughout America
Orson Welles’ production of The War of the Worlds and broadcast to an anxious American audience eighty years ago still leaves its residue on today’s pop culture. The presentation of the episode as what seemed to be a live news coverage of a Martian invasion of the United States had many of the radio listeners who jumped into the show after the introduction thinking the nation was doomed in a desperate struggle with beings from another planet.
Many were on the edge of their seats or taking action into their own hands upon someone else’s word for something they had no way of authenticating. Some who lived in or near some of the towns and cities that were “attacked” knew full well it was a hoax.
But for many of the people living in the American countryside, they had entered The Twilight Zone which lies “somewhere between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” (Actually, some of the chaos caused by the broadcast would have probably resembled the utter mayhem depicted in the Twilight Zone episode "Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.")
Based loosely on H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel of the same name, the radio production featured the youthful and golden-voiced Orson Welles as its narrator (and as Professor Richard Pearson). Right away, his booming voice got a listener’s attention. He sounded intriguing and important. Thus, what he was saying had the same attractive qualities.
Radio was quite the popular medium for entertainment in the 1930’s, and Orson Welles was soon to find himself a star. The basic plot that was used has since been adapted into several motion pictures, most notably the 1953 War of the Worlds produced by George Pal. I listened to Welles’ radio broadcast on Youtube.
The introduction dialogue is very similar to that at the beginning of both Pal’s film as well as Spielberg’s. I have not seen Steven Spielberg’s The War of the Worlds in its entirety, but I enjoy Pal’s earlier rendition. It was quite hard to get a narrator who could even come close to Welles’ performance, but Sir Cedric Hardwicke comes pretty darn close.
Part of the irony of the immense reaction of fear is that the show was broadcast of the Halloween evening, the night for some of the most terror-driven of pranks. And, like many pranks done on such a night, Welles’ gave the frightening impression that it was quite real. Orson Welles and the rest of the cast at Mercury Radio Theatre did not have the majority of their troubles in the acting out of the script but in the aftermath following the end of the broadcast.
The thirties were quite the golden age of radio. An overbearing (and heretical) Catholic priest and radio preacher who gained significant notoriety during the 1930’s, Father Charles Coughlin, spread his hate speech throughout the country. Unfortunately, he acquired a large following. There were but a few Catholic reporters who spoke out against him. It really is no surprise then when, in the mid-1930’s, quite a few radio listeners grew sick of Coughlin’s irrational, indignant rants. Historian William Manchester tells us, “Tiring of Father Coughlin and spinning the radio dial, for example, Sunday listeners might pick up twenty-year-old Orson Welles, playing The Shadow, alias Lamont Cranston…” (The Glory and the Dream 118).
The Shadow was a character which had its roots in some of the pulp fiction of the same decade. Welles left this program in 1938, a year which would shower unlooked-for popularity on the budding voice actor. So much of a fuss was made about the production, before as well as after the broadcast. From its very conception, it was skepticized, criticized, and scrutinized (much like the inhabitants of Earth in the War of the Worlds script), and it has remained in great public discussion ever since.
Welles’ agent, his scriptwriter, the editor of Mercury Theater itself, and even down to the editor’s secretary: all disapproved of the endeavor. Some said was it was just silly, or apart from that, that such a presentation was utterly impossible. There was obviously concerns over the ratings and whether the audience would approve, but Orson Welles was quite determined. He would not back down from the idea. So everybody ended up going through with it. However, they had no idea they would actually attract significantly more listeners instead of lose them. And I think the American people are better off today for it.
Welles’ main character goes missing after the first few minutes, and it is not until the second half of the show that his character is rediscovered and picks up the narration once more. Like any other rendition of the classic invasion tale, the aliens do lose in the end but by no manmade means. Some parts were corny by today’s entertainment standards, but others were deliberately and exquisitely scripted to sound like they were not scripted!
The first half of the episode feels like a news presentation, whereas the latter half sounds like a narrative of a poet. There was a halftime announcement as well as the host’s assurance of its fictionality at its closure. But for a rough several minutes, the Mercury Theater had made one of the most suspenseful moments in entertainment history.
Manchester explains a number of the reasons which led the American listeners of the period to be so scared yet enraptured by the radio dramatization. Like many presentations of the media, it was easily misinterpreted, particularly (and obviously) if a listener missed the show’s introduction. This period of American history was the opportune time for a big scare through the entertainment industry.
The imagination made connections with invaders and battles quite easily because the news was absolutely crawling with articles about similar intercontinental affairs. Adolf Hitler had come to power, and much of the world would watch his actions in horror.
The Hindenburg airship disaster had occurred the previous year. The voice actor who portrayed Carl Phillips was dedicated when it came to his homework. He found the radio recording of the live commentary of the Hindenburg disaster in the CBS library. And in order to get an idea of how a commentator would likely react to witnessing firsthand the awful and sudden death of a large number of people, he listened repeatedly to the radio coverage of the Hindenburg. This type of authentic-like dramatization proved to be rather effective.
“The public had become accustomed to sudden interruptions during the Czech crisis; each had provided a significant development later confirmed in the newspapers,” writes Manchester in The Glory and the Dream. “Radio, indeed, had become the accepted vehicle for important announcements” (Manchester 191). The author goes on to address the key fact that the American public of the radio era often took the word of any commentator coming to them live in their homes over that of a journalist writing in a newspaper.
Similarly, we see how people of the 21st century seem to take the word of a random political photo on social media over the word of a reporter. (Although, so many modern reporters’ statements are likely just as unreliable.)
During the live broadcast, the New York police had surrounded the CBS. They would be questioning the performers and technicians after the show. That night and the next few days were filled with complaints, accusations, and threats from the general public as well as from certain government officials. A city mayor gave Welles a call after the closing of the program that Sunday evening complaining of droves of people filling churches, mobs amassing in the streets, and vandals looting stores.
Chaos had ensued as a result of the CBS program about Martian invaders, and a lot of people were unhappy about it. Whether angered, amused, or just upset that they had been fooled by such a simple means, many U.S. Citizens had strong feelings toward Welles and what he had done on air on that chilly and chilling October night.
In mid-November, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin decided to finally cover the events which occurred during and after the War of the Worlds presentation. Part of its report read as follows:
“The program was a too realistic broadcast of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, an H.G. Well’s story and had thousands of people in the east and throughout the country in a dither. In Rochester, N.Y., hundreds stormed the armory where they hoped to secure gas masks. One man insisted that the monsters from Mars were dropping gas all over New Jersey, were then in Buffalo and on their way there. It took two carloads of police to calm the frightened Rochesterians at the armory” (Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Nov. 16, 1938).
But, as the late Carl Phillips’ character from the program might say in regards to confrontation between spectators and police, “The policeman wins.” According to the newspapers of the day, thousands had panicked.
Radio, word of mouth, and the way of the crowd had swayed a decent portion of the American population that night. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin also noted the fact that the CBS received a significant quantity of calls and telegrams that evening regarding the fake war. The rest of the night’s schedule was interrupted repeatedly to reiterate to listeners that The War of the Worlds was a work of audible fantasy, though still a startling depiction.
It was of little surprise then that a bit later that year the Times-News of Hendersonville, North Carolina hailed Welles as “Radio’s man of the year” who had conceived and starred in the “famous ‘War of the Worlds’ broadcast” which, as they said, “scared fewer people than Hitler, but more than had ever been frightened by radio before” (Times-News, December 30, 1938).
But the CBS and Welles suffered some real backlash in the days following the airing of the famous or infamous radio show. Not only was the program officially investigated, but the incident sparked national discussion regarding whether the medium of radio ought to be in any way censored.
A piece from the Associated Press written on October 31st and appearing on the first of the following month in the El Paso Times opened with: “The radio industry viewed today a hobgoblin more terrifying to it than any Halloween spook” (“Radio Faces Strict Rulings”). The article also discussed the idea of implementing various restrictions as to what might be relayed on the air via radio. One T.A.M. Craven spoke out strongly that such “censorship” was an intolerable extreme, a hindrance to radio. Several of his colleagues, however, said in private that something ought to be done so that there would not be a repeat of the War of the Worlds radio incident.
Nevertheless, Welles paid his regrets to the public for presenting the radio drama, as did W.B. Lewis, the vice president of programs. As ordered by the Federal Communication Commission, the CBS promptly created a copy of the War of the Worlds script and presented it to the public on the afternoon of October 31st, less than 24 hours after the broadcast of the Martian farce.
Several times throughout the broadcast, an announcer had made it clear to the audience that this was a scripted portrayal based on the story by H.G. Wells. Despite this, hysteria had broken out in various places throughout the country. W.B. Lewis assured the public in regards to future radio plays:
“In order that this may not happen again, the program department hereafter will not use the technique of a simulated news broadcast within a dramatization when the circumstances of the broadcast could cause immediate alarm to numbers of listeners” (El Paso Times, Nov. 1, 1938).
It was clear that Lewis and CBS did not want a repeat of the incident either. Just a week later, newspapers across the country had Orson Welles’ name in print yet again. AP writer C.E. Butterfield states it as good as anybody else in Salisbury, Maryland’s The Daily Times: “The Orson Welles ‘War of the Worlds’ broadcast which sent the radio audience, or part of it, aflutter, is developing favorably for him. He has just signed under a sponsor, his first commercial series on the WABC-CBS network, where he is now broadcasting” (The Daily Times, Nov. 8, 1938).
Things were looking up for young Mr. Welles. He had appeared in heavy make-up on the cover of Time Magazine back in May of 1938. The first feature film he directed, Too Much Johnson, was also released that year. Welles was starting to get plenty of job opportunities in these fields of entertainment, and he was only 23.
Orson Welles became famous, in part, due to this radio broadcast. With his whole career ahead of him, the incident managed to not destroy him. His acting reputation grew, and for the next half a century he acted so profoundly on radio, on Broadway, and on the screen that his name has gone down in entertainment history.
Welles showed all his colleagues they were wrong and he was right. For the audience had not laughed the Martians off. On the contrary, they had taken the aliens a little too seriously. It went beyond being effective. It became audibly and physically destructive.
In the 2000’s, some scholars have begun to suggest that the “mass hysteria” which contemporaneous sources make note of was overexaggerated (“The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic”). So to a degree, the initially reported numbers of those who panicked were about as authentic as the thousands fleeing the Martian tripods in the program itself.
However, many listeners still panicked as a result of the broadcast. Quite a few, not catching the fantastical point that the invaders were creatures from Mars, believed these invaders who were using poisonous gas and beams of fire to subdue their enemies were the Germans. I believe The Glory and the Dream provides the most concise and accurate statement that could be said of the iconic radio production: “The War of the Worlds broadcast revealed, as clearly as any mass convulsion can, that American nerves were being stretched ever tauter” (Manchester 196).
The history, the drama, the modern skepticism, the panic, the Martians, the Germans, the way in which a news presentation can seem so real: all these add to the fascinating make-up of the incident. Its mark on popular culture can still be seen today. Its use in Patrick Biesman’s 2016 sci-fi short film Embers & Dust was exquisite, intriguing, and luring — just as it must have been to its original listeners all those decades ago.
It shall forever remain in the heart of our American culture and shall stand as a reminder that no medium should ever be taken too seriously.