As we’ve mentioned on our About The Blog page, we’re trying to get to the roots of traditional All Hallows Eve celebrations and stick pretty close to that. For us, aliens don’t really fit. However, given the program’s tie-in to Halloween, Orson Welles’s infamous War of the Worlds broadcast on Oct. 30th, 1938 is an exception we’d like to share with you.
The radio drama was staged live on air over CBS Radio by Welles and his actors’ group of that time, the Mercury Theatre. The broadcast caused a panic on the night before Halloween because some people thought the ‘news bulletin’ was real. Those listeners either didn’t hear the program’s introduction and subsequent disclaimers or tuned in after the start of the program and, consequently, were scared out of their wits, believing a genuine Martian invasion was on.
Welles’s tall tale was one for the history books. A Gallup poll conducted soon after the broadcast reported that at least 9 million people heard some or all of the broadcast, and some 1,750,000 people were genuinely frightened all across the United States. A front-page New York Times headline the next morning read, “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact. Many Flee Homes to Escape ‘Gas Raid From Mars.’” Had the public been more mindful of older Halloween traditions, however, people would have realized the joke: Welles’s radio drama took place on October 30th, less commonly known as Mischief Night, when people are prone to playing pranks.
If you want to have some scary fun, listen to the original broadcast by clicking on www.mercurytheatre.info then scroll down and look on the left-hand side until you see “The War of the Worlds.” You’ll also see more than 60 other broadcasts by the Mercury Theatre listed, including “Dracula.” I haven’t heard that one, but I plan to as anything with Welles is bound to be incredible (Marie’s favorites include The 39 Steps, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and Daphne du Maurier’s classic Gothic thriller, Rebecca). It’s interesting how many of these were later made into films – some by Welles himself.
The War of the Worlds radio broadcast built tension among the radio audience with reports of strange atmospheric disturbances over Nova Scotia and explosions observed on Mars — supposedly leading to a reported Martian spaceship crash-landing in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. Listeners were told that 7,000 thousand soldiers and policemen had descended on the site, then heard horrifying ‘eyewitness reports’ that a single Martian death-ray machine, rising from the ship, had charred just about everyone there beyond recognition.
One chilling highlight was when Welles’s baritone voice announced “that those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars.” The program continued with reports that the destruction of mankind was underway by legions of Martian death machines advancing on cities. It’s still thrilling to hear, even though we know now that it was all staged.
Simply put, the broadcast is still a remarkable piece of drama, chilling and spooky. It’s a tribute to the maestro and his fellow actors (the troupe included later-famous actors such as the venerable John Houseman, who made such an imperious professor on the TV series The Paper Chase). And Welles himself is incredible.
In 1938, people gathered around the radio to listen to the broadcast. This year, you can gather your loved ones and boon companions around your computer’s sound system and enjoy. You’ll experience pretty much what the first listeners did (except that you’ll know it’s a work of art, not a news broadcast). Be sure to have plenty of hot, buttered popcorn and mulled wine or cider handy (for authenticity, of course – that way, the calories don’t count, right?). For that matter, once the football’s over on Thanksgiving or Black Friday night, listening to this historic radio play might be an excellent after-dinner amusement for the whole family. Your kids might be surprised by how much they enjoy it.
Welles concluded the dramatic presentation by noting that it was “Mercury Theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying ‘Boo’!” Well, boo to you, too! We hope you have fun. And watch out for those little green men coming over the hill …