Spooky tales:  Of Mars, Martians and the Well(e)ses

One of our Spooky Things signature posts of the past is titled “Old World Origins of The Spooky Holiday Trifecta, Oct. 31 – Nov. 2.”  If you haven’t read it, we promise you’ll enjoy the post.  If you have, you’ll probably appreciate the reminder.  However, if we were going to write a post called “New World Elements of The Spooky Holiday Trifecta,” then Mars, Martians, Herbert George Wells, and Orson Welles would be part of it.  How apropos that the new blockbuster movie The Martian is an October release.  So:  let’s start at the beginning and slowly make our way to thoughts on the new film.

H.G. Wells, of course, wrote a classic novel dripping with irony – The War of The Worlds – about a Martian invasion of the planet, starting in America.  The novel has been translated to other media several times and is now an early classic of science fiction, even though by now it comes across more as fantasy, given that almost none of it was based on the (very few) known facts about Mars at that time.  (Here’s a profile of old H.G., in case you’d like to learn more about him, courtesy of Michael; it was written for Investor’s Business Daily.)

Orson Welles reading a radio play script (Photo script courtesy of CBS Radio)

Orson Welles reading a radio play script for Mercury Theatre On The Air  (Photo courtesy of CBS Radio)

In 1938, another Welles – actor, playwright and director Orson – gave America a chilling Halloween to remember with his stirring rendition of the novel in radio-play form, courtesy of his Mercury Theater On The Air on CBS Radio.  Welles knew exactly what he was doing, even if he didn’t expect quite as much uproar as actually resulted.  As Marie explained previously, October 30th, the night before Halloween – also known less commonly as Mischief Night or Devil’s Night – is when people are more liable than usual to play pranks.  Orson Welles most certainly did that, and memorably so.  (And here’s Michael’s profile of Welles the director, also for IBD.)

An American girl listens to a radio during the Great Depression (National Archives and Records Administration 195876)

An American girl listens to a radio program during the Great Depression  (National Archives and Records Administration 195876)

The broadcast occurred toward the end of the Great Depression, when the only form of amusement or breaking national news that most people could get, especially outside the cities, was by radio.  Listeners that night were told that 7,000 thousand soldiers and policemen had descended upon an alien ship’s crash-landing site at Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.  Then they heard terrifying, supposed ‘eyewitness reports’ that a single Martian death-ray machine, rising from the ship, had just disintegrated our defense troops.  That led to what was probably the broadcast’s most dramatic moment, when Welles’s announcer soberly concluded on air that those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars.”   Imagine the shock.  People were glued to their radios.

The only real-life ‘casualties’ from that night, according to a Gallup poll conducted shortly after the broadcast, were about 1.75 million listeners all across the nation who were genuinely panicked, believing a real invasion from Mars was underway.  Those who had missed the beginning of the radio play thought the broadcast was of live news, and even many who had heard the start hadn’t realized it was a play, so effective was the artifice.  It took hours, even days, to persuade some listeners that the ‘invasion’ had been faked.  It’s fair to say that lots of folks were still spooked the next day, and not by any garden-variety neighborhood pranksters or trick-or-treaters.

As we noted in our post called “War of the Worlds: Worth Listening To,” you, too, can experience what listeners did nearly eight decades ago if you gather friends and loved ones around your sound system or computer and listen to the original broadcast – preferably in the dark.  Thanks to Marie, our previous post is also filled with great additional information about Mercury Theatre and the historic broadcast itself, which you may want to read before listening to the recording or discussing it afterwards.  To hear the original broadcast, go to http://www.mercurytheatre.info/, then scroll down and look on the left-hand side until you see the link for The War of the Worlds.  You’ll also see more than 60 other broadcasts by the Mercury Theatre On The Air listed, including Dracula.  Just think:  you can plan a double bill of spooky listening for your own Halloween party!

War of the Worlds 2005 movie posterThe War of The Worlds was made into two excellent movies:  the 1953 version directed by Byron Haskin, produced by sci-fi veteran George Pal, and starring a youthful Gene Barry, (check out the movie trivia), and the more recent 2005 version, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise (with more great movie trivia).  Though still scary, the earlier film by now looks dated, thanks to the progress achieved in special effects – all of which rendered the 2005 film visually stunning – and the fact that we know so much more today about Mars and what it looks like.  But in the end, it’s the scariness of the drama that counts, not the FX, right?

All this brings us to the new film in theaters now, The Martian, starring Matt Damon and based on the terrific book by Andy Weir.  Here, both the book and the film are solidly based on known science – and it is precisely what we do already know about the chillingly impersonal, brutally unforgiving realities of space travel and planetary exploration that make this new film so frightening and dramatic.

Perhaps the ultimate modern trick in “trick or treat” would be to have been accidentally left alone on the Red Planet – exactly the predicament that astronaut Mark Watney, played by Damon, faces.  Except that it wasn’t an accident or a trick, in his case:  following a disaster, his colleagues genuinely believe him either dead already or as good as.  It isn’t until very much later that anyone realizes he’s still alive.  If you haven’t seen the movie yet, its trailer is one of the best in recent memory.  That helps to build tension in advance.

promo theater poster for The Martian (film), 2015 (via IMDb)Marooned and injured, Watney must face one of man’s greatest fears:  that of being alone and helpless, possibly for the rest of his life, and who knows how long that will last, given his circumstances.  Forced to survive under drastic conditions with severely limited resources, the odds overwhelmingly against him, he must persevere without succumbing to paralyzing resignation or to thoughts of suicide.  Worse, he’s on Mars, with help many months and hundreds of thousands of miles away, even if they knew he was still there.  And they don’t:  his communications are cut off as well.  Yet he’s not completely helpless.  As he says to himself while trying to organize his survival, with his extensive botany and science knowledge he must “science the sh*t” out of his predicament.  This is good:  reason combined with action is traditionally an effective response to life-threatening events, even in the grimmest of thrillers.  However, the abandoned astronaut must still overcome his other challenge:  complete isolation.  No human contact for months, possibly years, if ever.

Mars taken by the Hubble Space Telescope during opposition in 2003 (23 Aug 2003; photo courtesy of NASA, ESA and the Hubble Space Telescope team)

Mars taken by the Hubble Space Telescope during opposition in 2003  (23 Aug 2003; photo courtesy of NASA, ESA and the Hubble Space Telescope team)

The most striking aspect of The Martian is its persuasive, near-full-immersion visuals, which are best experienced in 3-D on the big screen.  The film effectively, believably transports the audience to Mars and impressively depicts the sheer scale of the Red Planet, where all hills, mountains and canyons are super-sized compared to Earth.  Exactly what you’d expect on a smaller planet with lower gravity whose features formed while it was still geologically active.  If, as Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin one said, the moon is “magnificent desolation,” Mars is even more so:  much further away, without Earth hanging large in its sky to provide hope, and eerie.  The kind of place where you think you hear things you’re not supposed to.  We won’t give away any more details, as you’ll no doubt prefer to discover those (and the ending) yourselves.

Now as we’ve mentioned before, at Spooky Things our focus is really on the origins of all things spooky and on the traditions of Halloween, not so much on the horror genre that All Hallows Eve and its mythology have segued into over the centuries.  But we’re okay with evolution when it comes to enlarging the scope of what constitutes spooky, due to the brilliance of H.G., Orson and their successors.  So, thanks to more recent storytellers – from Wells to Welles to Weir and Pal to Spielberg to Scott – Mars joins the expanding list of people, places, and tales now associated with Halloween.  Cool.

Just one caveat:  We’re cool with that only so long as nobody comes up with any crazed, gleefully grinning Martians with chain-saws and hockey masks.  Seriously:  Don’t even start.  Or we’ll come for you.

Enjoy your Halloween Week festivities, spookyfriends!
Your own spooky scribes,

Michael and Marie

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