“As men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water,” such are the opening words of HG Wells’ masterpiece of alien invasion, “The War of the Worlds.” For years prior to the book Mars had merely been our friendly red neighbor, and mythological symbol of war and might. How fitting that it should become Earth’s greatest adversaries in one of the Earth’s most terrifying pranks on Halloween night of 1938.
With infinite complacency, listeners went to and fro in their living rooms letting Marconi’s one eyed jack ‘o lantern beam them news, music, and entertainment. Families and friends laughed and gathered, infinitely serene in the assurance of their empire over matter.
Suddenly a special news bulletin broke over the radio and Orson Welles’ supporting cast began their elaborate broadcast fusing real life newsflash techniques with a convincing and terrifying script. Contrary to many reports of mass hysteria created by the broadcast, panic was in reality much milder. Most who heard the broadcast remained tuned in and realized it was fictional during commercial breaks and repeated reminders from CBS and the Mercury theater that the events depicted were merely fiction.
Grovers Mill, New Jersey, where the first reported “pod” had fallen was soon invaded not by real life Martians, but by curious onlookers. As the night progressed, what had previously been a small hamlet became packed with spectators. Those passing through might mistake the packed village for the site of an alien invasion as spectators confusedly asked questions of authorities who tried to quell the panic.
As for Mr. Orson Welles, he was reprimanded, and CBS was disallowed to ever use the phrase “breaking news” to cover any drama they were broadcasting. It was considered one of the most successful and entertaining nights of radio. But what of the fictional Martian invaders? Some have considered the War of the Worlds broadcast from Mercury theater as more than a radio prank by one of Radio’s greatest personalities. What if it was a social experiment?
Some have looked to the fictionalized invasion as an indicator of how mankind would react if faced with an ominous alien threat. Contrary to popular belief, however, the terrified legions of panicked individuals stockpiling food, shooting at neighbors, and forming militias complete with makeshift bucket helmets were largely fabricated by the media trying to sell newspapers. For the most part these “riots” ended with people merely calling out to neighbors through windows and asking one another what was going on. Several turned the radio dial to hear the Opera and calm collected individuals telling them everything was alright. So the experiment seems largely flawed, and even those who were panicked only had a chance to do so for an hour before the “narrative” portion of the broadcast came around, the lesser known portion that read more like a radio drama than the more exciting and convincing news portion.
So what was the real motivation behind the “War of the Worlds” broadcast? Interestingly, the broadcast technique of the radio hoax may have been inspired by the 1926 radio drama done by Ronald Knox known as “Broadcasting from the Barricades.” In an effort to try new things, and spur his audience to be a little less trusting of everything the radio said, Welles wanted to give the people something new and real.