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Strange Horizons

The Ultimate Halloween Prank: The War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast

by James M. Palmer

(originally published in Strangehorizons)

Everyone has their own holiday rituals, things they like to see and do every year. At Christmastime, I like to pop in the DVD of Patrick Stewart’s A Christmas Carol or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and knock back some eggnog. Halloween, which ranks right up there with Christmas as one of my favorite holidays, is no different, except that the SF treat I like to experience is a feast to the ears instead of the eyes. This Halloween marks the 65th anniversary of one of the most famous and infamous radio broadcasts of all time.

On the night before Halloween back in 1938, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater on the Air staged a modern adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. What Welles didn’t count on was the audience’s response: people fleeing from their homes and crowding churches, bus terminals and train stations in a panic. This scare offered perhaps the greatest case study for those interested in mass hysteria and the psychology of fear and panic, and resulted in both an extensive case study and fictionalized accounts, and got the U.S. Army interested in the causes of the panic. Today they have a division known as PsyOps, or Psychological Operations, that studies ways to demoralize and freak out enemies.

How the play came about is as interesting as the effect it had on the audience. Before becoming infamous, the Mercury Theatre on the Air was a struggling, un-sponsored, Sunday-night dramatic series playing on CBS, playing opposite the more popular NBC show The Chase and Sanborn Hour, starring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Welles was a fan of science fiction, and even supported himself for a while by writing for the pulps. He wanted to adapt The War of the Worlds for radio by updating the setting from Victorian England to modern-day America, having the Martians set down in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. He decided to perform it in the guise of a newscast, which his company had already done in an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

No one else shared his enthusiasm. Scriptwriter Howard Koch thought it would be impossible to pull off, but Welles insisted, and he, Koch, producer John Houseman, and typist Ann Froelich hurriedly banged out a script.

After a rehearsal, Welles thought it was dull, and they did a rewrite of the script, incorporating a remote news hookup, and adding more commercial breaks and interruptions. At 8p.m. the next night, Welles launched into the opening monologue (adapted from Wells’ opening paragraph from his novel) and on into history.

Meanwhile, over at NBC, most of Welles’ eventual audience was listening to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. After a commercial break, the show returned with a singer who was not too popular. Rampant dial-twisting ensued, and many people happened upon The War of the Worlds already in progress. Because they missed the opening, the show sounded just like plain old news radio, although with some very interesting events unfolding. And since the show didn’t have a sponsor, there were no commercial breaks to clue them in to the fact that they were listening to a play.

Now, everyone who heard the broadcast didn’t believe that invaders from Mars were torching New Jersey. Many of the listeners figured it was really the Germans. People during this time were very worried about what Hitler would do, and simply translated the incredible parts of the play into something inside their ordinary experience. The poison gas used by Welles’ radio Martians was a big cause for concern, as people barricaded themselves inside their homes. And a water tower in Grover’s Mill was peppered with buckshot when it was mistaken for a Martian war machine (I’m still reminded of those dreaded tripods every time I see a water tower).

When the broadcast was over, The Mercury Theatre on the Air had a sponsor in Campbell’s Soup, and was renamed The Campbell Playhouse.

The fact that this broadcast caused such a stir is a statement both to Welles’ creative talents and simple human gullibility. As well as the power of SF and radio. This broadcast is so popular, it spawned a remake, a Sci Fi Channel Seeing Ear Theatre spoof called Orson the Alien! The Untold Story Behind the War of the Worlds (in which the broadcast is heard by real aliens who feel they must come to Earth and protect us from the invaders), and prompted the town of Grover’s Mill, New Jersey to erect a statue in the play’s honor. Installed in 1988 near the scummed-over Grover’s Mill Pond, the bronze plaque depicts Orson Welles orating the play while a horrified family listens to their radio. A Martian tripod looms in the background, along with the phrase "Martian Landing Site". The small community even hosts a celebration every year near the anniversary of the broadcast, and the local chamber of commerce runs a Website, where you can order a commemorative blanket or poster.

All of the hoopla surrounding the play is understandable, once you give it a listen. The play is very well done. Welles and company deliver fantastic performances, and the writing is top-notch. Everything you’d expect from the man who would be remembered for his performance in Citizen Kane.

The play is widely available on cassette and CD, both alone and collected with other works. Check out Radio Spirits for ordering info.

This Halloween, give your imagination a spin. Turn off the lights and the television, and relive a time when millions of people fell for a Halloween prank. There’s nothing good on TV anyway.

 

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