They had been listening to the radio, surfing around the dial, when they alit on Orson Welles's "War of the Worlds" broadcast on his radio series, Mercury Theater on the Air. The thing is many people didn't hear the program from the beginning, when it was announced that it was the weekly fictional adaptation of literature, this week was from H.G. Wells. Instead they came in to some orchestra band music playing, which was interrupted by news bulletins of an alien invasion of Martians in Grover's Mills, New Jersey.
The bulletins were so authentic sounding, and on the esteemed CBS broadcasting network, that people believed the outrageous claims.
I had the happy privilege of editing a catalogue about Orson Welles for the then-Museum of Broadcasting in 1988: we convinced Steve Allen to tell his own story about that night and got a great description of what it was like to be "victimized" by the broadcast when he was 17; interviewed John Houseman about it; commissioned a recollection from Howard Koch who wrote the radio adaptation (and great films like Casablanca); and reprinted Dorothy Thompson's brilliant article for the Herald Tribune, "Mr. Welles and Mass Delusion." The catalogue is sadly out of print, but below I offer juicy chunks of it.
And here are some thoughts from Paley curator Ron Simon, comparing this hoax to those of current day.
Steve Allen: The End of the World, and High Time
In was in the year of our Lord 1938—the last year, I briefly thought, that the Lord was to vouchsafe to us—that my mother, my Aunt Margaret, and I (along with several million other Americans), went through an experience that not many will ever be privileged to share. We were on hand when the world came to an end.
The occasion was the famous Orson Welles "War of the World" broadcast. I have never before told the story of my own response to that broadcast, because I have seen the reaction of those who were not victimized by Welles to those who were. It is the standard reaction of the level-headed citizen to the crackpot. In my own defense, and in that of all the other crackpots who went squawking off into that unforgettable night like startled chickens, a word of explanation. Admittedly anyone who heard the entire Welles broadcast from beginning to end and believed a word of it should be under observation. Unfortunately millions did not have the opportunity. For various reasons a great many people did not hear the first few minutes. If some of these were in the mood for dance music, they accepted what a randomly discovered orchestra was playing, lighted cigarettes, or picked up magazines and settled back to listen.
In a room on the eighth floor of the Hotel Raleigh, an ancient and run-down hostelry on Chicago's Near North Side that was our home that year, I was lying on the floor reading a schoolbook. Feeling in the mood for background music, I turned on our radio, fiddled with the dial until I heard dance music, and returned to my book. In the adjoining room Aunt Margaret and my mother were playing cards.
After a moment the music was interrupted by a special "flash" from the CBS News Department—the authenticity of which there was not the slightest reason to doubt—to the effect that from his observatory a scientist had just detected a series of mysterious explosions of a gaseous nature on the planet Mars. After this fascinating bit of intelligence, the announcer said, "And now we return you to the program in progress," and music was heard once more.
There soon followed a series of news items, each more exciting than it predecessor, revealing that the strange explosions on Mars had caused a downpour of meteors in the general area of Princeton, New Jersey. One of them in crashing to the earth had cause the death of several hundred people. CBS at once dispatched a crew to the scene, and it was not long before firsthand reports began coming in.
With disbelief rising in his throat, a special events man on the scene near Princeton reported that one of the Martian meteors appeared to be no meteor at all, but some sort of spaceship. The National Guard had roped off the area, allowing no one near the gargantuan hulk.
By this time my mother and Aunt Mag were huddled around the speaker, wide-eyed. The contents of the news broadcast were inherently unbelievable, and yet we had it on the authority of the Columbia Broadcasting System that such things were actually happening.
But if our credulity had been strained up to now, it had yet to face the acid test. The network next presented an army officer who made a dignified plea for calm, stating that the National Guard and the New Jersey police had the situation completely in hand. The network interrupted his sermon with another report from the scene, frankly emotional in nature, which confirmed the suspicions that there might be life of some kind inside one of the rockets. The description of grotesque monsters by this time seemed in no detail too fantastic. Their slavering mouths, jellylike eyes, and the devastating fire they directed toward the soldiers who dared stand and face them were all minor details, no longer clear in my mind.
The National Guard troops dispatched to the scene were massacred almost at once by the hug interplanetary invaders (there were several of them now, for other ships were landing) and in the confusion of the battle the network's facilities were impaired and its man-on-the-spot was cut off in midsentence.
CBS, however, was equal to the occasion. Civic and government spokesmen were rushed to microphones; dutifully—and ineffectually, as it turned out—they instructed the populace not to panic. An airplane was set up over the troubled area, and the network continued with its blow-by-blow description.
My mother, my aunt, and I looked at each other, not knowing what to say.
"Why do you think we ought to do," I said.
"There's only one thing to do," my mother responded. We can all go over to church and wait there to see what happens," She referred to the Holy Name Cathedral, not many blocks from our hotel.
Just then we heard the word "Chicago" on the radio. "More spaceships have been reported over Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago."
"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," Aunt Mag shouted, "We'll be killed right here in this hotel. Let's get out of here."
"You're right," Mother said, "We'll go over to the church."
I was putting on my coat, still too shocked to say much. Oddly enough, and this I recall quite clearly, my predominant emotion was not fear, but blank stupefication. I remember saying "Gosh," idiotically, over and over, and frowning and shaking my head from side to side. I couldn't believe it, and yet I had to, on the basis of years of conditioning. CBS had never lied to me before.
Aunt Mag was still fluttering around the room. The door was now ajar, but she was like a bird that , with its cage opened, doesn't know just where to fly.
"Are you all right," my mother asked me.
"Gosh," I said resourcefully, and we headed for the door. By this time people all over the nation were having similar reactions. Many stayed glued to their radios and heard the reassuring conclusion to the program, but millions, like us, rushed off wildly. Police stations, newspapers, and churches were badly shaken by the first wave of frightened, fleeing citizens.
My mother and aunt ran down the hall. I followed at a slower pace, not because I was trying to maintain a shred of discretion, but because I was too stunned to move with speed. Rounding a corner we burst upon a dignified-looking young woman holding a little girl in her arms.
"Run for your life!" my mother cried at the woman. She looked at her with no expression whatsoever.
"Pick up your child and come with us!" Aunt Mag shouted, wild-eyed. The woman paused a moment and then laughed right in her face.
Mag was outraged. "Oh, yes, " she sputtered with withering sarcasm. "Go ahead and laugh! But for the sake of that dear baby in your arms don't you laugh. You ought to get down on your knees," she shouted like a complete nut, "instead of laughing at people. We're going to church to pray, and that's what you ought to be doing right now this minute, praying!"
We were now at the elevator.
"Hurry up and take us down," my mother gasped. "They're up in the sky."
"Who is?" asked the young elevator operator, aghast.
"How do we know who it is," my aunt shouted. "But you'd better get out of this hotel right now while you've still got the chance."
"Yes ma'am. What did you say the matter was?"
"They're up in the sky!" she repeated. "Haven't you been listening to the radio?"
"Well, you'd better do something, let me tell you. The radio just said they're up over Chicago, so you'd better run for your life."
I am sure that if the elevator operator had been convinced that an interplanetary invasion was underway, he would have faced the challenge as bravely as the next man. But instead he apparently concentrated on the idea that he was cooped up in a tiny cubicle with three dangerous lunatics. Fortunately for his nervous system, we arrived at the main floor; he yanked the door release and shrank against the back wall as we thundered past him into the lobby.
Though we had been met with icy disbelief twice in quick succession, we were ill-prepared for the sight that now greeted us. The lobby, which we had expected to find in turmoil, was a scene of lobby-like calm. Nowhere was there evidence of the panic we had come to accept as the norm in a few short minutes.
The elevator man peered after us from what was now the safety of his cage as we raced to confront the blase desk clerk. "Is something wrong?"
"Well," said my aunt with a contemptuous sneer, "it's the end of the world, that's all that's wrong."
I started to explain that on the radio—and then in some clear, calm corner of my mind I heard something. It was a radio, making soft sounds in a corner of the lobby, and the sounds were not the sort a radio would make at a time of worldwide crisis.
A wave of shock passed through me, as, in the instant, I saw things as they really were. Turning to my mother, I began speaking very fast, explaining exactly what had happened. For a split second she wavered, and then for her, too, the ice broke.
Light, followed by painful embarrassment, dawned on Aunt Mag. Like bewildered sheep we retreated, excruciatingly aware that all heads were turned toward us, that the clerk was smiling at us in a frightfully patronizing way, and that never again would we be able to walk through the lobby without casting our eyes to the floor.
John Houseman: The Show's Producer
Q: You wrote in you book Run-Through about "The War of the Worlds" that there were factors why you thought people were so frightened.
Houseman: Whole books have been written about it. The factor I mentioned was the timing. The timing in the sense we had just had the Munich crisis. At that time, for the first time in the history of the world, people found that the medium from which they got their news more quickly and completely than newspapers was radio. So it was a time when "the box" had suddenly become very important and very vital in the life of the country. And, with Munich just over, there was a general air of fear and panic and a feeling of doom, and a sense that war, international war, was inevitable. So people were pretty well primed for this latest catastrophe. If our broadcast had happened before before Munich I don't know that it would have had the same effect.
Q: Did Campbell's Soup become your sponsor after WOTW?
Houseman: Not immediately. The immediate effect was that we thought we were going to be fired. Nobody was at all sure how they felt about us. We were heroes and we were also a disgrace. They couldn't make up their minds. I know I had interviews with Mr. Paley and Mr. Stanton. Somewhere in the back of their minds they thought maybe this would turn out for the good. Which indeed it did when Campbell's Soup decided that if we could sell the Martians we could sell chicken soup.So we became the Campbell Playhouse. As a result we all, especially, Orson made more money, but it wasn't as much fun.
Q: What made Orson Welles so unique?
In general my whole theory about him has always been that while Welles was a very effective actor and a brilliant director, first and last he was a magician. If you examine all his best work, including Citizen Kane, you'll find that what he was really doing was a magic act. That was true of his Julius Caesar and when he did Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. He was at his best when he had very strong material which he could develop and enrich as a magician.
Howard Koch: The Man Who Wrote the Script
My friendship with Orson began in the late thirties when I wrote the weekly radio plays for his and John Houseman's Mercury Theater on the Air on CBS. While many of us contributed to the broadcasts in our various ways, it was Orson's charismatic personality which gave them their distinction and popularity. He played the leads, directed the shows, and with Houseman's collaboration, selected what was to be done and how it was to be done.
It was Houseman who gave me the job—and job it was—of sixty or so pages to be written every week.The pay was the magnificent sum of $75 (raised to $125 after "The War of the Worlds"), but the experience was worth more than any salary.
When I wrote my first of the radio plays—a real-life saga of misadventures in the Arctic called Hell on Ice—I still had not met Orson and was not all certain of my tenure on the program. The day it was finished I got a call to come to his office. My first impression of him was one of size: he seemed to fill the room. His gaze was penetrating, more than a look—it was also an appraisal. There was scarcely any introduction, Orson having little time or patience for the amenities. In his hands he had my opened script and read aloud a line from one of the scenes, a poetic image that could be visualized by a radio audience. His question was right to the point: "Is that a quote or is it your own line?" When I said I had written it, he made no comment but I knew I was in, that Houseman's selection had been confirmed.
For my third assignment I was handed a copy of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, with instruction from Orson to dramatize the whole first section in news bulletin form and to make it contemporary. I rebelled. Written the way he wanted it meant practically a new story with only the idea of the invasion and a description of the Martian machines and weapons that could be used from the Wells material. In six days! I urged them to substitute a story by a friend of mine, but Orson was adamant. It was a race to the deadline with Houseman going back and forth from my apartment to the studio with whatever number of pages I had ready. The final pages went down just before broadcast.
To what extent Orson anticipated the public reaction to that broadcast neither I nor anyone else will ever know. The news photo which appeared in the press the next morning picturing a man overcome with remorse and contrition was not altogether convincing. Later than morning I was in the theater where the press conference had just been held when I was Orson coming out of one door and Houseman another, exchanging a congratulatory gesture which spoke volumes.
In a way, I was one of the victims. They had tried to reach me during the night to alert me to what was happening, but I was dead to the world, too exhausted to hear the phone. The next morning I went for a hair cut. Walking from my apartment down West 72nd street, I overheard ominous bits of excited conversations with such words as 'war" and "invasion" in the air. I rushed into the barbershop, "Has Hitler attacked? Are we at war or something?" The barber laughed and held up a morning paper with the headline: "Martian Invasion Broadcast Panics Nation." That was a moment I will never forget.
For the next several days it was an open question whether we would come out of the affair as heroes or villains. Police had stormed into the studio and, over Orson's protest, confiscated all the scripts they could find. Fortunately my working script, from which copies could be made, was safe in my apartment. Gradually the tide of public opinion turned in our favor, largely through an article by Dorothy Thompson, then a very influential columnist, in which she wrote that we had done the country a favor by alerting the people to the dangers of panic should a real enemy ever attack.
During the next month lawsuits were brought against Mercury and CBS by people claiming they had suffered injuries as a result of the broadcast, but none ever got to court. Although there were many minor accidents reported in the mass flight from the fictional Martians, we were relieved by the fact that there was no proof of an actual death. The American sense of humor eventually asserted itself in the many accounts of amusing incidents that have become part of the history of the event.
The "Panic Broadcast" as it was referred to at the time changed the course of our lives. After several months I left the program to become a screenwriter for Warner Brothers, and when the program ended, Orson and Houseman left for Hollywood where Orson directed Citizen Kane. he and Houseman parted ways, and that seemed to mark a turning point in Orson's career. I hope I do neither of them an injustice when I say that I feel Houseman was the base on which Orson's statue was erected. From the time they separated, Orson lived more the life of a celebrity than that of an artist.
Dorothy Thompson: Mr. Welles and Mass Delusion. New York Herald Tribute, November 2, 1938
"All unwittingly, Mr. Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater of the Air have made one of the most fascinating and important demonstrations of all time. They have proved that a few effective voices, accompanied by sound effects, can convince masses of people of a totally unreasonable, completely fantastic proposition as to create a nation-wide panic.
They have demonstrated more potently than any argument, demonstrated beyond question of a doubt, the appalling dangers and enormous effectiveness of popular and theatrical demagoguery.
They have cast a brilliant and cruel light upon the failure of popular education.
They have shown up the incredible stupidity, lack of nerve and ignorance of thousands.
They have proved how easy it is to start a mass delusion.
They have uncovered the primeval fears lying under the thinnest surface of the so-called civilized man.
They have shown that man, when the victim of his own gullibility, turns to the government to protect him against his own errors of judgment.
The newspapers are correct in playing up this story over every other news event in the world. It is the story of the century.
And far from blaming Mr. Orson Welles, he ought to be given a Congressional medal and a national prize for having made the most amazing and important contribution to the social sciences. For Mr. Orson Welles and his theater have made a greater contribution to an understanding of Hitlerism, Mussolinism, Stalinism, anti-Semitism and all other terrorisms of our times than all the words about them that have been written by reasonable men. They have made the reductio ad absurdum of mass manias. They have thrown more light on recent events in Europe leading to the Munich Pact than everything that has been said on the subject by all the journalists and commentators.
Hitler managed to scare all Europe to its knees a month ago, but he at least had an army and an air force to back up his shrieking words.
But Mr. Welles scared thousands into demoralization with nothing at all.
If people can be frightened out of their wits by mythical men from Mars, they can be frightened into fanaticism by the fear of Reds, or convinced that America is in the hands of sixty families, or aroused to revenge against any minority, or terrorized into subservience to leadership because of any imaginable menace.
The technique of modern mass politics calling itself democracy is to create a fear – a fear of economic royalists, or of Reds, or of Jews, or of starvation, or of an outside enemy – and exploit that fear into obtaining subservience in return for protection. I wrote this column a short time ago that the new warfare was waged by propaganda, the outcome depending on which side could first frighten the other to death.
The British people were frightened into obedience to a policy a few weeks ago by a radio speech and by digging a few trenches in Hyde Park, and afterward led to hysterical jubilation over a catastrophic defeat for their democracy.
But Mr. Welles went all the politicians one better. He made the scare to end all scares, the menace to end menaces, the unreason to end unreason, the perfect demonstration that the danger is not from Mars by from the theatrical demagogue."
(Entire article transcribed here)
Much has happened since this much ado from the original bad boys of media, Orson Welles and John Houseman, including the full Hollywood treatment of The War of the Worlds by no less than Tom Cruse and Steven Spielberg. Subsequent research has claimed that the panic wasn't as widespread or active as has gone into legend, but certainly many people felt "lied to" because of the early verisimilitude of the news bulletins.
For me, it was a thrilling scare from a lot of very talented people. The perfect gift for Halloween.