Society & Culture

The Great Halloween Radio Hoax of 1938

By Peter Fernandez

“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s… that as man busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water…yet across the gulf of space…intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”  With this opening, H.G. Wells launched his classic The War of the Worlds in 1897. Arguably, the most successful science fiction novel of all time, it spawned six films, numerous radio and record plays, and various spin-offs.

However, it was the controversial October 30, 1938 radio broadcast produced by John Houseman, and directed/written/acted in by a 23-year-old theatrical wunderkind that affirmed the redeeming potential and the precarious excess of a relatively new machine. Originally set in 1896 England, Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre troupe placed the story in 1939 New Jersey, but not everyone was paying attention.  

What baffled and panicked some of the listeners was Welles’ choice of portraying the play as an ongoing newscast instead of a drama. Had one tuned in at any point after the radio play was introduced as a theatrical production, the listener may have actually believed aliens were not only invading Earth but also routing humankind from inside giant, striding, metal-clad, tripod-war machines that emitted lethal heat-rays to disintegrate screaming clusters of puny Earthlings.

“Six minutes after we had gone on the air, the switchboards in radio stations were lighting up like Christmas trees,” explained Welles. “Houses were emptying, churches were filling up; from Nashville to Minneapolis there was wailing in the streets and the rending of garments.”

“From the Meridian Room in the Park Plaza Hotel in New York City,” an announcer read, “We bring you the music of Ramon Raquello and His Orchestra…” That’s when ersatz news bulletins blared, “Explosions have been discerned on the surface of the Red Planet, and a meteorite, we believe it is a meteorite-has turned up in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey…Please stay tuned…” Cut to ballroom dance music.

Welles continued returning to the interruptions of news flashes to create a sense of expanded time to further suspend audience disbelief.

Later in the production: “Incredible as it may seem, both the observations of science and …Please stay tuned…”  Dance music.

At the crash site scene, yet another radio announcer reports of a large metallic cylinder in the pit, the unscrewing of the top, and of an emerging Martian. “Good heavens,” he exclaims, “something is wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now here’s another and another one and another one. They look like tentacles to me…I can see the thing’s body now. It’s large, large as a bear. It glistens like wet leather. But that face, it…it…ladies and gentlemen, it’s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, it’s so awful. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate.” Welles noted that some 32 million people were listening on the radio.

Near the conclusion of the hour-long broadcast, the police show up at New York’s CBS Studios. Orson Welles has to add another disclaimer to his dangerous “hoax,” verifying that it was only a radio-fiction. “That grinning, glowing globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch,” he tattled. “And if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian. It is Halloween.”

In 1955, the artist explained, “We made a special effort to make our show as realistic as possible.  We re-produced all the radio effects, not only sound effects. We did exactly what would have happened if the world had been invaded.”  There were reports that some listeners committed suicide, but those reports proved to be gossip.

Mercury Theater’s smoke and mirrors show unveiled how easy it was to trick or treat, inspire and/or manipulate a coast-to-coast audience.   Yet, time failed to warn us of a counterfeit internet and its corrupt confederate, social media, which, decades later, would gain control of us puny Earthlings.  To be cautioned, one would have required The Time Machine. 

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3 replies »

  1. The modern day equivalent of W.O.W. would be the reelection of Donald Trump. All that is missing is Orson Welles to announce the coming of the Big Orange Mean Tweet Man ! Ahhhhh. run for your lives !!!!!!! The kindly, old, experienced, politician (as played by Brandon) will know what to do ! Yea, that’ll work, like running from a giant pink poodle dog, only to find out that the owner of the cutlery museum that you have chosen to hide in is an ax murder !

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