Dick Meister: A Halloween invasion from Mars!

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By Dick Meister

Dick Meister is a longtime San Francisco-based journalist and writer. Contact him through his website,  www.dickmeister.com

“2X2L calling CQ … 2X2L calling CQ, New York…. Isn’t there anyone on the air?  Isn’t there anyone on the air?  Isn’t there anyone?

Millions of Americans – panic-stricken, many of them – waited anxiously for a response to the message, delivered over the CBS radio network in slow flat, mournful tones on a crisp Halloween eve. It was Oct. 30, 1938.

“Isn’t … there … anyone?”

There wasn’t. Listeners heard only the slapping sounds of the Hudson River.

Many of New York’s residents were dead.  The others had fled in panic from “five great machines,” as tall as the tallest of the city’s skyscrapers, that the radio announcer had described in the last words he would ever utter. The metallic monsters had crossed the Hudson “like a man wading a brook,” destroying all who stood in their way.

“Our army is wiped out, artillery, air force – everything wiped out,” gasped the announcer.

It was the War of the Worlds, Mars versus Earth, and the Martians were winning with horrifying ease. Their giant machines had landed in the New Jersey village of Grovers Mill, and soon they would be coming to your town, too – and yours … and yours.  Nothing could stop them.

The War of the Worlds had sprung with frightening clarity from the extremely fertile imagination of Orson Welles and the other young members of the Mercury Theater of the Air who adopted H.G. Wells’ novel of that name and dramatized it so brilliantly – and believably – from the CBS radio studios on that long ago Halloween eve.

Their use of realistic sounding bulletins and other tools of radio news departments made it sound as if Martian machines truly were everywhere, and everywhere invincible.

Studies done at the time show that at least one million of the program’s estimated six million listeners panicked.

“People all over the United States were praying, crying, fleeing frantically to escape death from the Martians,” noted Hadley Cantril, an actual Princeton professor who directed the most detailed study of the panic that was caused in part by the pronouncements of “Richard Pierson,” a bogus Princeton professor played by Welles.

“Some ran to rescue loved ones. Others telephoned farewells or warnings, hurried to inform neighbors … summoned ambulances and police cars…. For weeks after the broadcast, newspapers carried human interest stories relating the shock and terror of local citizens.”

“When the Martians started coming north from Trenton we really got scared,” a New Jerseyian told one of Professor Cantril’s interviewers. “They would soon be in our town. I drove right through Newberg and never even knew I went through it … I was going eighty miles an hour most of the way. I remember not giving a damn, as what difference did it make which way I’d get killed.”

Those who didn’t join the streams of cars that clogged the highways clogged the phone lines or huddled in cellars and living rooms to await the end, some with pitchfork, shotgun or Bible in hand.

“I knew it was something terrible and I was frightened,” a woman recalled. “When they told us what road to take, and to get up over the hills, and the children began to cry, the family decided to go. We took blankets and my granddaughter wanted to take the cat and the canary.”

It was an extremely rare occurrence, as Cantril noted:  “Probably never before have so many people in all walks of life and in all parts of the country become so suddenly and so intensely disturbed.”

And never since then has the country experienced such deep and widespread fear and anxiety. Not even after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor three years later. Not even in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.   It was a unique display of widespread panic. Many people actually believed their very world was coming to an end and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.

Welles had made clear at the start that the presentation was fictional. But radio listeners generally paid little attention to opening announcements, and many Sunday night listeners commonly turned first to the very popular Edgar Bergen-Charley McCarthy show that was broadcast over another network in the same 8 p.m. time slot, turning to the Mercury Theater out of curiosity only later.

What they heard that Sunday Halloween eve were primarily news reports and commentaries ingeniously patterned on the real reports and commentaries that were constantly interrupting programs to report the aggressive actions of Nazi Germany and other events that would shortly lead to the outbreak of World War II.

People expected to hear the worst. Most also expected that what they heard would be accurate, radio having supplanted newspapers as the most trusted and relied upon of the mass media.

It helped, too, that much of the information was presented by “experts” – Welles and other make-believe professors from universities around the world, supposed astronomers, army officers and Red Cross officials, even the otherwise unidentified “Secretary of the Interior.”

“I believed the broadcast as soon as I heard the professor from Princeton and the officials in Washington,” as one listener recalled.

Even relatively sophisticated and well-informed listeners were fooled by what Cantril cited as the program’s “sheer dramatic excellence.”

Events developed slowly, starting with the relatively credible – brief news bulletins calmly reporting some “atmospheric disturbances,” later some “explosions of incandescent gas,” and finally the discovery of what appeared to be a large meteorite. Only then came the incredible – the discovery that the “meteorite” was a Martian spaceship, reported in a halting, incredulous manner by the “reporter” supposedly broadcasting live from Grovers Mill.

The police, the New Jersey State Guard, the army – none could subdue the invaders. Finally, the “secretary of the interior” announced that man could do no more, that the only hope for deliverance from the Martians was to ”place our faith in God.”

Few listeners were in a position to make independent judgments about matters Martian. Few knew astronomy, and what standard does one use to judge an invasion from Mars anyway?

Listeners could easily have turned to other radio networks for the truth, of course, but many were too caught up in the masterful drama of the CBS program to think of that.

Even some people who lived near the alleged invasion site were fooled. “I looked out the window and everything was the same as usual,” said one, “so I thought it hadn’t reached our section yet.”

The second half of the hour-long broadcast, with “Professor Pierson” wandering dazedly through the deserted and ravaged streets of New York, should have made it obvious to even the most gullible that they had been listening to drama rather than news. At the program's end, Welles, shocked and shaken by the listener response,  quickly voiced an ad-libbed assurance that it had all been make-believe.

But by then, many people had left their radios. They had other ways in which to spend their last hours on Earth.

Dick Meister is a longtime San Francisco-based journalist and writer. Contact him through his website,  www.dickmeister.com