Stranger than fiction: “The War of the Worlds”

orson wellesLet me take you back to a simpler time in American history. The year was 1938. Man had not yet traveled to space and there were no satellites orbiting Earth. Adolf Hitler was waging war in Europe. It was war in which most Americans wanted to remain neutral. In this era before T.V., radio was the primary medium for entertainment.

Americans were a simpler, more superstitious people at the time. Little was known of the planet Mars and most believed that Mars was an advanced civilization teeming with intelligent life. The works of noted writers such as H.G. Wells helped to fuel the superstition, imagination and fear of the red planet.

Orson Welles was an acclaimed director in the 1930s. His movie, Citizens Kane, was a commercial as well as a critical success. He was regarded as a “boy genius,” the Steven Spielberg of his day. His frequent radio plays were broadcast to millions.

He had promised a truly dramatic show for Halloween of 1938. Many listeners wondered what the “boy genius” had planned. In the weeks preceding Halloween, they waited anxiously for an announcement detailing what he had planned. One week before Halloween he made the announcement. He would perform the radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds.” Many Americans and fans of the director were somewhat disappointed. They had expected more. But, Welles assured them that they would not be disappointed. This would be no ordinary play read from a script. Welles possessed a flair for the dramatic and had something far more original in mind. The play would be presented as a series of newscasts intermingled with music and other entertainment. The idea was to make it so believable that Americans would be captivated by the show. The shear intensity of the performance would make it impossible to turn the show off.

On the evening of October 30, 1938, Welles signed on the air. He explained to the listeners that he would be presenting “The War of the Worlds.” He explained how the show would be presented and invited everyone to sit back, relax and enjoy the program. He mentioned what you are about to hear is a dramatic presentation for entertainment purposes. Never did he realize what was about to happen.

Immediately after explaining the format of the show he began to play music. Millions of Americans tuned in and listened to the big band music and went about their evening casually eating dinner or reading the paper or whatever they did to pass the time. Moments later, the dance music was interrupted and Welles broke in with a special report.

“This station has been informed that a huge flaming object has dropped on a farm near Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. We will bring you more details as the story develops. We now return to your regularly scheduled program.” The dance music resumed. A little later Welles broke in once again. “Ladies and gentlemen, this station has been informed that the fiery object that fell from the sky in New Jersey has been discovered by authorities and appears to be a spacecraft of some sort. We will bring you further details as the story unfolds. We now return to our regularly scheduled program.”

At this unfortunate moment many Americans began to tune in. They were unfamiliar with Welles’ format. Workers and farmers began to come in and tune in their radios and relax before dinner. Then came an ominous report. Once again, Welles interrupted the music with a dreadful report. “Ladies and gentlemen, more spacecrafts have now landed in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. Thousands of curious onlookers have converged on the area to see the alien craft for the first time. One of the craft is now opening up. Good heavens, something is wriggling out of the alien craft like a gray snake. There’s another one and another. Their mouths are V shaped with saliva dripping from it. I can see the thing’s body. It’s as large as a bear and glistens like wet leather. It has many tentacles. The crowd is falling back. Several army units are now arriving on the scene.”

At this moment millions were transfixed to their radios. They listened intently. Could this be true? Could this truly be an alien invasion? Or was it a German invasion?

The broadcast continued now taking a more horrifying turn. Suddenly, horrified shrieks emanated from the radio followed by screams of terror as Welles continued the report.

“Oh, my God!” the broadcast continued. “The aliens are firing a death ray on the onlookers! Thousands of people have been killed. There are explosions going off! People are screaming. Thousands are running away in fear! The army is returning fire.”

Welles began to describe tripods. They were alien crafts shaped like domes with three legs. They walked across the landscape firing a death-ray that vaporized thousands.

Across America, thousands panicked thinking the show was real. Many ran to their basements and prayed. Many jammed the streets looking to escape. One woman in New York, fearing the worst, took an overdose. Fortunately, paramedics rescued her. Many grabbed rifles and pistols and began driving toward Grover’s Mill. One elderly man in New Jersey loaded his shotgun and told his wife, “I fought those Germans in the Great War. They won’t invade my country.” With that he headed out the door to wage war.

Many men across the country grabbed guns and began the journey to New Jersey intent on defending their country to the death. One man in Chicago grabbed his Bible. He thumbed to the Book of Revelations and began to read about the end of the world and the end of time. This was it. God has decided to end the world. He grabbed his pistol and loaded his wife and two daughters into the car. He drove around aimlessly for a while uncertain what to do. His wife sat quietly weeping, “What’s the matter, mommy?” asked her 6-year-old daughter. “The world is coming to an end,” she whispered in a quavering voice. Before long the family ran out of gas. They began walking through the night looking for refuge. They came up to a highway tunnel.

Walking inside a short distance, they sat down to rest and pray. The children were tired and confused and could not comprehend what their mother meant when she said it was the end of time. The man opened his Bible to pray. Then suddenly, bright lights shone upon them. “Oh, my God. This is it!” he thought. He grabbed his 8-year-old daughter and clutched her head to his chest. He decided the aliens would not take his family alive. He quietly raised his pistol to the back of the child’s head. She was unaware her life was seconds from ending. Then came a frantic voice from behind the bright lights. “Hey, who are you? What are you doing?” The man was confused and surprised to hear English. “Who’s there?” He shouted. Two shadowy figures stepped slowly from behind the light. “We’re with the Chicago police!” At that moment the man broke down and started to sob uncontrollably. “Thank, God!”  He sobbed, “I thought you were the aliens. I was going to kill my daughter.” At that moment the frightened little girl looked up and saw the gun. The two officers  approached slowly and calmly took the gun away. “There are no aliens. That’s a radio play. The streets have been jammed all night with panicked citizens. You are in no danger.”

Meanwhile, in Grover’s Mill truckloads of citizens from surrounding communities, armed to the teeth, were beginning to converge on the tiny unsuspecting town with vengeance in their hearts. One small pickup truck loaded with three farmers chugged along an old dirt road when one of the men shouted, “Stop! I see one of them tripods.” The truck came to a screeching halt. Then the three men quickly climbed out of the truck with shotguns in hand. It was dark and visibility was poor. They looked up and to their horror saw a dome hovering high in the air. A number of trees further obscured their view. Quickly the three men began to fire their shotguns into the body of the orb as they walked closer. The blasts of their guns was almost deafening as they fired shell after shell into the tripod. Then suddenly water began to spew from the structure. Finally, one of the men had the presence of mind to hold up his hand and shout, “Hold your fire!” The other two stopped firing. “I want to get a closer look,” he said. They watched as their friend began to walk through the thicket of underbrush to take a look at the tripod. Within seconds he disappeared from sight. They waited quietly with their guns drawn. A gentle mist of water gently sprinkled down upon them. Then suddenly, their friend ran rapidly through the bushes toward them. He appeared panic stricken.

“Get into the truck! Let’s get out of here!” He screamed as he bolted past them and ran toward their vehicle.

“What’s wrong?” asked one of them. “Did you see the aliens?”

“No!” came a frantic reply. “We just shot up the town’s water tower!”

At the Grover’s Mill Police Department the switchboard was inundated with calls from concerned citizens. Some asked if the town truly was under attack. Others called to ask why they had no water.

Back in New York, Orson Welles continued reading the dramatic show with his deep, baritone voice amid the sound effects of gunfire screams and shouts. He was unaware of the pandemonium that was breaking out all across America. It is estimated that as many as three out of four listeners thought the broadcast was real. In his defense, 40 minutes into the show he broke in to remind Americans that this was only a radio show.

Unfortunately, by the time he made this announcement thousands had taken to the streets. As the show continued so did the panic. Finally, as he read he was surprised to see several New York police officers step into the studio. He stopped his reading for a moment and returned to the dance music. He then stepped into the control booth to see what was wrong. Police explained to him that he had caused a major panic. Welles was stunned. He thought that everyone understood that this was only a radio show. He had no idea people believed it was real. With a heavy heart he returned to his microphone and turned off the music. He then made an incredulous announcement. “Ladies and gentlemen, it has been brought to my attention that many of our listeners missed our earlier announcement that this is merely a dramatic reading. I want to assure you that the world and the United States are not under attack. Please return to your homes and please put away your weapons. I apologize for this unfortunate misunderstanding. With this, we now sign off. Good night.”

A small crowd of angry citizens waited outside the radio station for Welles to emerge. He wisely took a back door and left under police protection. It was several hours before order could be completely restored. Fortunately, no one was killed despite the fact that many armed citizens walked the streets in a panic looking to kill any invader. It was very fortunate that the show aired the day before Halloween. Imagine what would have happened if a small child dressed in a Halloween outfit jumped out of the bushes and surprised an armed citizen. The situation could have turned tragic.

In the weeks to come lawsuits poured in. One woman alleged Welles caused her to have a heart attack. It took several months for Welles to settle all the suits.

Incredibly, 10 years later on the anniversary of the broadcast another radio station played “The War of the Worlds” to commemorate the original broadcast. A similar panic broke out on a much smaller scale. 30 years after the original broadcast, in 1968, a radio station in Lima, Peru presented the broadcast with much more tragic results. Panic broke out in Lima as thousands thought the show was real despite the fact that satellites had proven that Mars was uninhabited. Thousands flooded the streets in an attempt to evacuate. When word finally got out that the show was merely a dramatization, an angry mob stormed the radio station and set fire to it. Four radio employees were killed in the blaze.

In the years since these infamous broadcasts, NASA has sent unmanned space probes to Mars and landed them safely on the surface. They discovered absolutely no signs of life; but it is possible that life may have once existed on Mars millions of years ago.

In 2005, director Steven Spielberg directed a remake of the “War of the Worlds” movie. In this version, the invasion comes not from Mars but deep in outer space from an unknown galaxy. This raises an interesting question. If someone were to broadcast “The War of the Worlds” in this modern day and age, would it still cause a panic? Have Americans finally become educated enough not been deceived by another such broadcast? Now, as more Americans than ever are gun owners perhaps it would be wise that “The War of the Worlds” should never be presented again (in the format Orson Welles used) for fear that another panic could result. Imagine how bad such a panic could be today.

In Grover’s Mill there stands a rather unusual tourist attraction. It is a granite stone that commemorates “The War of the Worlds.” The War of the World’s Monument depicts a U.F.O., a radio and the images of frightened people fleeing for their lives. It is an unusual monument for a truly bizarre incident.

October 30, 1938 is now remembered in American history as “The night that panicked America.”

Michael Williams has written a book titled, “Stranger than Fiction: The Lincoln Curse.” The book is a collection of 50 strange and unusual (but true) stories. They will leave the reader convinced that perhaps Mark Twain was right when he said, “Truth is stranger than fiction.”

The book is 187 pages in a softbound edition with numerous photos. It can be purchased from Amazon.com for $19.95 (plus shipping and handling) or one can save shipping costs and save $2 on the purchase price by ordering a signed copy directly from the author. Send $17.95 to 269 Palmer Road, Gatlinburg TN. 37738.

The book is available in a Kindle edition at Amazon.com. For more information visit strangerthanfictionnews.com.

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