On the evening of Sunday 30th October 1938, what is probably the world’s most famous radion dramatisation was brodcast: Orson Welle’s adaptation of The War of the Worlds. Here’s a piece about the broadcast, written by Harry Harrison and published as a two-page text article in the comic Amazing Adventures in 1952.
Here Come the Martians!
by Harry Harrison (1952)
MR. BURKE sighed and settled back into his favorite chair. Now to read the Sunday papers while his dinner digested, and perhaps listen to a little music on the radio. He turned on some quiet orchestra music and was just snapping open the sports section when an announcer’s voice interrupted the program.
“Here is a follow-up on the earlier announcement about the meteor that struck New jersey. The meteor has been revealed to be a Martian space ship. I am on the spot now. I can see the Martians coming out of their ship. They have long tentacles and … They seem to he doing something now, releasing some sort of gas! People are running and falling! IT’S POISON GAS … It Is coming this way. I can’t … aghhh…”
The announcer’s voice broke off and only static came from the radio.
Mr. Burke’s paper dropped from his limp hand, he sat paralyzed.
“Martha, did you hear the radio? We have to get out of here! That ship is just a few miles away!” They pulled their coats on and rushed out onto Hawthorne Avenue. Half the population of Newark seemed to be there, thronging the streets. Frightened people had wet towels and kerchiefs around their faces to filter out the gas. Police cars and ambulances were just pulling up to take care of the potential victims.
This was Newark, New jersey, on Sunday evening, October 30, 1938. In New York City the same scenes were being repeated. Thousands of people rushed to the city parks to escape the Martian death rays which were now pouring from the space ship. Other thousands deluged the police and radio stations with phone calls, disrupting phone service completely by overloading the system.
What happened? That was the question on everybody’s lips. As the hysteria died down, the authorities discovered that a radio drama program had been to blame for the whole thing. A young radio actor, twenty-three year old Orson Welles, had been starring in a radio dramatization of H. G. Wells’ ‘War of the Worlds.’ The story was dramatized in the form of radio bulletins and eye witness reports, just as if the Martian invasion was taking place. The show was more realistic than young Mr. Welles had bargained for.
Metropolitan New York and New jersey were in an uproar. Normally quiet citizens were hurling their furniture out of windows and rushing off with shotguns to fight the ‘invaders.’ Horace Dodd, a Westfield, N.J. inhabitant, called the New York terminal of a Jersey bus line and warned them not to send any more passengers to their doom. When the puzzled dispatcher asked for more details, Mr. Dodd said that he didn’t have time to talk. “The world is coming to an end, and I have a lot to do!” he added, pithily.
A lot of people besides Mr. Dodd must have had a lot of things to do before the world came to an end. A man from Brooklyn called up to report that the family car was missing. His brother, who was ill in bed, had, it turned out, leaped to his feet when he heard the radio, started up the car and disappeared.
Old age seemed better able to face Martians than the young. Three men, each over eighty, turned up at a Staten Island police station waving deer rifles and aching for a shot at the “octopuses in the rocket ship!” At the same the five students of Barnard college passed out from fright. They
were left unattended as the rest of the students were phoning their parents to come and rescue them from the oncoming Martian monsters.
The fact that the “invasion” occurred m Sunday night made it easy for the churches to play their part. Many evening services turned into end-of-the-world meetings. Local clerics noted a decided and instantaneous rise in church attendance.
About the only people who prospered from the scare were the stockholders of the New York Telephone Company. Bell System officials in Westchester reported that never before in their history had as many calls been handled in one hour. Most of the callers who deluged the press, radio and police just wanted to know more facts to confirm or deny the radio reports and rumors they had beard. One gentleman, however, was precise. He wanted to know at exactly what time the world would come to an end. Perhaps he wanted to set his watch,
By nine PM, when the broadcast was over, it had spread fear and hysteria for miles around. People had collapsed and were being treated for shock in the streets. Pedestrians, loaded down, with furniture, had succeeded in knotting up traffic so that it could barely move. All communications were clogged, and the airlines had full bookings on their outgoing flights.
By this time the police had located the source of the trouble and had sent this message to all precincts and patrol cars:
“Radio program cause of panic. No truth in stories of invasion from space.”
They weren’t long in finding that people believed the fantastic rumors circulating more readily than they did the reassurances of the police. Thirty people moved into a Queens police station with bundles of clothes and blankets to await transportation out of the stricken city. Their leader swore to the astonished desk sergeant that he had heard the president make an announcement on the radio. F.D.R. had given exact directions – so there they were!
Monday morning dawned chill and humorless. Reaction was setting in and the people felt that they had been hoaxed and made fools of. A sweating and hollow-eyed Orson Welles, who had been up all night, was interviewed in his hotel room. He swore sincerely that he had meant no harm, that it had not been a deliberate hoax. This was small relief for the near ‘victims’ of death-rays and poison gas. Welles program was called ‘an asinine stunt’ and a ‘crummy thing’ as well as some other expressions used only in moments of extreme anger.
The Federal Communications Commission examined recordings of the broadcast and found that no rules had been violated. There had been announcements before, after, and during the play that clearly identified it as a work of fiction. These were apparently overlooked because of the realistic nature of the ‘on the spot’ technique that was used. Apparently the ‘eye-witness’ announcers reporting the Martian activities ‘died’ for the benefit of the radio audience with entirely too much realism.
The radio network decided chat this way of handling a program would not be used again on timely material. There was no one they could blame. The sophisticated New Yorkers pushed their furniture back in through the windows and stored away their shotguns and rifles for a future Martian invasion.
It will he a little harder to get them to believe the story next time. Or will it?
Originally published in Amazing Adventures #6, Fall 1952. Published by Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, New York.
Note: Manuscript held in the special collections department of the library at California State University, Fullerton. Tear sheets of the cover and first page of the article in Harry Harrison’s personal collection.