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The year was 1938 when the Orson Welles broadcast of The War of the Worlds had people believing aliens touched down on earth.
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If widespread hysteria is a measure of success, then history’s greatest Halloween trick was pulled by Orson Welles whose radio version of The War of the Worlds remains strangely relevant 85 years after it was broadcast.
Martians had invaded — and people believed it.
Nobody knows for sure how many listeners had tuned in that Sunday night of Oct 30, 1938 — one high-end estimate is 12 million — but it is certain that many were freaked out when the evening’s fare turned out to be more than soothing pop standards played by the Panamanian maestro Ramon Raquello and his orchestra.
The madness began with these fateful words: “Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin…”
What followed was a tour de force of fake news — a continuous stream of breathless news flashes of an invasion of New Jersey replete with death-dealing heat rays and slobbering, serpent-like creatures from the red planet named after the Roman god of war. Martial law was declared, an ill-equipped army of 7,000 soldiers was eviscerated and Manhattan — from the Holland Tunnel to Central Park — was leveled. It took only 40 minutes!
Included was a brief disclaimer: “You are listening to a CBS presentation of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air in an original dramatization of The War of the Worlds… The performance will continue after a brief intermission.”
Credulous listeners either failed to hear the disclaimer or ignored it. Disclaimer notwithstanding, fear morphed into panic and utter derangement.
Police switchboards lit up. A New Rochelle desk sergeant said he got 25 calls from frightened residents within the opening moments of the show. One slightly embarrassed woman told a local reporter that she was spellbound by the “invasion.”
“I never sat through such a terrible 15 minutes in my life,” she said. “The news broadcasts were so real that I was convinced that such a horrible tragedy was actually taking place.”
What followed was a tour de force of fake news — a continuous stream of breathless news flashes of an invasion of New Jersey…
An employee of a driving range in Mount Vernon walked off the job with the day’s receipts and sounded the alarm. Scared out of his wits, he said he was fleeing to Canada.
At least 60 motorists driving on the Saw Mill River Parkway sought refuge at the Troop K state police headquarters in Hawthorne — and a similar instance of road panic was reported in Rockland County. It probably made things worse when one of the fake news updates said that three million “refugees” were fleeing north and that the Hutchinson River Parkway was still open for traffic.
Fifteen people were reportedly treated for shock at a New Jersey hospital. Depending on what source you choose to believe, citizens evacuated either to the mountains of Washington state or the Dakota hills, and refused to return until they were persuaded that Martians had not, in fact, invaded.
One story had it that a Pittsburgh woman, tried to commit suicide, saying, “I’d rather die this way than like that.”
And yes, some people claimed they saw the Martians and the mayhem they wreaked. “You can’t imagine the horror of it,” said one supposed eyewitness. “It’s hell.”
Blessed with the virtue of living in the superior present, it is tempting to laugh at the gullible Cassandras who were convinced they were about to be served medium rare to a horde of carnivorous extra-terrestrials. We forget that radio was a relatively new and powerful technological creation in 1938, a year of genuine worry and uncertainty for humanity, which was heading into a real war of the world, if not worlds.
Welles at first claimed that the broadcast was meant to be nothing more than Mercury Theatre’s way of “dressing up in a sheet and jumping out a bush and saying Boo!” Years later he said the show was deliberately conceived as a lesson to not believe everything heard on the radio. In any case, the fall-out was fast and furious and included the ire of one US senator who, decrying the “Halloween bogeyman,” pledged to introduce a bill requiring radio scripts to be reviewed in advance by the FCC.
He never followed through on the threat. Looking back, this seems like a quaint kerfuffle. But this too is an age of existential angst — and polls show that there are more than a few earthlings who insist that an alien invasion from outer space is inevitable.
Considering the technological advances that enable the viral spread of lies and the increasingly popular belief that we are not alone in the universe, it’s not inconceivable that we could be fooled again.