Martian Invasion in New Jersey - how believable?

In my credulous youth, I learned the story of CBS radio’s broadcast of Orson Welles’ dramatization of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. As you may recall, the basic story is that Welles told the story by means of radio reports as if it were really happening, breaking into a program of dance music with a “live report” from a farm near Grovers Mills, New Jersey, of a strange object that crashed to Earth, and of the emergence of alien bodies with heat rays that started firing, and then an abrupt end to the transmission… followed by several seconds of dead air and then a CBS announcer claiming technical difficulties.

Of course, the broadcast continued as various other reports described the Martians unleashing poison gas, bombers trying and failing to destroy them, and the Martians’ ultimate demise by Earth bacteria.

According to the legend, credulous listeners went into a panic, convinced by the realism of the drama that they were listening to a full-scale Martian invasion.

But as an adult, I find it a bit harder to buy this story. What form did this panic actually take? Did people take up arms and flee to the hilss, or barricade themselves in basements? Was there a run on gas masks? Looting? Wild sex in the streets, because we’re all doomed to die anyway? Did so much as one person call their boss and say, “You know what I’ve always wanted to tell you, you SOB?”

In other words – how much of the panic at the invented invasion was itself invented?

  • Rick

I found a good article on the CSICOP website about the War of the Worlds panic. The article suggests that although there was some real panic, the extent of it appears to have been greatly exaggerated.

I’m originally from Jersey, my understanding is that Grover’s Mills (which has since been absorbed by surrounding towns, so I’m not entirely sure) lies in western Monmouth County, about 45 miles from Manhattan Island. Thus the dramatic arc of the broadcast wa that the Martians were closing in on New York.

I have heard portions of the broadcast and it does sound pretty legitimate, but for those of you who are old enough to remember Welles’ Gallo comercials, or just recognize his voice, it becomes hard to suspend your disbelief, and you find yourself wondering how people could have been taken in.

That said, the only first hand account of it I heard was from my late grandfather, who grew up in Jersey City, NJ, across the Hudson from Manhattan, about 2 miles closer to Grover’s Mills. His story was that he missed the whole thing because he was with his girlfriend at the time in the backseat of the family car, but that when he returned home as the joke was being revealed his mother who was so happy to see him safe he avoided any trouble from ‘making out’ in the car.

So, apparently, she was pretty scared. Though I guess it should be said, and this was probably true for a lot of the audience, that my great grandmother was a reletively recent immigrant from portugal and spoke and understood less than perfect English so that may have added to the confusion.

All things considered, the most unbeleivable part of the story, when I first heard it at age 16 was the idea of my grandfather scoring chicks in the backseat of the car.:eek:

The show only ran an hour, and the last fifteen minutes or so were a first-person narration of the events after the invasion and very obviously a story.

Most of the “panic” probably consisted of people saying to each other, “Did you hear that? Is it real? Let’s keep listening.” Some people went really nuts, but most took it seriously, but didn’t really panic.

I understand a big part of the issue was the timing. It was on opposite Charlie McCarthy, and, after the opening monologue, people started station surfing and came upon WOTW in the middle.

The show only ran an hour, and the last fifteen minutes or so were a first-person narration of the events after the invasion and very obviously a story.

Most of the “panic” probably consisted of people saying to each other, “Did you hear that? Is it real? Let’s keep listening.” Some people went really nuts, but most probably just didn’t know whether to take it seriously or not.

I understand a big part of the issue was the timing. It was on opposite Charlie McCarthy, and, after the opening monologue, people started station surfing and came upon WOTW in the middle.

My wife, Pepper Mill, is actually from Grovers Mill (which still exists as part of West Windsor, N.J. It’s not far from Princeton, but more than 45 miles from New York. I grew up about 40 miles away. I made a special trip down there by bike when I was in high school. There is an odd “teepee” shaped water tower there, still behind the Grover’s Mill company. If you look fast, it looks like a tripod and utterly unlike any other water tower you’ve seen, except for a very similar one out at Forsgate Farms on Cranbury Road, not that far away. Supposedly, people mistook this for a Martian tripod. I can well believe it.
There are two books on the topic – The Panic Broadcast by Howard Koch, who wrote the screenplay (he went on to co-write the screenplay for Casablanca, among others, and to be a producer). He includes the script and sweveral photos, including one of the water tower.

The other book is a scholarly one. I don’t recall the title right now, but it examined the impact of the event. There definitely was one – the public reaction was not an urban legend. You can look up contemporary accounts in newspapers. I’m sure it was a littke exagerrated, but not thart much.

I highly recommend the TV movie The Night that Panicked America, made by the unsung king of TV movies, Nicholas Meyer (the same guy who wrote “The Seven Per Cent Solution” and wrote and/or directed the best of the Star Trek movies). He uses, I think, the whole broadcast in the course of his film, depicting the event. One thing I hadn’t realized was that the actor playing a government official sounded exactly like FDR. Deliberately.
As the story goes – and I have no reason to doubt this – most people on that night caught the opening monologue on the Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy show, then switched channels during the opening act to come upon Orson Welles’ “Mercury Theater on the Air” broadcast in progress. The radio broadcast was innovative – it was made to sound like a reak radio broadcast that was being “broken into” by news reports. This was extremely unusual at the time (Welles had a reputation as an innovator), and if you only caught the parts about the mysterious happenings you might easily be taken in – especially when you heard the voice of (apparently) FDR.

I’ve got a copy of the recording, and I admit that if you listen to the whole thing the fictional nature becomes obvious – when Welles launches into soliloquies about the nature of the Martians it’s obvious that you aren’t hearing a real news broadcast. But I suggest that people were a great deal less sophisticated about this sort of thing back then – and there were fewer ways to check up on the veracity of the broadcast when you didn’t receive that many radio stations, and you probably weren’t linked by telephone.

Also note that this was immediately before WWI, which the Spanish Civil War was going on, and Japan was invading Manchuria and Hitler was making overtures in eastern Europe. It wasn’t a peaceful world at all. Recall also that fake radio broadcasts of just this type had wrought havoc in Britain and in South America less than a year earlier. (For some reason you rarely hear about these other events). People were very ready to believwe an invasion story carried by the wireless.

Another note: Since 1938, this has been done again. I recall at least two cases where dramatizations on TV were done as if they were the real thing (one in the early 1980s involved a terrorist atomic bomb at a US city). Despite copious station breaks and disclaimers, some people still thought these were real.

As noted above, timing was an important factor in the success of The War of the Worlds broadcast.

The Mercury Theater on the Air on CBS ran opposite NBC’s The Chase & Sanborn Hour with Edgar Bergen. This was not simply the best-rated show on radio at the time, but an all-time ratings phenomenon. It was been estimated that as many as 70% of the households in America were tuned on some weeks. By contrast, The Mercury Theater was drawing rating of 3 and 4% at the time.

At the beginning of the show for October 30, 1938, Bergen had tried telling his announcer, Don Ameche, a story about staying overnight in a farmouse which was supposed to be haunted. (It was the day before Halloween). He gave up after continual interuptions by his dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd.

Bergen’s show was a variety program, and that week’s fare was as varied as any. Later in the program Dorothy Lamour sang “Two Sleepy People”. Hillbilly comedienne Judy Canova, then in her fourth straight week on the show, did a comedy routine with Ameche in which she talked about having gone to a football game the day before where, obviously, she had understood nothing of what was going on. British actress Madeline Carroll played in a romantic sketch. Bergen read a letter Charlie had gotten “from” a popular ventriloquist’s dummy in Paris.

Unfortunately for NBC, the show also featured Nelson Eddy. The opera singer (who was the model for Dudley Do-Right) was then a regular member of the cast. Right after the opening comedy patter Eddy came on to sing a hearty ballad about “the brave men of Burgundy” and people around the country dove for their radio dials in hope of finding something–anything–else.

Some of them tuned to CBS just as actor Frank Readick was describing in horrified tones how the hatch on the first Martian rocket was beginning to screw open. In fact, it was merely a jar being opened slowly while it was held down low in a toilet bowl.

At the half hour an announcer broke in to state that listeners were hearing an adaptation of The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. This was the 17th broadcast in the series, and no such announcement had been made before; the network was getting flooded with calls by people who wanted to know if the program could be real.

While the first half of the program had been done in a mock-news broadcast style, the second half was narrated by Orson Welles, playing an astronomer at Princeton who had been present when the first rocket ship had opened. The show ended with him writing in his study in Princeton after peace and order have been restored “after that last great day”.

The Mercury Theater somehow managed to wind up the show early, and the extra time was used to issue a reassuring disclaimer given by Welles that the broadcast had been meant all in fun. It should count as one of the great impromptu speeches of all time.

The panic had been real. As said before, CBS had been inundated by phone calls. In some places people fled to the countryside. In others, people turned up at police stations and military posts, volunteering to fight. The broadcast and its effect was the subject of banner front page headlines around the country on Monday.

There was really very little in the broadcast which should have induced belief. From the start, time was compressed so that events which were set hours apart took place within a couple of minutes of each other.

While the panic was a big one, it has managed to get a bit bigger with each retelling. In a book on Orson Welles French critic Andre Bazin says that people around the country committed suicide. It appears no one did. The stories may all stem from one story, frequently repeated, that a man in Pittsburg came home to find his wife about to take poison. People were being incenerated by Martians at that point in the broadcast and she said she’d rather die by her own hand than “like that”.

Numerous lawsuits were threatened. Some were filed. The only person known to have gotten compensation, though, was a man who wrote Welles and told him he had been saving up for a new pair of shoes, but had spent the money in getting out of town instead. Welles sent him shoes.

Many factors have been cited as having made the show so convincing for so many. There was a good deal of anxiety and pessimism in air just then. As was noted above, people had begun hearing war coverage on the radio for the first time within the past couple of months. Actors studied recordings of news broadcasts concerning the German invasion of Czechoslovakia so that they could imitate the tone and cadence of the reporters.

Mostly, though I suspect the biggest factor is the fact that some people will believe plenty much anything.

Mention was made before of a made-for-TV movie from the early 1980s. Starring Ed Flanders, it concerned some scientists who built their own atomic bomb and seized a boat in the harbor of Charlston, South Carolina. Despite the fact that numerous announcements were made that this was only a movie, people in the Charlston area were calling up the local TV station that night. It had apparently not occured to them to question why the TV network which was covering the crisis was one which had never been on the air before, or even why it was that the live news coverage was taking place in broad daylight even though it was night.

Hey, if Johnny Carson can panic the nation into buying up all the toilet paper…

Think about how many people write into this very message board on a monthly basis to determine whether or not NASA faked the moon landings, or that The Blair Witch Project was a real documentary, or that HB 602P is going to tax our e-mail.

I knew a guy who was deeply affected by the opening sequence in one of the Faces of Death flicks, where a guy kills someone in a hospital. It’s shot from multiple camera angles, with freaking close-ups, for crying out loud! Didn’t matter to that guy–the narrator told him it was real and he swallowed it whole.

Some people–maybe a lot of people–require patient, deliberate explanations about the difference between fact and fiction. Intentionally blur that line and some–maybe even a lot of people–are going to wander to the wrong conclusion.

When I asked my mother about this broadcast (she was in Philadelphia at the time, and around 20 years old), she said that she and some friends were listening, and they wondered if the Martians were cute… as in, date-able.

You know, that explains a lot.

<ducks behind his desk>