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In 1898, H.G. Wells wanted to find out what it would be like if an intelligent race of Martians turned the tables on Victorian England by conquering and colonizing the world’s greatest empire. For readers around the world, The War of the Worlds elicited their darkest, deepest fears.
In 1938, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air adapted the H.G. Wells novel to radio and used that medium’s immediacy, along with a series of realistic “newsflashes” as part of the story, to drive more than a million people mad with terror. Orson Welles said he “wanted people to understand that…they shouldn’t swallow everything that came through the tap, whether it was radio or not.” He succeeded beyond his wildest expectations, while claiming absolute innocence the next day. The “Panic Broadcast,” as it would be known, became the most notorious radio broadcast in history.
The Complete War of the Worlds tells the story behind the story-how H.G. Wells’ tale of Martian invasion captured the imagination of Orson Welles, and how the book and the broadcast went on to inspire hundreds of imitators.
In this book and audio CD, you will hear the actual 1938 Orson Welles broadcast, read the original book by H.G. Wells and the radio play by Howard Koch, and see the people, places and things that turned a story into a legend.
|Edition description:||BOOK & CD|
|Product dimensions:||9.80(w) x 10.80(h) x 0.90(d)|
Read an Excerpt
The Eve of Halloween
"We have so much faith in broadcasting. In a crisis it has to reach all people. That's what radio is here for."
The night before Halloween, known as Mischief Night, or Devil's Night, is the night you might expect the neighborhood kids to soap your windows or T.P. your silver maple. But that's about it. October 30, 1938, was a peaceful Sunday evening, a little foggy in the East, partially obscuring the night skies over the farmlands of New Jersey. This outward calm, however, belied a nation tense with apprehension. The country, still struggling out of the Great Depression, feared the worst in Europe, where Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier were attempting to appease Hitler, as the Nazis annexed the Sudetenland and greedily eyed the rest of Europe. The Munich Pact of September 30, in which Britain and France gave away a substantial chunk of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, had averted a war, but only for so long. One news commentator summed up America's fears best:
... It is the opinion of this commentator, that, in spite of all our hopes and our prayers, this new accord, this Munich agreement, will not, no matter how many times and with what apparent sincerity he assures us otherwise, I repeat, will not satisfy the ambitions of Adolf Hitler.... I tell you that this man is drunk with success. And I tell you that his government is barbaric and inhuman. And that he will never rest until all of Europe, and perhaps more, is under that government ...
President Roosevelt had sent a telegram to Hitler and the president of Czechoslovakia three days prior to the Munich settlement, begging them to continue negotiations rather than resort to arms. In the end, the Czechs were not consulted on their country's dismemberment. While America's role remained uncertain, Americans grew worried as radio news flashes about the situation in Europe regularly interrupted programming.
For more than thirty million of these radio listeners, the top-rated Chase and Sanborn Hour, starring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, was the lighthearted distraction they needed.
A ventriloquist act. On the radio.
The Mercury Theatre on the Air, produced by twenty-three-year-old Orson Welles and the elder, Bucharest-born, former grain merchant John Houseman, posted a miserable 3.6 Crossley rating, compared to Chase and Sanborn's 34.7 rating. But, about twelve minutes after eight, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy's act broke for a musical interlude with Nelson Eddy singing the "Neopolitan Love Song," and a large chunk of the audience switched stations to hear what else was on (the first noteworthy instance of zapping, or "channel-surfing"), only to find a CBS news correspondent announcing on WABC in New York:
Ladies and gentlemen, this is Carl Phillips again, at the Wilmuth farm, Grovers Mill, New Jersey.... Well, I ... hardly know where to begin, to paint for you a word picture of the strange scene before my eyes, like something out of a modern Arabian Nights. Well, I just got here. I haven't had a chance to look around yet. I guess that's it. Yes, I guess that's the ... thing, directly in front of me, half buried in a vast pit. Must have struck with terrific force. The ground is covered with splinters of a tree it must have struck on its way down. What I can see of the ... object itself doesn't look very much like a meteor, at least not the meteors I've seen. It looks more like a huge cylinder.... (CD 1)
This curious but arresting description kept many a listener's rapt attention. (It was later estimated by the Hooper ratings service that about 12 percent of those who had been listening to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, about four million listeners, switched to CBS at the break.) The "reporter," Carl Phillips, accompanied by the fictional Princeton astronomer, Professor Pierson, went on to describe the tentacled, squid-like Martian as it emerged from the capsule. "It's as large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather.... I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate."
And then it got worse.
Phillips called the play-by-play as the Martians unleashed their horrible heat ray on the crowd that had gathered, and eventually on Phillips himself, as the signal went dead for what must have seemed a very long time. There was apparent confusion back at the station, while they filled the dead air with a short, but ominous piano interlude of "Claire de Lune." Bulletins followed detailing the death toll at Grovers Mill. "Brigadier General Montgomery Smith" placed half of New Jersey under martial law. Units of Red Cross emergency workers were said to be dispatched to the area. Ironically, in hindsight, "Harry McDonald," the fictitious vice president of operations, announced: "In view of the gravity of the situation, and believing that radio has a definite responsibility to serve in the public interest at all times, we are turning over our facilities to the state militia at Trenton." Finally, from the New York studio, came the unequivocal announcement that encapsulated the lie at the heart of the show:
Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make. Incredible as it may seem, both the observations of science and the evidence of our eyes lead to the inescapable assumption that those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars....
Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly given the realism of the reportage, a large portion of the radio audience never bothered to switch back to Charlie McCarthy to check the authenticity of CBS' broadcast.
As the Martians marched toward New York, easily defeating the Army, destroying lines of communication, and releasing black clouds of deadly gas over the countryside, people who hadn't been to church that morning prayed with the fervor of the born-again. When an unnamed "Secretary of the Interior" came on the air to urge Americans to remain calm and "in the meantime placing our faith in God ... so that we may confront this destructive adversary with a nation united, courageous, and consecrated to the preservation of human supremacy on this earth," it was impossible not to notice the uncanny resemblance of the speaker's voice to that of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Women wept in front of their radios; so did their husbands. Everywhere, people ran into the streets, unsure where to go or what to do. Many took to their cars, speeding around like mad and covering their faces with wet towels to protect themselves from the gas. In Newark, traffic cops watched dumbfounded as dozens of automobiles careened through intersections, heedless of stoplights, pedestrians, or other motorists. Panicked listeners tied up phone lines, calling their loved ones to warn them or just to say good-bye, and jamming the switchboards of radio stations newspapers, and police headquarters. Those who didn't get through reasoned that it was the Martians who were responsible.
Of the more than six million estimated listeners, 1.7 million were believed to take the radio play as fact, and 1.2 million panicked, according to a study conducted by a real Princeton professor, Hadley Cantril, and published in his 1940 book, Invasion from Mars. Most failed to check the veracity of the Martian invasion by either checking the radio program listings in the paper or switching channels. All somehow missed the announcement at the beginning of the show that it was a dramatization of "The War of the Worlds." By the first break and second announcement, most had stopped listening to the radio and were off panicking somewhere out of earshot.
Near Grovers Mill, ground zero for the Martian invasion, the panic was probably most immediate. The fire chief of Cranbury, five miles from Grovers Mill, received dozens of calls reporting fires in the woods set by the Martian heat rays. He spent most of the night responding to nonexistent fires set by nonexistent alien invaders. In the course of chasing down these imaginary conflagrations, he was able to observe farmers, armed with shotguns, roaming the countryside looking for Martians or for the militia, which was supposed to have been deployed to the area to fend off the "intruders." Later, more than a hundred state troopers descended on the area to calm the local residents and disarm the "volunteers" before anybody got hurt.
Another local to the Grovers Mill area was in such a hurry to drive off to reach his wife's family in Pennsylvania, he neglected to open the garage door first and, despite his wife's screamed warning, drove right through the door with a crunch, saying back to his wife, "Well, we won't be needing it anymore."
Another neighbor, who had emptied a bottle of whiskey while listening to the broadcast, decided that his chow dog would be much safer in its kennel at the side of the house. Grabbing the animal, he rushed outside and attempted to fling the chow over the fence into the kennel. Terrified and confused at his master's strange behavior, the dog clamped down on the man's sleeve with his jaw and held on for dear life. The man swung the dog over his head several times until the sleeve, with chow attached, ripped off. The man then proceeded to drive to his brother's house, yank him out of a peaceful slumber, and take him on a wild, drunken ride, which ended when Welles came on to say that it was all just a play. What the brother then did to the man was not reported.
Some of the Grovers Mill locals actually fired shots at what they believed to be one of the Martians rising up on its giant metal legs. It turned out to be a tall, fanless, and most likely unarmed water tower and windmill. This "Martian" still stands today in the backyard of a house, across the street from the grist Mill that gave the community its name. The present-day owner of the Martian water tower (it overlooks a swimming pool now), Catherine Shrope-Mok, reported that the ones who were primarily shooting at the water tower in 1938 were in fact the neighbors from across the road, "who you'd think would know better," she said, "since they saw it every day." The famous water tower actually receives visitors from around the country and as far away as Scandinavia and Japan every Halloween, according to Ms. Shrope-Mok.
That same night, a few miles away, a couple of other real Princeton professors, Arthur Buddington, chairman of the geology department, and geologist Harry H. Hess, spent the better part of the evening searching for the object reported on the broadcast"something of an unusual nature, possibly a meteorite"which had supposedly landed in Grovers Mill. According to the Trenton Evening Times, "Armed with a geologist's hammer and a flashlight, they began a systematic tapping of rocks to determine if they were of earthly or heavenly origin." The two no doubt endured quite a bit of razzing from their colleagues for their expedition.
In Newark, those who weren't racing their cars around the streets with their faces covered by wet rags were busy spilling out into the streets, taking their wordly possessions with them, or having conniption fits. One hospital in Newark treated fifteen men and women for shock and hysteria; the parents of three children called the hospital to say they were coming to take their kids and leaving the city. New Jersey national guardsmen flooded the armories of Essex and Sussex counties with calls asking when and where to report. Hundreds of doctors and nurses offered their services to the Newark police to aid the "injured," while city officials made emergency plans. The governor of Pennsylvania even offered to send troops to New Jersey to help quell the Martian insurgency.
In New York, the source of the broadcast, the New York Times reported that the Dixie Bus Terminal was ready to change its schedule upon confirmation of "news reports" on an "accident" near Princeton on their New Jersey route. When Dorothy Brown at the terminal sought verification, she was refused by the person on the other end of the line, who said, "The world is coming to an end, and I have a lot to do."
At the wedding reception of Rocco and Connie Cassamassina in uptown Manhattan, a group of latecomers arrived, visibly shaken by something. One of them took the microphone from the singer in the dance band and announced to the party that the city was being invaded by creatures from outer space. After the initial bewildered reaction, panic set in and guests started running for their coats and leaving. Connie begged the few people who were left not to leave with tears in her eyes. Rocco grabbed the microphone and started singing hymns to the handful of stunned guests who remained.
A young college student reported to radio play scriptwriter Howard Koch:
My girlfriend and I were at a party in the Village. Someone turned on the radio. It was just when the Martians were spraying the people at Grovers Mill with the heat ray. At first we couldn't believe it was happening, but it was so real we stayed glued to the radio, getting more scared every minute. My girl began to cry. She wanted to be with her family. The party broke up in a hurry, our friends scattering in all directions. I drove like crazy up Sixth Avenue. I don't know how fastfifty, maybe sixty miles an hour. The traffic cops at the street crossings just stared at us, they couldn't believe their eyes, whizzing right past them going through the red lights. I didn't care if I got a ticket. It was all over anyway. Funny thing, none of the cops chased us. I guess they were too flabbergasted. My apartment was on the way, so I stopped just long enough to rush in and shout up to my father that the Martians had landed and we were all going to be killed and I was taking my girl home. When we got to her place, her parents were waiting for us. My father had called them. Told them to hold me there until he could send a doctor as I'd gone out of my mind.
A senior in a large eastern college, returning from a date with his girlfriend, heard the broadcast in his car and returned to save her. "One of the first things I did was to try to phone my girl in Poughkeepsie, but the lines were all busy, so that just confirmed my impression that the thing was true. We started driving back to Poughkeepsie. We had heard that Princeton was wiped out and gas and fire were spreading over New Jersey, so I figured there wasn't anything to dowe figured our friends and families were all dead. I made the forty-five miles in thirty-five minutes and didn't even realize it. I drove right through Newburgh and never even knew I went through it. I don't know why we weren't killed.... The gas was supposed to be spreading up north. I didn't have any idea exactly what I was fleeing from, and that made me all the more afraid.... I thought the whole human race was going to be wiped outthat seemed more important than the fact that we were going to die."
The authorities were often of little help to panicked listeners. In some cases, as one listener reported, they probably made things worse:
I immediately called up the Maplewood police and asked if there was anything wrong. They answered, "We know as much as you do. Keep your radio tuned in and follow the announcer's advice. There is no immediate danger in Maplewood." Naturally, after that I was more scared than ever.
New Jersey State Police had to reassure its officers: "WABC broadcast as drama re: this section being attacked by residents of Mars. Imaginary affair." And New York police eventually sent out the following message to its force: "Station WABC informs us that the broadcast just concluded over that station was a dramatization of a play. No cause for alarm."
The terror was not confined to New Jersey and New York, however. One man in Pittsburgh came home just in time to save his wife, who was in the bathroom holding a bottle of poison in her hand and screaming, "I'd rather die this way than like that!"
Joseph Hendley, a small-town Midwesterner, recounted his evening:
That Halloween Boo sure had our family on its knees before the program was half over. God knows but we prayed to Him last Sunday. It was a lesson in more than one thing to us. My mother went out and looked for Mars. Dad was hard to convince or skeptical or sumpin', but he even got to believing it.... Aunt Grace, a good Catholic, began to pray with Uncle Henry. Lily got sick to her stomach. I don't know what I did exactly, but I know I prayed harder and more earnestly than ever before. Just as soon as we were convinced that this thing was real, how pretty all things on Earth seemed; how soon we put our trust in God.
The panic soon spread all over the United States. A Warner Brothers studio executive later confided to Koch his reaction:
My wife and I were driving through the redwood forest when the broadcast came over our car radio. At first it was just New Jersey, but soon the things were landing all over, even in California. There was no escape. All we could think of was to try to get back to L.A. to see our children once more and be with them when it happened. We went right by gas stations, but I forgot we were low in gas. In the middle of the forest, our gas ran out. There was nothing to do. We just sat there holding hands expecting any minute to see those Martian monsters appear over the tops of the trees. When Orson said it was a Halloween prank, it was like being reprieved on the way to the gas chamber.
One small Southwestern college reported the following:
The girls in the sorority houses and dormitories huddled around their radios trembling and weeping in each other's arms. They separated themselves from their friends only to take their turn at the telephones to make long distance calls to their parents, saying goodbye for what they thought might be the last time. This horror was shared by older and more experienced peopleinstructors and supervisors in the university. Terror-stricken girls, hoping to escape from the Mars invaders, rushed to the basement of the dormitory. A fraternity boy, frantic with fear, threw off dormitory regulations when he sought out his girlfriend and started for home. Another boy rushed into the street to warn the town of the invasion.
In the small town of Concrete, Washington, the local power failed at the exact moment when the Martians in the play were disabling communication and power lines around the U.S. The result, of course, was mass hysteria as people fled into the darkened streets, cut off from any news source that might calm their fears.
Table of Contents
|H.G. Wells, Master of Paranoia||ix|
|Part I||The Broadcast|
|The Eve of Halloween||3|
|The Radio Play: "War of the Worlds"||27|
|Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre||57|
|Part II||Invasions from Mars|
|Martians, Moon Men, and Other Close Encounters||69|
|Part III||The Author and His Book|
|The War of the Worlds|
|Book 1||The Coming of the Martians||95|
|1.||The Eve of War|
|2.||The Falling Star|
|3.||On Horsell Common|
|4.||The Cylinder Opens|
|6.||The Heat-Ray in the Chobham Road|
|7.||How I Reached Home|
|9.||The Fighting Begins|
|10.||In the Storm|
|11.||At the Window|
|12.||What I Saw of the Destruction of Weybridge and Shepperton|
|13.||How I Fell in with the Curate|
|15.||What Had Happened in Surrey|
|16.||The Exodus from London|
|17.||The "Thunder Child"|
|Book 2||The Earth Under the Martians||157|
|2.||What We Saw from the Ruined House|
|3.||The Days of Imprisonment|
|4.||The Death of the Curate|
|6.||The Work of Fifteen Days|
|7.||The Man on Putney Hill|
|The Once and Future Mars||193|