News / USA

Halloween Recalls Radio Drama Which Spread Panic in US

Could ‘War of the Worlds’-style hoax scare people today?

In the fictional 'War of the Worlds,' Martians land in the New Jersey town of Grover’s Mill. Years later, somebody put up this monument at the site, which is now part of a larger town.
In the fictional 'War of the Worlds,' Martians land in the New Jersey town of Grover’s Mill. Years later, somebody put up this monument at the site, which is now part of a larger town.

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Ted Landphair

Halloween - October 31 - is a time to wear spooky costumes and tell scary stories. Perhaps the scariest tale was told on Halloween eve in 1938, when a radio drama spread panic along the U.S. East Coast.

“Something’s happening!” yelled the “reporter” on the scene of a mysterious collision of an object with Earth in what the audience was told was the little town of Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.    

Screams, shouts of “Stand back” followed.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the shaken observer told listeners, “this is the most horrifying thing I’ve  . . .  It’s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it. Saliva dripping from its rimless lips. It’s rising up now, and the crowd falls back.”  And so forth, as it became clear that the object was not a meteorite but an alien spaceship.

The brilliant actor and director Orson Welles at age 22 in 1937, a year before he and his acting troupe scared the daylights out of thousands of radio listeners on Halloween eve.
The brilliant actor and director Orson Welles at age 22 in 1937, a year before he and his acting troupe scared the daylights out of thousands of radio listeners on Halloween eve.

As actors all-too-skillfully performed H. G. Wells’s story, “War of the Worlds” - which he had written four decades earlier in 1898 - many listeners completely fell for the story that Martians were invading New Jersey. People hid in cellars and packed their cars to flee.  

So we got to wondering: Could the same thing happen today?  Not likely on radio, of course, which has a fragmented audience and airs few dramas these days.

But suppose a diabolical television producer or Internet website assembled convincing actors, created believable video footage and added the kind of breathless reporting that Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre troupe used to stunning effect way back when?

H.G. Wells’s book version of “War of the Worlds” was an early sci-fi classic. But the extra dimensions of the human voice and sound effects intensified its fear factor.
H.G. Wells’s book version of “War of the Worlds” was an early sci-fi classic. But the extra dimensions of the human voice and sound effects intensified its fear factor.

Today we’d probably laugh at the notion that Martians were coming. But what if the invaders were ruthless terrorists, and - as in 1938 - thousands tuned in a tad late and missed the announcement that this was all make-believe?  Would we cower under our beds?

Probably not. We’re more worldly these days, more skeptical. We’ve seen so many action thrillers that we would take it for granted that this was merely another one. And we’d quickly switch to a news source we trusted and see that nobody else was bothering to cover this catastrophe.

Besides, terrorism is such a real menace in our world today that TV producers and popular websites would never dare toy with our nerves on a subject so chilling. Would they?

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