We’re too smart these days. We’ve grown so inured to the often unbelievable nonsense on television, or the absurd chain emails we gather in our inboxes, that the idea of a hysteria-inciting radio play is laughable. So try, for a spell, to put yourself in the shoes of listeners who tuned in 70 years ago to The Mercury Theater on the Air’s performance of The War of the Worlds.
It’s October 30, 1938. A Sunday night. About 8 p.m. You’re sitting in your living room. Possibly in an easy chair. Maybe the lights are off and there’s a cup of tea on the table by your side. The radio dial casts a dim glow. You’re relaxed, listening to the immensely popular Chase and Sanborn Hour, starring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. It’s weird, listening to a ventriloquist and his dummy on the radio how can you be sure Bergen’s not cheating? but the two of them are funny enough. A few minutes pass before some joker of a singer comes on. Time to switch the dial. All you want’s the dummy.
This sounds ok, you think, settling on some music. It sounds Spanish. 15 seconds or so pass, and then…
“Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. At twenty minutes before eight, Central Time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the Earth with enormous velocity…”
That doesn’t sound right.
You sit up in your chair a little. A few minutes later, after several more news bulletins and an interview with a Princeton astronomer, you hear the following…
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Carl Phillips again, out at the Wilmuth farm, Grovers Mill, New Jersey…I hardly know where to begin…I guess that’s the thing buried in front of me, half buried in its vast pit.”
You start to get uncomfortable. A few minutes later…
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed…Someone’s crawling out of the hollow top…The whole field’s caught fire…It’s coming this way. About twenty yards to my right”
Silence. Dead silence. This is bad. What’s going on? Have Martians invaded Earth? Can’t be, right? But it’s on the radio, and the radio doesn’t lie. Is that smoke I smell? Why is old lady Johnson screaming next door? Holy hell…
Similar scenes were repeated all over the East Coast. Listeners poured into the streets. Some headed to church. Others headed to spend their last hours on Earth with family. Wet towels served as makeshift gas masks to protect against the poison gas the radio said was headed outward from New Jersey. Many were convinced it was the end of the world.
When producer John Houseman suggested The War of the Worlds as the Mercury Theater’s Halloween eve broadcast, director and star Orson Welles laughed it off as silly and dull. Eventually, the idea surfaced to update the 1898 H.G. Wells story and split it into two. The first part would take the form of a series of musical pieces broken up by increasingly urgent news bulletins. No radio play before had toyed with the form like this, and the bulletins at this point old hat to Americans familiar with the dire updates coming out of Europe gave the story a sense of verisimilitude that it otherwise would have lacked. Listeners who came in late missed the opening announcement that this was a radio adaptation. Jump ahead here to the seven minute mark to get a sense of what you would have heard had you tuned in late.
Those who stuck out the first half hour, and didn’t run gibbering out the door, would have heard the play’s second half take a more familiar dramatic path, as a survivor roams a blasted landscape, looking for any signs of human life. Following the broadcast’s end, news got to Welles of angry calls to the CBS building, and exaggerated accounts of death and mayhem in the streets of America lingered for days. “If you had read the newspapers the next day, you would have thought I was Judas Iscariot and that my life was over,” Welles would later say. Instead, The War of the Worlds made him a star.
The radio play itself became a textbook example of mass hysteria: in 1940, Princeton psychologist Hadley Cantril used an analysis of listeners’ reactions to posit that social panics occur when large groups can’t discern reliable sources of advice from unreliable ones. That said, there’s little chance that a media hoax of this magnitude could happen again. We’ve grown too sophisticated, too cynical to believe that little green men from Mars with big silver spaceships will land in New Jersey, of all places. We’re too smart, for example, to be fooled by telephone calls suggesting that John McCain illegitimately fathered a black child; too smart to be fooled by emails claiming Barack Obama is a secret Muslim. Too smart.