Guardian columnist Dick Meister is a longtime Bay Area journalist.
“2X2L calling CQ … 2X2L calling CQ, New York … Isn’t there anyone on the
air? Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there anyone?”
Millions of Americans — panic-stricken, many of them — waited anxiously
for a response to the message, delivered over the CBS radio network in slow,
flat, mournful tones on the crisp Halloween eve of Oct. 30, 1938.
“Isn’t … there … anyone?”
There wasn’t. Listeners heard only the slapping sounds of the Hudson River.
Many of New York’s residents were dead. The others had fled in panic from
“five great machines,” as tall as the tallest of the city’s skyscrapers,
that the radio announcer at CQ, New York, had described in the last words he
would ever utter. The metallic monsters had crossed the Hudson “like a man
wading a brook,” destroying all who stood in their way.
“Our army is wiped out, artillery, air force — everything wiped out,”
gasped the radio announcer.
It was the War of the Worlds, Mars versus Earth, and the Martians were
winning with horrifying ease. Their giant machines had landed in the New
Jersey village of Grovers Mill, and soon they would be coming to your town,
too … and yours … and yours. Nothing could stop them.
The War of the Worlds had sprung with frightening clarity from the extremely
fertile imagination of Orson Welles and the other young members of the
Mercury Theater of the Air who adopted Wells’ novel and dramatized it so
brilliantly — and believably — from the CBS radio studios on that long ago
Their use of realistic sounding bulletins and other tools of radio news
departments made it sound as if Martian machines truly were everywhere, and
Studies done at the time show that at least one million of the program’s
estimated six million listeners panicked.
“People all over the United States were praying, crying, fleeing frantically
to escape death from the Martians,” noted Hadley Cantril, an actual
Princeton professor who directed the most detailed study of the panic that
was caused in part by the pronouncements of “Richard Pierson,” a bogus
Princeton professor played by Welles.
“Some ran to rescue loved ones. Others telephoned farewells or warnings,
hurried to inform neighbors … summoned ambulances and police cars … For
weeks after the broadcast, newspapers carried human interest stories
relating the shock and terror of local citizens.”
“When the Martians started coming north from Trenton we really got scared,”
a New Jerseyian told one of Professor Cantril’s interviewers. “They would
soon be in our town. I drove right through Newberg and never even knew I
went through it … I was going eighty miles an hour most of the way. I
remember not giving a damn, as what difference did it make which way I’d get
Those who didn’t join the streams of cars that clogged the highways clogged
the phone lines or huddled in cellars and living rooms to await the end,
some with pitchfork, shotgun or Bible in hand.
“I knew it was something terrible and I was frightened,” a woman recalled.
“When they told us what road to take, and to get up over the hills, and the
children began to cry, the family decided to go. We took blankets and my
granddaughter wanted to take the cat and the canary.”
It was an extremely rare occurrence., as Cantril noted: “Probably never
before have so many people in all walks of life and in all parts of the
country become so suddenly and so intensely disturbed …”
And never since then has the country experienced such deep and widespread
fear and anxiety. Not even after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor
three years later. Not even in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept.
It was a unique display of widespread panic. Many people actually believed
their very world was coming to an end and there was nothing anyone could do
to stop it.
Welles had made clear at the start that the presentation was fictional. But
radio listeners generally paid little attention to opening announcements,
and many Sunday night listeners commonly turned first to the very popular
Edgar Bergen-Charley McCarthy show that was broadcast over another network
in the same 8 p.m. time slot, turning to the Mercury Theater out of
curiosity only later.
What they heard that Sunday were primarily news reports and commentaries
ingeniously patterned on the real reports and commentaries that were
constantly interrupting programs to report the aggressive actions of Nazi
Germany and other events that would shortly lead to the outbreak of World
People expected to hear the worst. Most also expected that what they heard
would be accurate, radio having supplanted newspapers as the most trusted
and relied upon of the mass media.
It helped, too, that much of the information was presented by “experts” …
Welles and other make-believe professors from universities around the world,
supposed astronomers, army officers and Red Cross officials, even the
otherwise unidentified “secretary of the interior.”
“I believed the broadcast as soon as I heard the professor from Princeton
and the officials in Washington,” as one listener recalled.
Even relatively sophisticated and well-informed listeners were fooled by
what Cantril cited as the program’s “sheer dramatic excellence.”
Events developed slowly, starting with the relatively credible — brief news
bulletins calmly reporting some “atmospheric disturbances,” later some
“explosions of incandescent gas,” and finally the discovery of what appeared
to be a large meteorite. Only then came the incredible — the discovery that
the “meteorite” was a Martian spaceship, reported in a halting, incredulous
manner by the “reporter” supposedly broadcasting live from Grovers Mill.
The police, the New Jersey State Guard, the army — none could subdue the
invaders. Finally, the “secretary of the interior” announced that man could
do no more, that the only hope for deliverance from the Martians was to
“place our faith in God.”
Few listeners were in a position to make independent judgements about
matters Martian. Few knew astronomy, and what standards does one use to
judge an invasion from Mars anyway?
Listeners could easily have turned to other radio networks for the truth, of
course, but many were too caught up in the masterful drama of the CBS
program to think of that.
Even some people who lived near the alleged invasion site were fooled. “I
looked out the window and everything was the same as usual,” said one, “so I
thought it hadn’t reached our section yet.”
The second half of the hour-long broadcast, with “Professor Pierson”
wandering dazedly through the deserted and ravaged streets of New York,
should have made it obvious to even the most gullible that they had been
listening to drama rather than news. Welles, shocked and shaken by the
listener response, followed that quickly with an ad-libbed assurance that it
had all been make-believe.
But by then, many people had left their radios. They had other ways in which
to spend their last hours on earth.
Copyright © 2013 Dick Meister
Guardian columnist Dick Meister is a longtime Bay Area journalist.