On the evening of Sunday, October 30, 1938, dozens of emergency management agencies across the nation found themselves working overtime as many Americans were set into a panic following the radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds.”
Aired as a Halloween special, the radio broadcast caught many unsuspecting American families off guard, as outlandish claims of an alien attack upon the federal government were aired in a seemingly real manner.
The program began with an uneventful and ordinary orchestra rendition; however, in the opening minutes of the evening broadcast there was a short interruption for a special “news bulletin,” which stated that a cylindrical meteorite had landed in a farm field in New Jersey.
As the evening progressed, however, the news bulletins became more detailed. Soon, radio reporter Carl Philips was describing a crowd that had gathered around the crash site.
First he announced that the cylinder had unscrewed.
Next, onlookers were heard “catching a glimpse of a tentacled, pulsating, barely mobile Martian inside.”
Moments later, Phillips and the entire crowd were incinerated by alien heat-rays. Phillips’ shouts about incoming flames were cut off in mid-sentence.
To the listener, it seemed that regular programming broke down as the network struggled with casualty updates and firefighting developments.
The broadcast featured a shaken newsman speculating about Martian technology, as well as an update pertaining to the New Jersey state militia’s implementation of martial law. A message from the militia’s “field headquarters” begged listeners to remain calm and assured them that the American military was properly equipped to handle an alien invasion; moments later, the Martians were reported to have obliterated the militia.
As the night progressed, the network ran numerous news bulletins giving damage reports and evacuation instructions to what it claimed were millions of refugees attempting to leave the state of New Jersey. An unnamed “Secretary of the Interior” addressed the nation and actor Kenny Delmar’s voice, which was closely similar to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s, also advised the nation to maintain order.
With each passing minute, the program grew more and more bizarre.
Hundreds of miles to the southwest, West Virginia’s capital city of Charleston was sent into an uproar, as terrified residents mistook the nationally syndicated broadcast to be the real deal!
One local newspaper reported, “The broadcast play led hundreds of Charleston residents to think [that it was a real alien attack], and they anxiously inquired for news dispatches and hastily prepared to flee to the hills.”
Charlestonians were not alone in their misguided fears. The broadcast’s producer, John Houseman, noticed that at about 8:32 pm. ET, CBS supervisor Davidson Taylor received a telephone call in the control room. Creasing his lips, Taylor left the studio and returned four minutes later, “pale as death”, as he had been ordered to interrupt “The War of the Worlds” broadcast immediately with an announcement of the program’s fictional content. But by the time the order was given, the program was already less than a minute away from its first scheduled break, and the fictional news reporter played by actor Ray Collins was choking on poison gas as the Martians overwhelmed New York.
Actor Stefan Schnabel recalled sitting in the anteroom after finishing his on-air performance. “A few policemen trickled in, then a few more. Soon, the room was full of policemen and a massive struggle was going on between the police, page boys, and CBS executives, who were trying to prevent the cops from busting in and stopping the show. It was a show to witness.”
During the sign-off theme, the phone began ringing. Houseman picked it up and the furious caller announced he was mayor of a Midwestern town where mobs were in the streets. Houseman hung up quickly: “We were off the air now and the studio door had burst open.”
“The following hours were a nightmare. The building was suddenly full of people and dark-blue uniforms. Hustled out of the studio, we were locked into a small back office on another floor. Here we sat incommunicado while network employees were busily collecting, destroying, or locking up all scripts and records of the broadcast. Finally, the Press was let loose upon us, ravening for horror. How many deaths had we heard of? (Implying they knew of thousands.) What did we know of the fatal stampede in a Jersey hall? (Implying it was one of many.) What traffic deaths? (The ditches must be choked with corpses.) The suicides? (Haven’t you heard about the one on Riverside Drive?) It is all quite vague in my memory and quite terrible.” wrote John Houseman in his memoir in 1972.
Paul White, head of CBS News, was quickly summoned to the office – “and there bedlam reigned”, he wrote:
“The telephone switchboard, a vast sea of light, could handle only a fraction of incoming calls. The haggard Welles sat alone and despondent. ‘I’m through,’ he lamented, ‘washed up.’ I didn’t bother to reply to this highly inaccurate self-appraisal. I was too busy writing explanations to put on the air, reassuring the audience that it was safe. I also answered my share of incessant telephone calls, many of them from as far away as the Pacific Coast.”
Back in Charleston, West Virginia, panic reigned at “city and state police headquarters, at newspapers and at radio station WCHS [which] groaned under the inquiries… State troopers took time off to reassure a weeping mother that she and her children were safe.”
One man was rushed to a downtown hospital in Charleston, after fainting while listening to the broadcast.
Another incident alleges that a police officer was summoned to his home by short wave radio.
When the officer arrived home, “He found his uncle, greatly alarmed, headed for the drug store, where he was going to stock up on an antidote for mustard gas. It took several minutes to dissuade him and convince him that there was no immediate danger of gas attack.”
According to Jefferson Pooley, a few suicide attempts were made that evening. The Washington Post claimed that a man died of a heart attack brought on by listening to the program and one woman filed a lawsuit against CBS, but it was soon dismissed.
On November 2, 1938, the Australian Age characterized the incident as “mass hysteria” and stated that “never in the history of the United States had such a wave of terror and panic swept the continent.”
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