RADIO ANNOUNCER: “Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now here’s another and another one and another one. They look like tentacles to me … I can see the thing’s body now. It’s large, large as a bear. It glistens like wet leather. But that face, it … it … ladies and gentlemen, it’s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, it’s so awful. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is kind of V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate.”
“… More state police have arrived. They’re drawing up a cordon in front of the pit, about thirty of them … the captain and two policemen advance with something in their hands. I can see it now. It’s a white handkerchief tied to a pole … a flag of truce. If those creatures know what that means … what anything means! … Wait! Something’s happening! … There’s a jet of flame … it leaps right at the advancing men. It strikes them head on! Good Lord, they’re turning into flame! Now the whole field’s caught fire. There’s an explosion! The woods … the barns … the gas tanks of automobiles … it’s spreading everywhere. It’s coming this way. About twenty yards to my right …
(CRASH OF MICROPHONE … THEN DEAD SILENCE)
It was prime time for radio: Sunday evening, October 30, 1938, as millions of Americans listening to the radio heard something they’d never heard from the radio before … 6 interminable seconds of radio silence.
Their imaginations ran wild – the horror was real: a real Martian invasion was underway. One of the biggest mass hysteria events in U.S. history had begun. What was first reported as a large meteor crashing into a farmer’s field in Grovers Mills, New Jersey was rapidly escalating into reports far and wide of a wide scale invasion from Mars.
But the silence was not caused by a microphone and its hapless reporter, being “heat-rayed” into oblivion by Martian walking war machines.
Far from it.
Back in New York City, 23-year-old “boy wonder” of the theatre, Orson Welles, was directing the radio drama, War of the Worlds, an adaptation of H.G. Wells’s 1898 novel of the same name. His Mercury Theatre on the Air had become very popular, but little did he know that many of his listeners had tuned in late – too late to hear the announcer mention that the show was fiction. The 6 seconds of radio silence were not brought on by death-dealing Martians; it came out of the creative mind of the supreme mischief maker himself.
At this “dead air” point in the radio script, the inspired Welles poised, arms raised, while his entire assemblage of actors, musicians, sound effects people and stage hands literally froze in place.
Then the downbeat . . .
SECOND ANNOUNCER: “Ladies and gentlemen, I have just been handed a message that came in from Grovers Mill by telephone. At least forty people, including six state troopers lie dead in a field east of the village of Grovers Mill, their bodies burned and distorted beyond all possible recognition. The next voice you hear will be that of Brigadier General Montgomery Smith, commander of the state militia at Trenton, New Jersey …”
And reports of the escalating carnage went on and on and on. By now, the imagination of the listeners was running wild, with thousands desperately trying to flee. Panic broke out across the country. Perhaps as many as a million radio listeners that night believed that a real Martian invasion was underway.
When the hoax was finally revealed some two thirds into the 62-minute broadcast, public outrage was swift – and loud. The program’s news-bulletin format was described as cruel and deceptive. Newspapers and public figures alike decried this “end-of-the-world” broadcast. In the end, however, no one went to jail, no one was ever proven harmed, and Welles went on to Hollywood, where he made perhaps the greatest movie of all time: Citizen Kane.
Although I was around at the time, I missed the excitement. I was only one day old!
You can read the original radio script here.
You can download the broadcast itself here.
Heads up! You can watch/DVR a 75th anniversary rebroadcast of the PBS documentary “WAR OF THE WORLDS: AMERICAN EXPERIENCE” at 4-5 a.m. Friday, November 1. See a preview here.