October 30, 2010

War of the Worlds  – 1938

On this date in 1938, Martians invaded the Earth, frightening thousands of people...

—— Wait! Martians didn't attack us! As a matter of fact, there are no Martians!

What actually happened on October 30, 1938, was the broadcast of an Orson Welles radio show based on H. G. Wells's book The War of the Worlds. The fictional show was done in a non-fiction style—in the style of news bulletins that seemed to break into another show. There were only three announcements during the 60-minute program that this was just fiction—once each at the beginning and end, and once at the 40-minute mark. This kind of story-presented-as-news had never been done before, and people were used to trusting news flashes and bulletins, so there was understandably some fear and confusion among people who tuned into the show while it was already underway.

In other words, some of the listeners who missed the announcement that this was fiction were unsure—was this really happening?

Remember, back in 1938, there was no Twitter or Facebook. As a matter of fact, there was no internet, only a very few people had television, and many people still did not even have telephones! Some people literally went door to door asking their neighbors what was going on. Some even drove to the spot that the aliens were supposed to have landed—Van Nest Park, Grover's Mill, New Jersey!

(Pictured here is that very spot, today marked by a historic plaque.)  

There was some panic, but the amount of panic was exaggerated by the newspapers of the time. More people got mad than scared, actually—mad at Welles, and mad at CBS, who broadcast the show. Still, War of the Worlds made Orson Welles famous.

Several film versions of H. G. Wells's book have been made, including a somewhat recent version filmed in 2005.

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