What was the scariest Halloween of all?

Orson Welles delivers a Halloween radio broadcast from a New York studio in 1938. (AP Photo)

They had no idea that their restless little world was about to be turned upside down by the sheer genius of Orson Welles.

The stage was set for a perfect storm.

It was Halloween.

It was night.

America had survived one world war.

Europe was moving rapidly toward another.

People were uneasy.

They were afraid.

They had no idea what fate awaited them.

They dreaded the great unknown.

And Orson Welles scared them to death.

Much of America had settled down that Sunday evening and tuned in to a CBS radio production of The Mercury Theatre on the Air.

They had been warned ahead of time what was coming.

But few paid attention. The others tuned in late.

Most were just listening to music at the end of another Sunday.

That’s when it happened, and they had no idea that their restless little world was about to be turned upside down by the sheer genius of Orson Welles.

He and writer Howard Koch had adapted the classic H. G. Wells novel, War of the Worlds, to a radio script. They caught their listeners unaware, and it would be a night that no one would forget.

The date of October 30, 1938 would be etched in their brains forever.

What made the show so different?

What made it work?

The power of words, both written and spoken.

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The calm, soothing Big Band dance music was abruptly interrupted by a fake news bulletin reporting that “a huge flaming object” had descended to a farm near Grovers Mill New Jersey.

America sat up and listened.

Was it a meteor?

Was it a bomb? Had Germany attacked?

They held their collective breath.

For the next forty minutes, actors, playing the roles of news reporters, kept America informed and on the edge of their seats.

It sounded so real.

Was it real?

One reporter, so breathless he was barely able to speak, described aliens from Mars coming out of a spacecraft. He said: “Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadows like a gray snake … Now it’s another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing’s body. It’s large as a bear, and it glistens like wet leather. But that face. It … it’s indescribably. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate.

“The thing is rising up. The crowd falls back. They’ve seen enough. This is the most extraordinary experience. I can’t find words. I’m pulling this microphone with me as I talk. I’ll have to stop the description until I’ve taken a new position. Hold on, will you please. I’ll be back in a minute.

More music. But no one felt like dancing.

More breaking news bulletins.

Short.

Quick.

Chilling.

Welles broke in with a report: “Incredible as it may seem, both the observations of science and the evidence of our eyes lead to the inescapable assumption that those strange being who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars.”

Everyone forgot Germany.

Hitler no longer mattered.

How could they survive the threat of an invasion from Mars?

In the background were the sounds of guns firing, people screaming, cries of despair, cars honking their horns, the sound of boat horns in the New York harbor, and feet running down the highway.

There were no breaks for advertising.

Just music.

And brisk, terrifying news flashes.

America believed everything it was hearing.

America was in a state of panic.

Literally.

Americans jammed the highways trying to escape the creatures.

Some hid in cellars.

Guns were loaded.

Guns were fired into the night.

No one could see the invaders from mars.

But destruction was on its way.

They knew.

They had heard it on the news.

Nightmares were coming to life.

As producer John Houseman wrote: “Our actual broadcasting time, from the first mention of the meteorites to the fall of New York City, was less than forty minutes. During that time, men traveled long distances, large bodies of troops were mobilized, cabinet meetings were held, savage battles fought on land and in the air. And millions of people accepted it – emotionally if not logically.”

Inside the studio, no one had any idea of the panic that had gripped the land.

Orson Welles, with a laugh in his voice, signed off the show by saying: “So goodbye, everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if you doorbells rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian … It’s Halloween.”

Few heard.

The rest were in the streets.

Running.

Watching the sky.

Waiting for the Martians to come.

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  • Amy M. Bennett

    I remember watching a program about this night and, for dramatic effect, it showed a father and mother, huddled with their children, thinking that they were about to be attacked and they threw their coats over their children’s heads and the father drew a gun, intending to kill his own kids rather than allow the aliens to take them. Just in time, he saw it was state troopers who told them it had all been a radio show. But I wonder if that ever truly happened.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Amy: The drama in the program may have included bits and pieces of what really happened. But the radio show did cause widespread panic. Men drove their families out of town. Others armed themselves for a fight with the Martians. And still more flocked to the nearest church. It was, in the minds of many, the end of the world. You can still find the original episode on youtube.

  • Scott Bury

    Back when fake news was fun.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      It was indeed, Scott. You are too young to remember, but those old radio dramas that played the theater of the mind were special: Inner Sanctum, Boston Blackie, The FBI in Peace and War, Terry and the Pirates, Mr. and Mrs. North, and Suspense are as vivid in my memory now as they were then.

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