The Night Words Scared the World. The Authors Collection.

Orson Welles during his famous War of Worlds radio broadcast.
Orson Welles during his famous War of Worlds radio broadcast.

When words are organized into stories anything can happen.

One Sunday in the autumn of 1938, two brothers stayed a couple of nights at their uncle’s house in Detroit. The next night was Halloween and his neighborhood was a great place to fill their pillowcases with candy. So Jerry (my dad) and older his brother Jimmy took their places on the rug near the big console radio in Uncle Joe’s living room at 8:00 p.m. and set the dial to WXYZ, which carried the NBC Blue Network.

They laughed at the opening bit, a typically hilarious Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy routine. Never mind that even I could do ventriloquism on radio. The brothers never missed a Sunday night broadcast of The Chase and Sandborn Hour.

Then their laughter turned to near instant boredom as some dumb lady came on and did a drama thing. It was Madeleine Carroll, a famous British actress—the highest paid that year in Hollywood, earning more than $250,000. She became a big star via her recent performance in a popular Alfred Hitchcock film called The 39 Steps.

None of that impressed Jerry and Jimmy; they wanted the funny stuff.

So they turned the dial back and forth and soon found some pretty cool music on WWJ, which carried CBS shows. Mercury Theater was scheduled to be on the air at that moment. So they left the dial there and tapped their toes to a band playing a Spanish-sounding song, fully planning to check back at WXYZ a few minutes later for more Charlie McCarthy fun.

David R. Stokes
David R. Stokes

But the boys never made it back to the NBC Blue Network that night. In fact, all across America in thousands upon thousands of homes, little boys and girls and all grown up adults glued their ears to what was being piped into their living rooms. It began like this:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. At twenty minutes before eight, Central Time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the Earth with enormous velocity…”

Then all of sudden, it was back to the Spanish music as Jerry and Jimmy stared at each other. They called out, “Hey Uncle Joe, come here, something just happened on the radio.”

Similar scenes played out all across the country that night. The music was interrupted again and again with more details about a spaceship crashing in a place called Grovers Mill, New Jersey. Something snake-like crawled out. Fields caught fire. All reported on the radio.

Forget that Hitler guy who wanted to take over some far away place called Czechoslovakia—these were Martians—and they wanted New Jersey!

Of course, it was all a hoax first dreamed up by a young radio actor named John Houseman (he grew up to become Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase) and brought to life by his boss, 23-year-old Orson Welles. It had been advertised right in newspapers earlier that day in the section where it showed the radio lineup for that night. There in plain sight it said: “Play ‘War of the Worlds,’ Mercury Theater. CBS Radio.” And the broadcast began with a disclaimer—which didn’t help all the people tuning in late.

The radio spoof became a textbook case of mass hysteria. In an instant, millions of people believed we were under attack by aliens.

But it was all just so many words—words that made all the difference.

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Please click the book cover image to read more about David R. Stokes and his books.

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    David, I was always fascinated by Orson’s War of the Worlds on Halloween night. I heard my father tell the story many times. When I was in college, I found a tape of the show in the UT library and listened to it. If you can suspend belief and take yourself back to a time when our only outlet to the rest of the world was newspaper and television – and there were no 24 hour a day Cable News – it’s easy to realize why the program touched off such a scare. Orson did the news the way it should be done. He set the scene and our theater of the mind took over and ran with it.

  • I live less than 15 minutes from Grover’s Mill – and never forget to wonder what it was like, every time I drive by that intersection. It’s a mill pond, and a barn that was used as a hardware store, and a narrow bridge, and an awkward stop coming from the south because you can’t see the cars coming from the left and they have the right of way, so you pay attention.

    It would have been more rural then – now there are housing developments.

    That reminds me: I shall go place it on the Placing Literature website (where you can connect readers to the physical locations for your settings) if it isn’t already there. (PS It’s for novels – I asked them if I can post Grover’s Mill as the location for a radio play.)

    Alicia

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I envy you, Alicia. It must be a great place to live, removed several decades from reality. I love those kinds of places.

      • I’m also an hour and fifteen minutes by NJ Transit from NY Penn Station. Good place, quiet NJ suburb, on a cul-de-sac, ruined only by the neighbor’s mania for his gas-powered leaf blower – 8am this Saturday morning!

        The place removed from reality is inside my own head – I’m about to take a trip to NH there. When necessary, I use industrial-strength ear protection while writing (see http://liebjabberings.wordpress.com/2013/05/24/portable-sensory-deprivation-system-for-writers-and-people-with-cfs/ for description and picture). Some things in life you CAN control, if not eliminate.

        I love your wording: ‘removed several decades from reality.’ That’s me. And here.

  • Darlene Jones

    The pen truly is mightier than the sword. People still talk about The War of the Worlds and Orson Welles. Powerful stuff.

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