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Thursday, Sep. 18, 2014

The Great Halloween Hoax

Posted Sunday, October 28, 2007, at 4:34 PM

(Editor's note: This piece will come out as a column in the Oct. 31 copy of the North Stoddard Countian.)

Throughout my life, I've heard so much about Orson Wells' Mercury Theatre radio program "War of the Worlds," (Oct. 30, 1938) that I can almost make myself believe I was a part of it. I envy those Americans who can say that they actually heard the original 60-minute radio broadcast that threw millions of U.S. citizens into a panic.

Though I've referred to the broadcast as a "hoax," it seems to have been an innocent theatrical performance that just got out of hand. Today's audience's are a far cry from those of 1938, which was a time just before we headed into World War II, many homes didn't have telephones, and radio was traditionally well-respected as a means of broadcasting information to the public. Americans were familiar with the format Wells used, in which newscasters interrupted the regular broadcasting to make emergency announcements.

The "War of the Worlds" project was creative: The idea was to take the 1898 novel by British author H.G. Wells and make it into a live-action radio performance. According to later accounts, the program was identified as fiction at the beginning and again about 40 minutes into the broadcast. The Mercury Theatre didn't have a lot of sponsors, so there was no reason to break into the newscast any sooner.

By that time, it was too late. According to some calculations, approximately 6 million Americans heard the broadcast; 1.7 million believed it to be true, and 1.2 million were "genuinely frightened." Stories circulated about the panic which ensued, particularly in Northeastern cities (Since the Martian invasion supposedly happened in a real city - Grovers Mill, New Jersey.). Crowds descended on Grovers Mill, causing some crowd control problems for police, and one farmer's water tower was shot at, when it was mistaken for an alien space ship.

Some studies of the phenominon reported that at least a few of the people who panicked had presumed that the U.S. had been invaded by Germans - not Martians. Hitler even commented on the event, saying that the panic in the U.S. was "evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy."

Still, some critics say that the effect of the broadcast has been exaggerated, and some of the more famous stories may have entered the "urban myth" life cycle. I've always heard about whole populations abandoning the cities and heading out across the country to flee the alien invasion, people committing suicide, and traffic pile ups on busy highways. I didn't find any mention of these events in my recent research.

However, I did find a very strange website (war-of-the-worlds.org), which insisted that Orson Wells' broadcast was merely a cover-up for a REAL invasion of Earth! In looking for some sort of documentation, I found a hazy reference to a "Dr. Wilson." I never trust a source which doesn't give a first name, so I only mention this as a bit of "kooky" information. (For entertainment purposes, only.)

For its part as sponsor of the program, CBS had to promise never again to use the "we interrupt this program" device for dramatic purposes. For this reason, disclaimers are common on TV these days, even when it's pretty obvious that a story is fiction, not fact.

Some sources feel that the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was first received with skepticism, because of Orson Wells' radio performance.

Despite the fame of the hoax, the drama has been rewritten and rebroadcast in other localities over the years. A 1944 broadcast in Santiago, Chile caused panic, including mobilization of troops by the governor. On Feb. 12, 1949, a copy-cat broadcast in Quito, Ecuador had even more chilling results, as some listeners set fire to the radio station and killed 20 people.

Even after 69 years, the Orson Wells' "Invasion from Mars" radio drama is studied as an example of "mass hysteria and the delusions of crowds."

The event still goes down as the greatest Halloween prank ever pulled.


Comments
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Madeline...

The War of the Worlds was one of my favorite memories as a child, and even now into adulthood. I was not yet born when it took place, but remember well the telling and retelling of the event by my father and my uncles, who thought it was absolutely ingeneous at the time. My father would have been about 20 at the time and it must have been quite an adventure to be tuned in and have heard that episode. As I recall, they were all in a state of panic and fear like they had never known. Can you imagine the repurcussions of such a prank in today's society? There would be Senate Committee hearings and lawyers converging on the city of origin with hands out. There would be multitudes in the courts, each claiming mental anguish over sufferings as a result of the broadcast.

In 1938, it was just a prank that eventually was accepted as just that and it went down in history as just that...the best ever. H.G. Wells would be in prison if he were to attempt that in today's world. Actually, he'd probably be in prison for conspiracy if he'd have been caught while plans were in the making!

-- Posted by bringwine on Sun, Oct 28, 2007, at 5:44 PM

We read the teleplay in high school,and our teacher played an actual recording of it on an old timey looking radio/cd/cassette player.

As we listened to it, I could imagine how scary it would be in a world that had not yet met Saw, Jason from Halloween,or even Freddie Kruger.When you have to use your imagination,it was awesome still,( instead of just being bombarded with some gross slasher or creepy alien movie).

You are so right Wine,Mr.Welles would be deemed a security risk to have committed "terroristic threats" with his broadcasts and would have really lost weight as he was held as a "person of interest" at Gitmo.

I still think from my youth(although not Halloween) I like the April Fool's Day prank Taco Bell pulled when it announced it had bought the Liberty Bell to help lower the national debt,and it would now be called the Taco Liberty Bell!

The Clinton White House had a real sense of humor because when they were called,the response was,"Yes,and the Lincoln Memorial also was sold and will now be called the Ford-Lincoln-Mercury Memorial!" Doubt that would be the response ever again-hahaha.

-- Posted by Yellow Rose of Essex on Mon, Oct 29, 2007, at 7:56 AM

Has our Nation lost it's sense of humor? How sad.

-- Posted by D.W.B. on Mon, Oct 29, 2007, at 8:52 AM

YR, I'm so glad your teacher introduced you to that event! It's hard for kids to realize just how scarey those stories were. I used to sit glued to the radio, listening to Inner Sanctum. My imagination created such amazing creatures! We never dreamed of a day when we would be able to SEE what was going on. Nowadays, it seems that all the "scarey" tales have to be about mutilation and chain saws and blood and guts and gore...or totally computer-animated creatures.

I really think television may have destroyed our children's imaginations.

-- Posted by goat lady on Mon, Oct 29, 2007, at 6:05 PM

For those of you who haven't heard the original 1938 radio broadcast, you can listen to it from the following webpage, http://forejustice.org/md/wow.htm

-- Posted by FJGuy on Mon, Oct 29, 2007, at 8:00 PM
Madeline Dejournett's response:
Wow! Thanks, FJGuy! I have a dial up connection, and yet the broadcast comes through loud and clear! I remember that neat, tinny music coming from "atop the Clairmont Hotel," as the program begins. They did a good job in making the events sound real. I can see why so many people were fooled.

It is a common trait for humans to fall for supposedly alarming events and financial scams that in retrospect seem ridiculous. Charles Mackay wrote about that phenomena more than 150 years ago in a book that is still in print: "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds"

Orson Wells' radio broadcast effectively tapped into the gullibility of people to uncritically believe a falsehood and respond as if it is true.

-- Posted by FJGuy on Tue, Oct 30, 2007, at 4:06 PM

I know you are entirely accurate, but I would prefer to think of myself as more "trusting" than "gullible!"

-- Posted by bringwine on Tue, Oct 30, 2007, at 9:52 PM
Madeline Dejournett's response:
Hey, guys, I have it on good authority that this Sunday's Nov. 4 espisode of "Cold Case" is going to refer back to the "War of the Worlds" braodcast.

The murder of a woman who vanished in 1938 during Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast is investigated when her body turns up in a well. The probe reveals the victim's family prepared to outrun the aliens they believed were invading the U.S.

It just keeps living on, doesn't it?

MD, thanks for the viewing tip!

BW, you can be both trusting and gullible. You can trust people who deserve it, while you are vulnerable to being gullible with those who don't. The problem comes when confusing the two groups of people.

-- Posted by FJGuy on Sat, Nov 3, 2007, at 1:09 PM

I finally got to see the Cold Case episode based on the Orson Wells program. Very, very cool, I thought! I love the clothing styles from that era - so elegant! I wonder if they'll ever say that about our styles? Somehow, I doubt it.

-- Posted by goat lady on Sun, Nov 25, 2007, at 8:09 PM


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Madeline DeJournett
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Madeline (Giles) DeJournett is the Advance writer for the North Stoddard Countian. A retired high school English/history teacher, she spent 32 years teaching in 5 schools in Missouri and Alaska. These days, she lives quietly with a menagerie of wild and domestic animals on 52 secluded acres in the remote Tillman hills south of Advance. She graduated from Dexter High School in 1960 and Southeast Missouri State in 1964. She can be contacted at advancensc@sbcglobal.net or by phone at 573-722-5322.
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