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The Great Halloween HoaxPosted 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.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 573-722-5322.