Past Times

Past Times: Orson Welles' broadcast frightened NC and the nation

October 29, 2013 

It was 75 years ago this week that Orson Welles terrified many across the nation with his radio adaptation of H.G. Welles’ novel “The War of the Worlds.”

Hysteria among radio listeners throughout the nation and actual panicky evacuations from sections of the metropolitan area resulted from a too-realistic radio broadcast tonight describing a fictitious and devastating visitation of strange men from Mars.

Excited and weeping persons all over the country swamped newspaper and police switchboards with the question:

“Is it true?”

It was purely a figment of H. G. Wells’ imagination, with some extra flourishes of radio dramatization by Orson Welles. It was broadcast by the Columbia broadcasting system.

But the anxiety was immeasurable.

The broadcast was an adaptation of Wells’ “War of the Worlds: in which meteors and gas from Mars menace the earth.

New York police were unable to contact the CBS studios by telephone so swamped was its switchboard, and a radio car was sent there for information.

A woman ran into a church in Indianapolis, screaming: “New York destroyed; it’s the end of the world. You might as well go home to die. I just heard it on the radio.” Services were dismissed immediately.

Five boys at a Brevard, N. C. college fainted, and panic gripped the campus for a half hour, with many students fighting for telephones to inform their parents to come and get them.

At Fayetteville, N. C., people with relatives in the section of New Jersey, where the mythical visitation had its locale, went to a newspaper office in tears, seeking information.

A message from Providence, R. I., said:

“Weeping and hysterical women swamped the switchboard of the Providence Journal for details of the massacre and destruction at New York and officials of the electric company received scores of calls urging them to turn off all lights so that the city would be safe from the enemy.”

Mass hysteria mounted so high in some cases that people told police and newspapers they “saw” the invasion....

It finally got so bad in New Jersey that the state police put reassuring messages on the state teletype, instructing their officers what it was all about.

And all this despite the fact that the radio play was interrupted four times for the announcement: “This is purely a fictional play.”

Newspaper switchboard operators quit saying, “hello.” They merely plugged in and said: “It’s just a radio show.”

The Times-Dispatch in Richmond, Va., reported some of their telephone calls came from people who said they were “praying.”

The Kansas City Bureau of the Associated Press received queries on the “meteors” from Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Beaumont, Tex., and St. Joseph, Mo., in addition to having its local switchboard flooded with calls.

One telephone informant said he had loaded all his children into his car, had filled it with gasoline, and was going somewhere.

“Where is safe?” he wanted to know....

Residents of Jersey City, N. J., telephoned their police frantically, asking where they could get gas masks. In both Jersey City and Newark, hundreds of citizens ran out into the streets....

After an introductory explanation by Welles at 8 p.m. (E.S.T.), an announcer gave a commonplace weather forecast. Then, in standard fashion, came the words: “We take you now to the ... Hotel where we will hear the music of ... etc.”

After a few bars of dance music there came “a bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News Bureau” saying there had been a gas explosion in New Jersey.

After that the bulletins came more and more rapidly with “Professor Pierson,” played by Welles, explaining about the attack by Mars and the little men who were pouring out of their meteor-like airplanes....

Mere armies and navies were wiped out right and left and the real radio audience was as frightened as the actors pretended to be. But then the little men acquired a lot of germs to which we men-of-the-world are virtually impervious. So the little men died and everybody lived happily ever after.

The action revolved around what might happen if monsters from Mars boarded flying machines which resembled meteors and called upon the earth with malice aforethought.

The whole thing was done realistically and in present tense. Before it reached its climax, with the monsters picking up germs and, very satisfactorily, dying, late tuner-inners were getting pretty upset....

Raleigh was not exempt from the radio hysteria. The News and Observer telephone switchboard was swamped with inquiries, and the telegraph editor had to deal with one hysterical telephone caller who said he was from Philadelphia and was in a frenzy of fear that something might happen to his folks in that area. The N&O 10/31/1938

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or tleonard@newsobserver.com

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