Oct. 26, 2023

Halloween broadcast of notorious War of the Worlds radio drama turns 85

UCalgary plans 2024 library exhibition of rare collection of works and letters by H.G. Wells, the father of science fiction
War of the Worlds
Illustration by Warwick Goble from The War of the Worlds, published in Pearson's Magazine, 1897. UCalgary Libraries and Cultural Resources

The CBS Radio broadcast began calmly enough on the evening of Oct. 30, 1938, with a weather report and the soothing sounds of a live musical performance from a hotel ballroom.

Then came the freakish news bulletins which rapidly escalated from the strange — reports of a presumed meteorite landing in a farmer’s field in New Jersey — to the horrifying. Creatures emerging from an alien spacecraft, incinerating local officials with some sort of ... heat ray(?!). A panicked reporter described the scene of surreal terror, and then, abruptly, the audio feed went dead.

War of the Worlds

Pearson's Magazine, 1897: 'The mounted policeman came galloping through the confusion with his hands clasped over his head.'

UCalgary Libraries and Cultural Resources

Frenzied news updates followed, detailing a full-blown alien invasion which had annihilated a helpless United States military. From the rooftop of a Manhattan skyscraper a news correspondent relayed the unbelievable, citizens fleeing in horror as towering Martian “war machines” released clouds of black, poisonous smoke. Then, with a choke, another reporter fell silent.

Of course, it wasn’t a newscast at all but rather a radio drama, a Halloween episode of radio series The Mercury Theatre on the Air, narrated by director Orson Welles, adapted from H.G. Wells’ seminal science fiction novel, War of the Worlds, published in 1898.

Because the first half of the now infamous radio drama was presented in the format of an authentic newscast, thousands of listeners who missed the Mercury Theatre introduction were aghast when they tuned in. CBS Radio and police precincts from far and wide were flooded with frightened phone calls.

It’s now known that the tales of mass hysteria reported in newspapers across the country were greatly exaggerated, but its undeniable that Welles’ broadcast was genuinely shocking for many thousands of listeners, prompting fear, and, yes, in some extreme cases, true panic.

Today, as the 85th anniversary of Welles’ notorious broadcast approaches, it’s fair to say that the seasonal celebration of fright that is Halloween is bigger than ever. North Americans aren’t just celebrating it on the 31st with a night of trick or treating for the kids.

Now, the festivities get underway weeks in advance. Halloween wares appear in stores in early September, if not sooner, and television streaming services dedicate all of October to horror movies. Many a suburban home is “spookified” throughout the month and public and private costume parties are ever present. Only Christmas comes with greater anticipation.

War of the Worlds

Pearson's Magazine, 1897: 'Slowly a humped shape rose out of the pit.'

UCalgary Libraries and Cultural Resources

It's a curious phenomenon.  Fear is one of the most difficult emotions we humans experience. If fears are left unchecked, they can become a paralyzing, oppressive factor in our lives. So why have we dedicated an entire month to having fun with fright?

Dr. Peter Toohey, PhD, a professor in the Faculty of Arts’ Department of Classics and Religion, and a renowned expert and author on the history of emotions, says Halloween is more about fright than fear, and there is a difference.

“Fright is a fast, short-term feeling that gives us a big pump of adrenaline that can be really thrilling,” says Toohey. “A trick-or-treater walks up to a house decorated with scary images, and it gives them a bit of a buzz. It’s fun.

“But when fright persists, when we can’t control it or put an end to it, that’s when it can turn into fear. And persistent fear can be a distressing, harmful thing.”

Toohey notes that the emotion of fear is often rooted in deeper, underlying factors, such as depression or anxiety, and at the time of the War of the Worlds broadcast, American anxiety was at a high.

“The Second World War had begun on September 1, just two months before the Halloween broadcast, and Americans were terribly worried they would be dragged into the conflict,” says Toohey. “Along comes this wacky radio play, which sounds like a real news broadcast if you missed the intro, and it builds on this anxiety that already exists. In such moments fright can spiral into fear very quickly.”

Peter Toohey

Peter Toohey

UCalgary Archives

To be sure, the original H.G. Wells War of the Worlds, which first appeared in serialized form in 1897 issues of Britain’s Pearson’s Magazine, also tapped into the fears and prejudices of the Victorian Era, says Annie Murray, rare books and special collections librarian in Archives and Special Collections at the University of Calgary.

Special Collections is home to two extensive H.G. Wells collections full of rarities, such as the original Pearson’s Magazine periodicals (available online), letters written by the author, and all his published works in vintage form. Selected materials from the collection are currently being digitized and an H.G. Wells exhibition is planned for April at UCalgary’s Nickle Galleries.

In an era when imperialism was running rampant and Britain felt increasingly threatened by the rising German empire, War of the Worlds, with its terrifying tale of an all-powerful foreign invader employing advanced weaponry, “tapped into the deep paranoia of the times,” says Murray.

“While H.G. set War of the Worlds in the suburbs of London, Orson’s radio adaptation was set in New Jersey and New York, at specific locations,” Murray adds. “And because he used modern news techniques in the presentation, it seemed so convincing. Thousands of people heard it and completely freaked out.”

The descriptions of the Martians reigning terror over the cities in giant, robotic war machines, laying waste to human civilization with devastating heat rays and poisonous black smoke also played into American fears at the time, says Toohey.

“People had read the news and seen the newsreels of the Wehrmacht’s Panzer tanks and these devastating, lightning-fire Blitzkrieg attacks which left annihilation in their wake,” says Toohey. “Nobody had seen such things in Europe or the United States. And the stories of these unstoppable Martian death machines might have brought those real-world fears to mind.”

Annie Murray

Annie Murray

Andy Nichols

How did H.G. feel about Orson’s adaptation of his work and the pandemonium it caused?

“He was furious at first, and making threats that he might sue,” says Murray. “Then War of the Worlds started selling again, massively. He also had a new book coming out. So, he decided to ride the wave. And eventually, he did make peace with it. He even met Orson Welles in a 1940 radio interview, and they got along very well.”

Murray adds: “Orson Welles became famous for this crazy stunt, which wasn’t meant to be a stunt at all. He was only 23 years old at the time and it really put him on the map. And, of course, by 1941 he would direct and star in Citizen Kane, which is still considered to be one of the greatest films ever made. H.G. Wells considered it to be a masterpiece.”

“Certainly, both men ended up doing each other a great favour.”  

Herald front page

The front page of the Calgary Herald, the day after Orson Welles’ notorious radio broadcast. Coverage appeared under the headline, Play Starts Panic of Listeners

UCalgary Library and Cultural Resources

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