HISTORIC HYSTERIA

Alien

On October 30th, 1938, actor Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre Group caused a nation-wide panic with a radio broadcast of a play adapted from the science fiction novel, The War of The Worlds, by H.G. Wells. That this was just a play was clearly stated in the introduction, but close to a million of the six million or so listeners missed that bit. They thought they were hearing a real radio broadcast warning them that a Martian spaceship had landed on a farm near Grovers Mill, New Jersey and Earth was under attack. Those in the immediate vicinity responded by grabbing guns, holing up in cellars, gathering in churches, or packing up their cars and fleeing. There were also several announcements during the programme reiterating that it was just a story, but they didn’t hear those either (probably because they were busy grabbing guns, holing up in cellars, gathering in churches, or packing up cars and fleeing.) All in all, it caused quite a stir, and people were not amused with Orson and company’s Halloween ‘trick’.

The broadcast can be found at http://archive.org/details/OrsonWellesMrBruns. Play it for modern kids, and chances are they’ll find it “lame” – unless you explain that, back in 1938, that was exactly how real radio news programmes sounded. It also helps to know that science fiction had not yet become popular and familiar, and the world, in general, was a little on edge because of Hitler’s activities over in Germany. Suggest they picture themselves switching TV channels ten minutes into the hour and seeing familiar newscasters presenting a report on a Martian invasion using visual footage similar to what they might see in a report on a modern terrorist attack. They might then get a better idea of why that programme caused such a panic, even if it isn’t too likely that it would now. Or would it? Ask them what they think.

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