Arguably, the greatest Halloween prank ever perpetrated occurred in 1938, when Orson Welles directed and was the narrator in an adaptation of H.G. Well’s book, The War of the Worlds, on the radio show Mercury Theatre. The first two-thirds of the 60-minute broadcast were presented as a news bulletin, which was alleged to have led to panic and mass hysteria spreading across the U.S. At least that’s what many newspapers reporting on the show would have their readers believe.
Actually, the panic was small, wrote Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow in their October 28, 2013, article, The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic (slate.com).
Still, the alleged panic is what is most believed today, and has been perpetrated by well-respected TV networks such as PBS. In its American Experience series, the U.S.-based Public Broadcasting System, restated and emphasized the panic arising from the October 30, 1938, broadcast.
The 1938 radio show was cleverly crafted. Ominous news bulletins about a Martian invasion interrupted so-called regular programing which in reality was part of the radio play. Welles is heard as world-famous astronomer and Princeton professor, Richard Pierson, who dismisses speculation about life on Mars in an interview with reporter Carl Phillips played by Frank Readick. Their interview is interrupted by the ominous news of a cylindrical meteorite landing in a farmer’s field in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. Reporter Phillips tells of the cylinder unscrewing and onlookers catching a glimpse of a tentacled Martian inside before it incinerates the crowd of 200 people with heat-rays. The invasion was on.
An announcer in New York said: “The bells you hear ringing are to warn the people to evacuate the city as the Martians approach ... our army wiped out. This may be the last broadcast ...”
According to subsequent reports, CBS supervisor Davidson Taylor received a telephone call in the control room, left the studio and returned four minutes later, “pale as death.” He had been ordered to interrupt the broadcast immediately with an announcement of the program’s fictional content. During the sign-off theme, the phone began ringing. Houseman picked it up and the furious caller announced he was mayor of a Midwestern town where mobs were in the streets. Houseman hung up quickly: “For we were off the air now and the studio door had burst open.”
After the broadcast, the building filled with people and police. Hustled out of the studio, we were locked into a small back office on another floor, according to producer John Houseman Network employees busily collected, destroyed or locked up all scripts and records of the broadcast. “Finally the press was let loose upon us, ravening for horror. How many deaths had we heard of? (Implying they knew of thousands.) What did we know of the fatal stampede in a Jersey hall? (Implying it was one of many.) What traffic deaths? (The ditches must be choked with corpses.) The suicides?
Paul White, head of CBS News, was quickly summoned to the office — “and there bedlam reigned,” he wrote.
Welles was reported by Houseman as saying, “I’m through, washed up.”
“I didn’t bother to reply to this highly inaccurate self-appraisal. I was too busy writing explanations to put on the air, reassuring the audience that it was safe. I also answered my share of incessant telephone calls, many of them from as far away as the Pacific Coast.”
Shortly after midnight one of the cast told Welles that news about the The War of the Worlds was being flashed in Times Square. They immediately left the theatre and, standing on the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street, they read the lighted bulletin that circled the New York Times building: “Orson Welles causes panic.”
Even the Winnipeg Free Press reported on the panic: “Some apartment houses in New York were emptied hurriedly by frantic listeners to the programme — and by second and third hand accounts that multiplied the impending peril.”
“The United States radio industry viewed yesterday a hobgoblin more terrying to it than any Hallowe’en spook,” claimed the Associated Press. In fact, because of the broadcast there were immediate calls of censorship of radio programming by the Federal Communications Committee. An agreement was subsequently reached between the radio networks and the commission that radio programs would not use fictional “news” flashes in the future.
“Scores of women fainted, hundreds deserted homes in alarm and headed in automobiles for the country to escape annihilation.”
Subsequent investigations of individual incidents that were reported, revealled most were indeed false or questionable at best.
In reality, the mass panic was greatly exaggerated. In 2003, American University media historian, W. Joseph Campbell, wrote that the panic didn’t occur on anything approaching a nationwide dimension.
“In the first place, most people didn’t hear (the show),” said Frank Stanton, later president of CBS. “But those who did hear it, looked at it as a prank and accepted it that way.” According to the C. E. Hooper company, the main radio ratings service at the time, only two per cent of the 5,000 people it called up while the program aired said they were listening to the program. Most people were listening to The Chase and Sanborn Hour, the most popular program in that time slot.
Contemporary newspaper editors quickly dropped the so-called scare from their pages, which was an acknowledged that a close scrutiny of the initial reports were fraught with exaggeration — although in the retelling of the panic over the years the exaggerations have been perpetrated. Northwestern University’s Jeffrey Sconce in Haunted Media said the story is retold because we need a cautionary tale about the power of media, just as people today have fear of the power of the Internet in the form of mind control, lost privacy and attacks from scary, mysterious forces.
“This the fear that animates our fantasy of panicked hordes — both then and now,” wrote Pooley and Socolow.
Another ulterior reason behind the reports in newspapers was that print wanted to discredit radio as a source of news. During the Great Depression, newspapers were losing advertising dollars to radio. “Even today, broadcast networks must convince advertisers that they retain commanding powers over their audiences,” according to Pooley and Socolow. In later years, CBS would continually celebrate the 1938 broadcast to emphasize its command over audiences, although the celebrations were based on a myth.
When The War of the Worlds author, H.G. Wells, later met Welles, he expressed good-natured skepticism about the actual extent of the panic caused by “this sensational Halloween spree. Are you sure there was such a panic in America or wasn’t it your Halloween fun?”
What had been a good Halloween tale has become noted as a prank that went terribly wrong in more ways than one.