PBS revisits ‘War of Worlds’ hysteria

  • By Rich Heldenfels Akron Beacon Journal
  • Friday, October 25, 2013 4:43pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

On Oct. 31, 1938, the Akron Beacon Journal, as did many newspapers across the country, devoted a big chunk of its front page to three stories about a radio broadcast the night before.

In Akron alone, it was blamed for fainting spells, heart attacks and hundreds of calls to the Beacon Journal as part of a wave of “hysteria which swept the city, breaking up church meetings and frightening thousands.”

On Oct. 30 those 75 years ago, showman Orson Welles had flipped out significant portions of America with his radio play “The War of the Worlds.”

Welles, 23, had not yet shaken up cinema history with “Citizen Kane” but had already established a reputation as a wunderkind in theater and radio.

As part of Welles’ Mercury Theatre radio programs, writer Howard Koch adapted “War,” a then-40-year-old tale by H.G. Wells in which Martians invaded England and were stopped only when an Earth bacteria infected them.

For the radio version, the location was changed to America, with the names of real towns, including the invasion site of Grovers Mill, N.J.

The broadcast began with the announcement that it was a radio play, and other notices would come. But some listeners, probably tuned to ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy, Charlie McCarthy, switched over to the Welles program in progress, missing the opening.

Besides, the show itself felt real, full of urgency and fear.

As a result, many people sitting by their radios, already jittery about the clouds of war forming over Europe, believed that Martians had invaded not only New Jersey, but also the rest of the nation.

Welles finally announced that this was all just a Halloween tale.

Police investigated, the Federal Communications Commission examined it and city officials complained. Commentators weighed in, Welles expressed surprise and later regret, and an academic study tried to figure out who believed the broadcast and why.

While there were later screen adaptations of H.G. Wells’ story, the radio version achieved its own status.

PBS’s “American Experience” documentary series will present an hourlong look at the radio “War” at 9 p.m. Tuesday.

Watch it

“War” airs at 9 p.m. Tuesday on KCTS.

More in Life

Rose Johnson, 80, is a member of the Everett Area Newcomers Club, which meets and dines once a month at Sno-Isle Tech’s student-run Le Bistro Restaurant. (Dan Bates / The Herald)
Old-timers can join the Everett Area Newcomers Club

Everett group welcomes women for friendship and fun at multiple meet-ups.

From Jasper to Banff: A Canadian adventure in an RV

Jennifer Bardsley plans to take her family on two-week roadtrip through Canada in a tent trailer.

Skippers share sea stories at Marysville speaker series

The Bellingham couple will talk about charter cruises on the historic wooden vessel they rebuilt.

Expo in Stanwood can help you get ready for the country

The Country Living Expo and Cattlemen’s Winterschool is set for Jan. 27 at the high school.

Anxiety, or chronic worry, is a growing problem

Paul Schoenfeld shares four approaches to help keep your anxiety from getting out of control.

Find many of our region’s winter birds in the Skagit Valley

If you love birding, also check out these bird-related festivals, lectures and other events.

What’s new this year for travelers in England, Ireland

The nations are improving tourism infrastructures and adding exhibits to well-known sights.

A visit to the nursery helps put you in the mood to garden

Not ready to get back into gardening? January is still a fun time to poke around a garden center.

Plant of Merit: Hybrid oriental hellebores, Lenten rose

What: Oriental hybrid hellebores, with the common name Lenten rose, are a… Continue reading

Most Read