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.

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