Halloween 1938 – A Scary Night Indeed

Here we are coming up on the witching season of Halloween a holiday that calls for haunted houses, rattling skeletons and witches to entertain children.  Halloween isn’t just scary for children though, there are plenty of things that have happened to adults around Halloween to give a little thrill of anticipation to this special night.  The State of Washington has had its share of scary things go on during the week around Halloween, according to HistoryLink.org, – the online encyclopedia of Washington History.  The site recounts an assortment of murders, solved and unsolved, regional wars and a list of other not-so-savory events in state history occurring around Halloween.

The grandfather of all Halloween pranks was a national event, Orson Welles October 30, 1938 radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds,” and it was probably not designed as a prank. While Welles was only 23 years old at the time, he was a successful radio personality voicing “The Shadow” in a hit radio mystery and  heading up a radio theater company called Mercury Theater.

The Company had decided to present an updated version of H.G. Wells classic science fiction novel in a dramatic form.  October 30 in 1938 was a Sunday and the Mercury Theater Company had the 8 PM time slot – prime time for radio listeners.  The show on CBS radio had a large following but so did NBC’s show starring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy at the same time.  Mercury Theater began its production with an introduction of the radio play that many people never heard – tuning in to the CBS program after the Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy skit had ended at about 8:12 PM.  By then, the show was well under way.

Welles had followed the introduction with a weather report, then cut away to the Park Plaza Hotel for a musical interlude.  As the band played dance music, an announcer broke in with a news flash that the Mount Jenning Observatory had seen explosions on Mars.  The dance music returned briefly till the announcer broke in again to report a meteor had crashed into a farmer’s field in New Jersey.

Within minutes an announcer was reporting from the crash site itself describing a being emerging from a large cylinder.  The description of the creature was detailed and horrific.  Worse yet, as more emerged, they began firing ray guns at the people who were beginning to gather around the site.

War was underway and the invaders soon destroyed a troop of 7,000 National Guardsmen and began to release poisonous gas into the atmosphere.  Artillery and bombers were called in to attack the invaders; reports were coming in of additional Martian landings in Chicago and St Louis.

The radio play was so realistic that as many as a million listeners really believed an invasion was underway.  There was panic around the country from traffic jams in New Jersey to people begging police for gas masks to save them from the toxic gas and asking electric companies to turn off the power so the Martians wouldn’t see their lights.
Contemporary accounts of the event listed dozens of first person observations of panic, often followed by indignation, though the New York Times noted that to believe the story one had to ignore not only the introduction but several announcements of the dramatization during commercials. The New York Daily News reported the broadcast “created almost unbelievable scenes of terror in New York, New Jersey, the South and as far west as San Francisco between 8 and 9 o’clock last night.”

Although there were investigations of the program, the Federal Communications Commission determined no laws had been broken.  In fact, there had been regular notices before and throughout the program indicating its dramatic nature.  Welles himself was concerned at the response to the program, but it didn’t seem to hurt him much.  He went on from Radio to Hollywood where he wrote, directed and starred in “Citizen Kane.”

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