"We interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from Intercontinental Radio News. Twenty minutes before eight, Professor Farrell of the Mt. Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars..."
What I just read to you is a quote from the October 30, 1938, Orson Wells radio play of H. G. Wells', War of the Worlds. Though Orson Wells and H. G. Wells were not related, they shared a keen sense of just how to capture a person's attention--whether it be the reader of a book, or the listener of a radio program.
On October 30, 1938, my mother was sixteen years old, and she was sitting in her living room in Bangor, Maine, listening to the radio with her family. Like many Americans, they were intrigued by what they'd heard. My grandfather turned the radio up. What followed was a realistic breaking-news style description of a full-scale invasion from Mars. The first town to fall was Grover's Mills, New Jersey; in short order, New York City was under attack and the military was reportedly helpless in the face of the awesome heat rays of the Martian Forces.
In a panic, my grandfather grabbed at the telephone and called his relatives in Massachusetts, begging them to jump in their cars and drive as fast as they could to Maine where they would all plan their escape to Canada together. My mother, listening to the reports as New York fell to the Martians, broke down in tears.
My family was not the only one fooled that night. Tens of thousands of listeners from coast to coast took the broadcast to be factual. It is hard to imagine the state of mind people must have been in--convinced that aliens had come and that we could do nothing to stop them. Mercifully, the program was eventually interrupted for a commercial break and people began to catch on to the idea that it was a radio play.
H. G. Wells, the author of War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Invisible Man and The Island of Dr. Moreau, was reportedly, not amused, by the event, but the truth is Wells probably never reached more deeply into the souls of his audience than he did on that bizarre October evening when the Martians attacked.
Copyright 2002 © Kevin Shortsleeve
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