"2X2L calling CQ ... 2X2L calling CQ, New York ... Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't
Millions of Americans -- panic-stricken, many of them -- waited anxiously for a response to the message, delivered over
the CBS radio network in slow, flat, mournful tones on the crisp Halloween eve of Oct. 30, 1938.
"Isn't ... there ... anyone?"
There wasn't. Listeners heard only the slapping sounds of the Hudson River.
Many of New York's residents were dead. The others had fled in panic from "five great machines," as tall as
the tallest of the city's skyscrapers, that the radio announcer at CQ, New York, had described in the last words he would
ever utter. The metallic monsters had crossed the Hudson "like a man wading a brook," destroying all who stood in
"Our army is wiped out, artillery, air force -- everything wiped out," gasped the radio announcer.
It was the War of the Worlds, Mars versus Earth, and the Martians were winning with horrifying ease. Their giant machines
had landed in the New Jersey village of Grovers Mill, and soon they would be coming to your town, too ... and yours ... and
yours. Nothing could stop them.
The War of the Worlds had sprung with frightening clarity from the extremely fertile imagination of Orson Welles and
the other young members of the Mercury Theater of the Air who adopted Wells' novel and dramatized it so brilliantly -- and
believably -- from the CBS radio studios on that long ago Halloween eve.
Their use of realistic sounding bulletins and other tools of radio news departments made it sound as if Martian machines
truly were everywhere, and everywhere invincible.
Studies done at the time show that at least one million of the program's estimated six million listeners panicked.
"People all over the United States were praying, crying, fleeing frantically to escape death from the Martians,"
noted Hadley Cantril, an actual Princeton professor who directed the most detailed study of the panic that was caused in part
by the pronouncements of "Richard Pierson," a bogus Princeton professor played by Welles.
"Some ran to rescue loved ones. Others telephoned farewells or warnings, hurried to inform neighbors ... summoned
ambulances and police cars ... For weeks after the broadcast, newspapers carried human interest stories relating the shock
and terror of local citizens."
"When the Martians started coming north from Trenton we really got scared," a New Jerseyian told one of Professor
Cantril's interviewers. "They would soon be in our town. I drove right through Newberg and never even knew I went through
it ... I was going eighty miles an hour most of the way. I remember not giving a damn, as what difference did it make which
way I'd get killed."
Those who didn't join the streams of cars that clogged the highways clogged the phone lines or huddled in cellars and
living rooms to await the end, some with pitchfork, shotgun or Bible in hand.
"I knew it was something terrible and I was frightened," a woman recalled. "When they told us what road
to take, and to get up over the hills, and the children began to cry, the family decided to go. We took blankets and my granddaughter
wanted to take the cat and the canary."
It was an extremely rare occurrence., as Cantril noted: "Probably never before have so many people in all walks
of life and in all parts of the country become so suddenly and so intensely disturbed ..."
And never since then has the country experienced such deep and widespread fear and anxiety. Not even after Japan's surprise
attack on Pearl Harbor three years later. Not even in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
It was a unique display of widespread panic. Many people actually believed their very world was coming to an end and there
was nothing anyone could do to stop it.
Welles had made clear at the start that the presentation was fictional. But radio listeners generally paid little attention
to opening announcements, and many Sunday night listeners commonly turned first to the very popular Edgar Bergen-Charley McCarthy
show that was broadcast over another network in the same 8 p.m. time slot, turning to the Mercury Theater out of curiosity
What they heard that Sunday were primarily news reports and commentaries ingeniously patterned on the real reports and
commentaries that were constantly interrupting programs to report the aggressive actions of Nazi Germany and other events
that would shortly lead to the outbreak of World War II.
People expected to hear the worst. Most also expected that what they heard would be accurate, radio having supplanted
newspapers as the most trusted and relied upon of the mass media.
It helped, too, that much of the information was presented by "experts" ... Welles and other make-believe professors
from universities around the world, supposed astronomers, army officers and Red Cross officials, even the otherwise unidentified
"secretary of the interior."
"I believed the broadcast as soon as I heard the professor from Princeton and the officials in Washington,"
as one listener recalled.
Even relatively sophisticated and well-informed listeners were fooled by what Cantril cited as the program's "sheer
Events developed slowly, starting with the relatively credible -- brief news bulletins calmly reporting some "atmospheric
disturbances," later some "explosions of incandescent gas," and finally the discovery of what appeared to be
a large meteorite. Only then came the incredible -- the discovery that the "meteorite" was a Martian spaceship,
reported in a halting, incredulous manner by the "reporter" supposedly broadcasting live from Grovers Mill.
The police, the New Jersey State Guard, the army -- none could subdue the invaders. Finally, the "secretary of the
interior" announced that man could do no more, that the only hope for deliverance from the Martians was to "place
our faith in God."
Few listeners were in a position to make independent judgements about matters Martian. Few knew astronomy, and what standards
does one use to judge an invasion from Mars anyway?
Listeners could easily have turned to other radio networks for the truth, of course, but many were too caught up in the
masterful drama of the CBS program to think of that.
Even some people who lived near the alleged invasion site were fooled. "I looked out the window and everything was
the same as usual," said one, "so I thought it hadn't reached our section yet."
The second half of the hour-long broadcast, with "Professor Pierson" wandering dazedly through the deserted
and ravaged streets of New York, should have made it obvious to even the most gullible that they had been listening to drama
rather than news. Welles, shocked and shaken by the listener response, followed that quickly with an ad-libbed assurance that
it had all been make-believe.
But by then, many people had left their radios. They had other ways in which to spend their last hours on earth.
Copyright © 2009 Dick Meister