Radio drama gives nation a bad case of war jitters
Skilled word-craftsman that he is, author HG Wells ran second to reality when the panic that followed an Orson Welles broadcast of his book “War of the Worlds” far outdid in speed and scope his descriptions of mass fear. His books were noted for their imaginative pictures of interplanetary drama.
Producer Welles — in action
While he rehearsed the cast of the Mercury Theater of the Air in the HG Wells story “War of the Worlds,” producer Orson Welles little thought that their acting skill would send the nation into a panic.
Welles is shown, with hands upraised, directing the actors who are gathered, scripts in hand, around the microphone in the foreground. So realistic was the Welles production of the utterly imaginative tale of a descent upon earth of monstrous people from Mars, that radio listeners from New York to San Francisco and Canada to the Gulf of Mexico believed the catastrophe was really happening. Many were injured in the widespread panic that ensued.
How film depicted terror of a Martian invasion
Reality caught up with and surpassed art when the fictional panic pictured above became a thousand-fold fact through the entire United States. The photo is a scene from the movie version of HG Wells’ “Things to Come.” It shows a street scene in a city being destroyed by a “machine from Mars.”
When the Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater of the Air broadcast “War of the Worlds,” another Wells fantasy of an attack by Martians, thousands of listeners thought the horrors in the play were actually happening. In a hysteria of fear, they sought safety in flight, and many were injured. Some sought to fight the “invaders,” some tried suicide, while hundreds crowded churches to pray for aid against the “monsters.” The broadcast that caused a tidal wave of horror to sweep the country is being investigated by the Federal Communications Commission.
A real casualty of the make-believe “war” broadcast by the Mercury Theater of the Air was Caroline Cantlon, above, WPA actress. Hearing from her radio an announcement of “smoke in Times Square,” she started to rush downstairs. She fell, suffering the broken arm and bruised knees shown in the photo.
Listen to the War of the Worlds original broadcast
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Publication: Clearfield Progress (Clearfield, Pennsylvania)
Publication date: November 3, 1938