Mercury Theater In The Air
Orson Welles attempts to explain to the press about his Halloween eve broadcast of War Of The Worlds. Millions panicked after mistaking his fictional newscasts of a Martian invasion as real.
The Mercury Theater on the Air wasn't a regular horror series, but it did feature horror and mystery stories, including "Dracula" and "The Immortal Sherlock Holmes." One story in particular made Mercury Theater so infamous, that it has become the best known Sci-fi/horror program radio ever aired. That story, of course, was the adaption of H.G.Wells' War of the Worlds. Even people who know very little about OTR know that "War of the Worlds" was so convincing, that most of America really believed that Martians were invading Earth, and a nationwide panic ensued. But as Mark Twain once said, "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." And unfortunately, the War of the World-wide-panic just ain't so.
There, I said it. Light the torches and fire up the Inquisition.
Downplaying the impact of the "War of the Worlds" broadcast is viewed as blasphemy by some in the OTR community. The broadcast remains one of radio's big claims to fame, proof of how influential radio was in its heyday. Only an OTR-hater would pooh-pooh its importance (or so some fans believe). But I disagree. Classic radio drama is strong enough to stand on its own merits without the help of hype.
These are the facts. The most timely study on the effects of the broadcast was conducted by Hadley Cantril, a professor at Princeton. He published his results in 1940 as The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic. The estimated audience of the controversial broadcast began at around one million (based on average Crossley ratings of previous Mercury Theater shows). The number increased to just over six million by the middle of the program. Of those six million, Cantril's data suggests that less than a third (1.7 million) mistook the program as actual news. About 20% (1.2 million listeners) were concerned enough to act on their fear, be it a minor action (like calling a friend), or something major (like packing the car to flee). Given that the competing program had an audience of around 30 million, and that the US population in 1938 was around 130 million, scaring 1.2 million people is hardly a nation wide panic. (It's less than 1%.)
If it wasn't as big of a deal as we've been led to believe, why was it blown out of proportion in the first place? Who can say for sure, but two reasons come to the forefront of my mind:
2. It helped sell newspapers. It was a great story because it had all the ingredients of a sensational narrative (monsters, panic, famous celebrities, etc.). It also had the added advantage of embarrassing radio, which was newspaper's main rival and one that many reporters envied. After all, certain radio reporters were becoming big celebrities while most newspapermen were still working in abject obscurity. This happened a decade before commercial television, and newsreels in the cinema weren't much of a threat because they offered older news. Radio had the advantage of being faster than newspapers in reporting late breaking events, and the print guys were more than happy to pounce on the new medium's apparent handicap. A constant subtext in the 12,500 news articles written on the Welles broadcast in the month that followed it was that radio couldn't be trusted for news the way the newspapers could.
Now that we've punctured the publicity bubble a bit, let's re-inflate it to the proper level. Successfully terrifying over a million people is still a major accomplishment for a radio horror program. Arch Oboler's most controversial Light's Out program ("Burial Services") generated over 50,000 letters to NBC, a record response. That's not even 1/25th the people than Welles' program motivated into action. Also, consider the intensity of the reaction. Most of the Lights Out letters were motivated by outrage, whereas most of the Mercury Theater's responses were motivated by fear. Clearly, "The War of the Worlds" created a bigger response than any other radio broadcast before or since. And that's not hype, that's history.
So why did it work so well? One reason is because no such hoax had ever been pulled before on the air (at least not in America). People accepted what they heard on the radio at face value, because the news announcements were always reliable before. Remember, the first half of the program was designed to sound just like an actual newscast of a disaster, complete with built-in chaos and confusion. (In fact, Welles played recordings of the Hindenberg disaster to actor Frank Readick, so he could better imitate the dialog of a newscaster witnessing mass death. Another actor did a spot-on imitation of FDR making defiant statements about America fighting the invaders, even though the President's name and office were not mentioned.)
Another factor was that a super popular show at the time, The Chase and Sanborn Hour (with Edgar Bergan and Charlie McCarthy), happened to feature an operatic singer (Nelson Eddy) about 15 minutes into their show. Listeners who began scanning across the radio dial in search of something different stumbled across "The War of the Worlds" program, right as the disturbing newscasts began pouring in. They had missed the first disclaimer and another one wouldn't be issued until 40 minutes into the program. Some of the audience checked other stations, but found no mention of an emergency, so many tuned back to the one station that seemed to have the scoop. They were drawn further and further into the story, until finally, it sounded like an all out invasion was underway. No one wants to be the last car in a traffic jam, so not surprisingly, many didn't wait around for official instructions. They started to react on their own.
Also, The Mercury Theater was a sustaining program (without commercials). Once people were listening, the momentum of the invasion illusion kept building, without any commercials to break (or weaken) the effect of that illusion.
Another consideration is that there were already widespread pre-war jitters in America in 1938. Hitler was on the move in Europe, and the Germans had just occupied the Sudetenland (a portion of Czechoslovakia) two weeks earlier. Most Americans were worried that we were heading toward a second world war just two decades after the first, and this time, there were no guarantees that the fighting wouldn't be "over here."
The stories of the effected listener's reactions makes great reading. Rumors became widespread. Entire theaters emptied when word was passed along that certain husbands had been paged by their wives to return home for "the national emergency." Various police stations were swamped with calls from concerned citizens. When the switchboards became jammed denying the rumor, other callers who couldn't get through assumed the worst, hitting the street and passing on the rumor by way of mouth. It is said the location of the first Martian craft in the story (Grover's Mill, NJ) started filling up with anxious crowds and police were called to keep order. This created more of a scene for those who showed up later and saw crowds of people and flashing police lights. The town water tower was struck by gunfire, apparently mistaken as one of the tripods in the story.
And those are only the tip of the iceberg! A man in Pittsburgh said he returned home in the midst of the broadcast and found his wife in the bathroom, a bottle of poison in her hand, and screaming: "I'd rather die this way than like that."
In Indianapolis a woman ran into a church screaming: "New York destroyed; it's the end of the world. You might as well go home to die. I just heard it on the radio." Services were dismissed immediately.
In Concrete, Washington, there was a loud explosion and a black-out occurred at the same time similar chaos was occurring during the broadcast "invasion." Some listeners fainted while others grabbed their families to head into the mountains.
Newspapers were filled with accounts like the one of Samuel Tishman of 100 Riverside Drive. He was one of the multitude that fled into the streets of New York. He declared that hundreds of persons evacuated their homes fearing that "the city was being bombed."
"I came home at 9:15 P.M. just in time to receive a telephone call from my nephew who was frantic with fear. He told me the city was about to be bombed from the air and advised me to get out of the building at once. I turned on the radio and heard the broadcast which corroborated what my nephew had said, grabbed my hat and coat and a few personal belongings and ran to the elevator. When I got to the street there were hundreds of people milling around in panic. Most of us ran toward Broadway and it was not until we stopped taxi drivers who had heard the entire broadcast on their radios that we knew what it was all about. It was the most asinine stunt I ever heard of."
You get the point. But it's also worth noting the effect a similar broadcast had in another country, over a decade later. In 1949 in the capitol of Ecuador, Radio Quito played a Spanish version of a similar Martian invasion story. Small changes in the plot included the invaders approaching the city in a "giant cloud." A concerned audience went outside, saw the cloud, and panic ensued. When the station heard about the chaos, they announced on the air that the broadcast wasn't real, and that's when the audience mood went from fear to fury. A mob converged on the station and found the doors locked. They set the building on fire. Most of the staff escaped out the back, but others were trapped on the upper floor. They tried to form a human chain to climb down, but it broke and sent victims to the pavement below. The emergency services had left town go to nearby Cotocallao to combat the Martians and their destruction. When they finally returned to Quito, the mob attacked the policemen and removed fire hydrants to stop anyone from putting out the fire. Between 6 and 20 people were killed. Over $350,000 in damage was caused (in 1949 dollars). And the producer of the show became a vilified man-on-the-run.
Moral to the story: Orson Welles got off easy. He not only wasn't fired, he was catapulted into stardom. Oh sure, there were apologies and public "my bad" speeches, but "The War of the Worlds" made him an overnight sensation, and it put The Mercury Theater on the map. Welles continued on for a few more seasons after the series received sponsorship from Campbell's Soup, and then he went to Hollywood to direct Citizen Kane in 1941. It became one of the most influential films of all time. His pals back at The Campbell's Playhouse, including John Houseman (co-producer), Howard Koch (writer), and Bernard Herrmann (music) did well too. All in all, it was a pretty happy ending to a story about the end of the world. And it provided Radio one of its most interesting historical events... even if it does tend to get exaggerated.
Welles reads a radio script while relaxing in his $600 a month Hollywood home, a princely estate by the depression era standards of the day. (Circa 1939.)
Read specific stories about the panic (and in many instances, how it was exaggerated) here.
A Standard Opening:
Announcer: "The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and The Mercury Theatre on the Air in 'The War of the Worlds' by H. G. Wells.
(Music plays, then fades.)
Announcer: "Ladies and gentlemen, the director of The Mercury Theatre and star of these broadcasts, Orson Welles."
An Opening Narration:
Welles: "We know now that in the early years of the 20th century, this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own. We know now that as human beings busied themselves about their various concerns, they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacence, people went to and fro over the earth about their little affairs, serene in the assurance of their dominion over this small, spinning fragment of solar driftwood which, by chance or design, man had inherited out of the dark mystery of Time and Space. Yet across an immense ethereal gulf, minds that are to our minds as ours are to the beasts of the jungle, intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly but surely drew their plans against us..."
An Ending Narration:
Welles: "This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that 'The War of the Worlds' has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying 'Boo!' Starting now, we couldn't soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night, so we did the next best thing: We annihilated the world before your very ears and utterly destroyed the CBS. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn't mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So goodbye everybody, and remember please, for the next day or so, the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian. It's Halloween."
A Typical Closing:
(SFX: Music plays, the fades under narration.)
Announcer: "Tonight the Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations coast-to-coast have brought you 'The War of the Worlds' by H.G. Wells... The seventeenth in its weekly series of dramatic broadcasts featuring Orson Welles and The Mercury Theatre on the Air. Next week, we present a dramatization of three famous short stories. This is the Columbia Broadcasting System."
(SFX: Music fades up to conclusion.)
Hear An Actual Episode!
(Courtesy of Botar)
Dracula - 7/11/1938 The famous Bram Stoker tale of the king of vampires.
The War of The Worlds - The H.G. Wells classic sci-fi story about an invasion of Earth by an advanced, but ruthless, alien force.
The Hitchhiker (Courtesy of Archive.org) - A cross country driver keeps seeing the same man wanting a lift, even as he passes him again and again.
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Hear up to 7 different episodes of Mercury Theater In The Air in RealPlayer!
(RealPlayer allows you to continue to browse other sites while you listen.)
Article by Jack French about the Halloween hoax, and a rebuttal that the hoax was widely believed can be read here (from Radio Recall).
Hear H.G. Wells speaking with Orson Welles. (This short conversation between the two men originally broadcast on KTSA San Antonio, Tx on October 28, 1940) They discuss the book, the broadcast, and a new film Wells was working on that few imagined would become so influential. (Courtesy of EnteringTheMindseye.com)
See also the YouTube movies about Orson Wells and "the War of the Worlds"
Read what happened when another station pulled a similar prank in Ecuador. (Hint: A riot left up to 20 dead and 15 injured.)
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rev. 8.9.09 © 2007 Monsterwax Sci-fi & Horror Monster Cards