75 years ago today, Orson Welles perpetrated the greatest Halloween trick of all time. His live, radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic 1898 science fiction novel, “The War of the Worlds,” inadvertently duped scores of listeners into thinking Earth was in fact being invaded by belligerent Martians.
Welles was an innovative dramatist on both stage and radio in 1938. He hadn’t hit Hollywood yet. “Citizen Kane,” his feature film directorial debut, was still three years away. Howard Koch and Anne Froelick adapted the Wells novel. They took the novel approach of depicting the Martian invasion through fictitious special reports interrupting a program of live dance music. The technique had been used a couple of times before, though not with the results Welles achieved. The setting was changed from Victorian England to modern day Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, which only ratcheted up the verisimilitude. There were a couple of on-air disclaimers that the show was fiction, and listeners paying attention would have noticed that the events are said to be taking place in 1939, a year ahead of the air date.
It wasn’t enough to keep some listeners, some estimates placing the number well over a million, from believing that they were listening to an actual Martian invasion. Actual panic erupted in some quarters, and a blackout in the state of Washington was widely believed to be the result of the Martians blasting power lines.
All Hell broke loose afterwards. Network switchboards were flooded; outraged listeners wrote their Congressmen. CBS avoided Congressional hearings and official punishment, although it has been widely reported that the network did have promise authorities it would never again allow the phrase “we interrupt this program” to be used for dramatic effect. Numerous lawsuits, all dismissed, were filed alleging mental anguish.
You just don’t get fun like this anymore. Alien invasions beat egging houses any day.
Eventually “The War of the Worlds” made its way to the big screen, first in George Pal’s 1953 version, directed by Byron Haskins, and then Steven Spielberg’s 2005 remake. Both versions featured contemporary American settings. Although H.G. Wells and Jules Verne are the original steampunk writers, and the bulk of their novels have been adapted with period settings, “The War of the Worlds” remains a solidly contemporary story. You can certainly thank Orson Welles for that.
On October 31, 1975, a made-for-TV movie, “The Night that Panicked America,” dramatizing the events surrounding the Welles broadcast, aired on ABC. Paul Shenar played Orson Welles. Vic Morrow, Meredith Baxter-Birney, Michael Constantine, Tom Bosley, Walter McGinn, Will Geer and John Ritter co-starred.
Nothing, however, is going to equal the hoopla of that original night before Halloween. And more’s the pity.