On this day in 1938, our fragile, blue planet was savagely invaded by unyielding monsters from Mars. No one would have believed that our world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than our own. Creatures from beyond our world were intent on enslaving and consuming everyone. The mysterious alien overlords looked down upon our planet and decided that rural New Jersey was a perfect spot for an invasion.
Well, not really.
Many people tuning into a special Halloween episode of the American radio drama anthology series Mercury Theatre on the Air didn’t pay attention and subsequently believed what they heard. For some, it seemed as if the end of human civilization was at hand. Panic ensued. In actuality, the invasion was merely an adaptation of H. G. Wells‘ novel The War of the Worlds being broadcast over the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network. The entire event was directed and narrated by Orson Welles.
What started out as entertainment became a historical lesson in the importance of critical thinking. Why did so many people loose all sense of reality and come to the conclusion that beings from another world were successfully overtaking the earth? Today, this sort of behavior seems ridiculous. A 1995 National Geographic article about the event points out the radio dramatization genuinely replicated how radio worked in a state of emergency. Furthermore, according to sociologist Robert E. Bartholomew in his 1998 treatise, The Martian Panic Sixty Years Later: What Have We Learned, the vividness of descriptions from the radio drama (specific details such as smells, sights, sounds, et cetera) and the overactive imagination of the listeners generated panic on a massive scale.
With fright night just around the corner, why not listen to the broadcast and ponder the necessity of careful listening? Eager audiophiles can access the historical (some might even say hysterical) recording at the sites below:
- The War of the Worlds via the Internet Archive
- The War of the Worlds via the Mercury Theatre on the Air site
- The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry is an excellent resource for honing better thinking. This site is all about pursuing the power of scientific inquiry, critical thinking, as well as the application of reason in analyzing key ideas and controversial topics.
- Although it was written back in 1995, the Study Guide for H. G. Wells: The War of the Worlds (1898) composed by Paul Brians of Washington State University is well worth reading.
- PublicLiterature.org offers The War of the Worlds in many formats.
- Dr. Chez Zeus has a marvelous timeline of War of the Worlds book covers! Think the covers are intriguing? Check out the interior illustrations.
- One can’t talk about Mars in literature without mentioning the exquisite works of Ray Bradbury. In his stirring collection of tales, The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury turns the classic sci-fi invasion trope on its head. Strange interlopers from barbaric Earth overrun and devastate the enlightened planet Mars. Bradbury’s tales, along with other stories, were made into episodes that aired on Dimension X , an NBC radio program that broadcast from 1950 to 1951. You’ll find a few of his stories (along with other sc-fi gems) at OldTimeRadioDownloads.