Guest Post: Neil Verma on Martians Redux

They're coming. Again.


October 13, 2013

My friend Neil Verma is Collegiate Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago, where he teaches media, cinema, art history, and literature. His book, Theater of the Mind: Imagination, Aesthetics, and American Radio Drama (U of Chicago 2012), was winner of the Best First Book Award from the Society for Cinema & Media Studies.

Neil’s previous post at
IHE, on the first casualty of war, is here.  --Churm


The Four Hoaxes of the Martian Invasion
by Neil Verma

This month marks the 75th anniversary of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast, the most famous radio play ever aired. I’m working with a group of fans and scholars on a project in which we’re asking listeners across the country to “live-tweet” the invasion (using the hashtag #WOTW75) at the same time: October 30th, starting at 8 pm Eastern, when the program went to air in 1938.

We want to remind everyone that behind decades of fables of the so-called “panic” over the play, there’s still a crisp and engaging drama. We also want to create a record of what it’s like to listen to the piece in a contemporary way. Interested? Join up here to learn more.

The Four Hoaxes

The first one you’ve heard about. The radio play, written by Howard Koch in just six days, starts at 8:00 on the night before Halloween in 1938, and most people miss the set-up because they’re on the other side of the dial listening to Charlie McCarthy’s opening, which was always the best bit. Or they’re putting the kids to bed, parking the car, whatever. By the time they switch over to CBS—six million of them—well, they don’t know what they’re listening to is all a gag, see? Some of them figure it out, but a million or so don’t.

Now maybe you believe that the Munich crisis with the Nazis a month before put everybody on edge. Maybe you believe what Edward R. Murrow said, that Halloween had awakened “primitive man’s instinctive terror of the great unknown.” He said that, sure. Maybe you’re one of those types that goes in for “theories,” and you reckon that folks just have a kind of vulnerability to media messages that you can measure and turn into a dollar if you happen to sell soup for a living.

We’ll never know. We don’t even know what happened, let alone why. There are tall tales about heart attacks and miscarriages, refugees in the woods for months, suicides, a whole canon of “War of the Worlds” Apocrypha. Motorists did tear up and down North Jersey in fear of aliens roaming the state, and terrified sorority girls did huddle together awaiting the poison Martian gas, lamenting they’d never grow up.  In Providence, the electric company received calls from citizens urging them to cut out the lights to keep the city safe from the enemy; in Newark, dozens were treated for shock; in Boston, families gathered on their rooftops swearing they could see the fires of New York. Around Grover’s Mill, New Jersey—the scene of the Martian landing—water towers were shot up by would-be defenders of the planet.

Riots? Looting? Mass hallucinations? Well…sure: riots, riots everywhere. Whatever you say. In the Herald Tribune a few days later, columnist Dorothy Thompson called this dizzy set of events the “story of the century,” and proposed handing Welles a medal for showing Americans their folly.

But what about his folly? In tales of the hoax Welles pulled on America, we sometimes forget the second hoax, which America pulled on Welles.  

I mean, imagine you’re 23-year old O.W.

Week in and week out you’re playing The Shadow on air, writing, producing and directing hour-long, highly literate radio, and every night rehearsing for involved plays like Danton’s Death and Marlowe’s Faust. And that’s all just a sideline. Really, you’re working on the main project of your life—relentless, relentless self-promotion.

You’re behind the microphone, directing a dozen actors as you play the hero of the radio play, Professor Pierson. Meanwhile, concerned phone calls start coming in to newspapers, and pretty soon to police stations and to CBS. New Jersey switchboards see an increase in call volume of some 39 per cent that night, and some network stations have calls shoot up by some 500 per cent. Worried, you and your troupe alter lines on the spot, inserting reminders that it’s all a play, and nearly 60 per cent of stations carrying the broadcast make similar announcements of their own. Then, once everything wraps up and the Martians are dead? Well, the police sweep in to the station and next thing you know you and your people are tossed in front of the microphones at a press conference, through which you stammer, shell-shocked.

Welles’ effusive apology is embarrassing to hear: “I know that almost anyone in radio would do almost anything to avert the kind of thing that has happened, myself included […] Radio is new and we are learning about the effect it has on people….” On October 31st, there were some 2,000 stories about the scandal in newspapers across the country.

Now imagine Welles’ surprise when, finally released into the New York morning, he found no bodies in the streets, no burning buildings, and everything proceeding much as normal. He’d been had. Indeed, in the days that followed, the aftermath was dull. Of the $750,000 in lawsuits brought against the network, nothing was ever substantiated and not a nickel ever paid. Producer John Houseman recalled that despite reports of blood in the streets across America, the only confirmed casualty was a single woman with a broken arm.

At the time, Welles swore up and down that the whole thing was a mistake, although he walked that back, later in life. Whatever the truth is, Welles was humane about it. When he learned that one George Bates, a worker in Massachusetts, had taken $3.25 he had been saving up for shoes and bought a bus ticket to flee the Martians, Welles cut him a check.  In 1974, recalling “War” in his film F is For Fake, Welles recognized his own luck. “Somebody down in South America did an imitation of that broadcast, and he ended up in prison. So I shouldn’t complain, I guess. I didn’t go to jail. I went to Hollywood.”

The third and maybe the biggest hoax came after, in the endless imitations and embellishments on the event. Besides the tragic version in Quito, Ecuador in 1949, there was also a new version performed in Buffalo in 1968, and each year brings more and more amateur dramas undertaking the piece. There were several films made of the original novel— Byron Haskin and George Pal's 1953 version, Spielberg’s 2005 version—often with homage to Welles, and a television series that aired in the late 1980s. There were historical television programs like “The Night America Trembled,” which dramatized the effects of the panic in 1957; the 1975 “The Night that Panicked America,” by writer Howard Koch, who also wrote a series of radio drama sequels later in life. All of these, together with reams of commemorative scholarly and historical materials, have made the “War of the Worlds” episode a kind of metahoax, an exaggeration of the original hoax that allows history and nostalgia to flatter themselves.

Or is it something even deeper? Maybe the panic remains with us because it’s so pleasing to contemplate, because we wish to believe in the fantastic intruding on the everyday, because we’re lured by anything-can-happen. “It was the thrill of a lifetime,” one 1938 listener wrote, “to hear something like that and think it’s real.” Everybody has a hidden appetite for mayhem.

The fourth hoax—do I really have to spell it out? Think about it. After all, who had the most to gain from all this: the hoax, counterhoax, metahoax, and their rich and unusual interplay? Events that seem perfectly engineered to deepen the complacence of human beings going about their affairs, serene in the assurance of their dominion over this small spinning fragment of solar driftwood that by chance or design man has inherited out of the dark mystery of Time and Space?

Perhaps, across an immense ethereal gulf, intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic—minds that are to our minds as ours are to the beasts in the jungle—having fooled us into incredulity toward their very existence, regard this earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely draw their plans against us, even as we speak….

Tune in for Martians redux here.


Photo credits: Henrique Alvim Correa, “Martians vs. Thunder Child,” via Wikimedia Commons. Orson Welles, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, March 1, 1937. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division, van.5a52776.


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