Saturday, October 30, 2010

30 October 1938: Orson Welles's "War of the Worlds" Broadcast

On this day in 1938, enfant terrible Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air made their now-infamous broadcast of an adaptation of H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds.  As is well known, the program presented the story in the form of an emergency news report, leading some listeners (especially those who tuned in late) to conclude that the Earth was actually under invasion by Martians.

Scholars generally agree that many of the popularly accepted stories of mass panic are urban legends or at least exaggerations, demanding critical scrutiny and hard proof.  Still, there was something to them, and it was always entertaining to speculate and investigate.

According to the radio broadcast, the Martian landing took place at Grover's Mill, NJ—now Princeton Junction—which, at the time of the sixtieth anniversary, in 1998, erected a monument to the event.  I recall that, when I used to shop at a wonderful old bookstore in nearby Cranbury, NJ (coincidentally, from the standpoint of historic preservation, "the best preserved 19th century village in Middlesex County"), residents would point to the water tower and tell me that this was one of the "aliens" that frightened residents had shot at on that fateful night.  True?   That depends on the question that one asks. According to more credible reports, it was a different water tower altogether. And, as noted, many such reports were simply spurious. But from the standpoint of the cultural historian, the interesting thing is not just what happened, but what people think happened, and why. To that extent, the myth or legend itself acquires the status of historical subject.

The script and audio (e.g. 1, 2) of the broadcast are now available online.  Happy Halloween!
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