The Night Words Scared the World. The Authors Collection.

Orson Welles during his famous War of Worlds radio broadcast.
Orson Welles during his famous War of Worlds radio broadcast.

When words are organized into stories anything can happen.

One Sunday in the autumn of 1938, two brothers stayed a couple of nights at their uncle’s house in Detroit. The next night was Halloween and his neighborhood was a great place to fill their pillowcases with candy. So Jerry (my dad) and older his brother Jimmy took their places on the rug near the big console radio in Uncle Joe’s living room at 8:00 p.m. and set the dial to WXYZ, which carried the NBC Blue Network.

They laughed at the opening bit, a typically hilarious Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy routine. Never mind that even I could do ventriloquism on radio. The brothers never missed a Sunday night broadcast of The Chase and Sandborn Hour.

Then their laughter turned to near instant boredom as some dumb lady came on and did a drama thing. It was Madeleine Carroll, a famous British actress—the highest paid that year in Hollywood, earning more than $250,000. She became a big star via her recent performance in a popular Alfred Hitchcock film called The 39 Steps.

None of that impressed Jerry and Jimmy; they wanted the funny stuff.

So they turned the dial back and forth and soon found some pretty cool music on WWJ, which carried CBS shows. Mercury Theater was scheduled to be on the air at that moment. So they left the dial there and tapped their toes to a band playing a Spanish-sounding song, fully planning to check back at WXYZ a few minutes later for more Charlie McCarthy fun.

David R. Stokes
David R. Stokes

But the boys never made it back to the NBC Blue Network that night. In fact, all across America in thousands upon thousands of homes, little boys and girls and all grown up adults glued their ears to what was being piped into their living rooms. It began like this:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. At twenty minutes before eight, Central Time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the Earth with enormous velocity…”

Then all of sudden, it was back to the Spanish music as Jerry and Jimmy stared at each other. They called out, “Hey Uncle Joe, come here, something just happened on the radio.”

Similar scenes played out all across the country that night. The music was interrupted again and again with more details about a spaceship crashing in a place called Grovers Mill, New Jersey. Something snake-like crawled out. Fields caught fire. All reported on the radio.

Forget that Hitler guy who wanted to take over some far away place called Czechoslovakia—these were Martians—and they wanted New Jersey!

Of course, it was all a hoax first dreamed up by a young radio actor named John Houseman (he grew up to become Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase) and brought to life by his boss, 23-year-old Orson Welles. It had been advertised right in newspapers earlier that day in the section where it showed the radio lineup for that night. There in plain sight it said: “Play ‘War of the Worlds,’ Mercury Theater. CBS Radio.” And the broadcast began with a disclaimer—which didn’t help all the people tuning in late.

The radio spoof became a textbook case of mass hysteria. In an instant, millions of people believed we were under attack by aliens.

But it was all just so many words—words that made all the difference.

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Please click the book cover image to read more about David R. Stokes and his books.

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