It was late at night and the warm smell of the flame scorching the top of the pumpkin drifted through the air. It was that quiet time when the excitement was over, the roads emptied of cars and trick-or-treaters, and you sat in the darkness with only the grinning gourds staring back at you.
That was when my family would turn on the radio to hear our local station’s annual rebroadcast of The War of the Worlds. I would pull out a treat (or two) from my bag and listen to the crackling airwaves and the music drifting from the Meridian Room in the Hotel Park Plaza.
As a child, I didn’t really comprehend the entire plot. I only knew it was an eerie tradition that held in me rapt attention. It wasn’t until I got older that I began to appreciate the intensity and creativity of Orson Welles masterful reworking of H.G. Wells classic novel. When we began studying it in a college broadcast class, I was surprised to find most of my classmates were not familiar with it. To them, it was something from antiquity they’d only heard about in passing.
One Halloween, a few years after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, I listened to it again. I expected it to bring back fond memories… the sweet smell of dried leaves as I hesitantly approached a lit porch covered with fake spider webs. Instead, I listened in much the same way many people did during its original airing on October 30, 1938. I was alarmed at a program I’d heard dozens of times. The broadcast hadn’t changed… I had. To my ears, the aliens were no longer invaders from Mars, but a euphemism for anyone intent on creating terror and panic in America.
The locations mentioned were disturbing. The alien machine was “half buried in a vast pit” that reminded me of another pit I knew all too well. Chills ran down my spine as I listened to the announcer say:
I’m speaking from the roof of the Broadcasting Building, New York City. The bells you hear are ringing to warn the people to evacuate the city as the Martians approach. Estimated in last two hours three million people have moved out along the roads to the north, Hutchison River Parkway still kept open for motor traffic. Avoid bridges to Long Island . . . hopelessly jammed. All communication with Jersey shore closed ten minutes ago. No more defenses. Our army wiped out . . . artillery, air force, everything wiped out. This may be the last broadcast. We’ll stay here to the end. People are holding service below us in the cathedral.
Followed by a hauntingly familiar play-by-play:
…Smoke comes out . . . black smoke, drifting over the city. People in the streets see it now. They’re running towards the East River . . . thousands of them, dropping in like rats. Now the smoke’s spreading faster. It’s reached Times Square. People trying to run away from it, but it’s no use. They’re falling like flies. Now the smoke’s crossing Sixth Avenue . . . Fifth Avenue . . . one hundred yards away . . . it’s fifty feet . . .
It no longer seemed to be a make-believe story about an attack from outer space. Instead it sounded like a prophetic warning about an event that would happen over sixty years later. Of course it wasn’t Martians that changed our word on 9/11, but terror did come from the skies in the form of giant metal machines.
With their daily news filled with horror stories coming out of Europe, and the world teetering on the brink of war, was it any wonder that some listeners in 1938 didn’t think someone simply got the whole “alien” thing wrong and we were, in reality, being invaded by some foreign power — like Germany? While the Munich Agreement had recently been signed, a United Press story on October 14th saw the former chairman of the War Industries Board, Bernard Baruch, calling for steps to strengthen America’s land forces. He decried the events in Munich a “humiliating peace” imposed by Hitler. After meeting with President Roosevelt he said, “Our country… is in a very desperate condition for national defense;” a fact he said was known to everyone except the American people. The next national defense budget was going to provide larger appropriations for the army, in large measure due to a Munich Agreement that had the opposite effect than putting to rest the fear of war. If the American people hadn’t known how unprepared they were to fight a foe, they knew then.
How many of us nowadays, when hearing breaking news reports of a tragedy or some impending doom, are skeptical of the details and the sources? How many of us will believe the validity of an event only after we’ve heard it on that one television channel or website that we trust? With all our advances in technology and a 24/7 news cycle, are we ever really sure what is happening even a few miles from home?
The uncomfortable prognostication of The War of the Worlds is sandwiched between equally uncanny revelations. At the beginning, Welles narration states:
Yet across an immense ethereal gulf, minds that to our minds as ours are to the beasts in the jungle — intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.
At the end, the Professor Pierson tells us:
It may be that the destruction of the Martians is only a reprieve. To them, and not to us, is the future ordained perhaps.
Who now regards this country with envious eyes, and is slowly and surely drawing their plans against us? Is the threat not from some extraterrestrial force or foreign power — but from within? Do we know for whom the future is ordained?
A Martian invasion doesn’t feel that far-fetched anymore. Beyond man’s inhumanity to man and the world inching closer to nuclear war, in a few short years we’ve witnessed events that have shocked our psyche: earthquakes that tilted the earth’s axis and raised the sea floor; the deadliest tsunami in recorded history; a devastating nuclear disaster for which the world was woefully unprepared; and a city brought to its knees by a meteor — a random event that allows for no rehearsal.
In these anxious days, The War of the Worlds can still be listened to with as much trepidation as when it first aired; perhaps more so. It will forever serve as a watershed case exposing the influence of mass communication. Those confused souls who panicked decades ago were no more vulnerable than the technologically sophisticated peopleof today. Despite repeated warnings that the work was a dramatization, one can envision Twitchy reporting huge numbers of #MartianInvasion and #GroversMillConspiracy.
Or perhaps it has, like Welles said, “no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be.” You be the judge.