HAPPY HALLOWEEN: A True Story of a Radio Broadcast That Scared the (Censored) Out of America

It’s Sunday evening, October 30th, 1938. 7 o’clock. The night before Halloween. After an early family dinner, millions of Americans would gather around their radio sets in the living room, tuned into their local NBC radio station, listening to one of the biggest comedy radio shows, the Jack Benny Program. After 30 minutes of great gaiety of laughter, many parents started their Sunday evening routine of putting their little darlings to bed. 

Soon, it was 8pm. The grown ups were alone, once again relaxing in their favorite chairs in front of their radios, ready to listen to another popular funny show of its time that featured a comedian and his dummy, Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy.

Although mysteries, dramas, and science-fiction programs were well liked in the early days of radio, people wanted relief from the horrible news reports of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder. The live account of the Hindenburg crash. And a war happening in Europe that kept many Americans on edge, fearing that Hitler and his Nazis would find their way to the United States. So the comedies ruled the airwaves on Sunday night. Which meant that over on the CBS network, not too many people were tuning in to a little known theater group that often did sophisticated plays, headed up by a brilliant director/actor, who most radio listeners knew as the voice of a popular radio program called, The Shadow. It was the Mercury Theater on the Air with Orson Welles.

On this evening, the 23 year old Welles and his company decided for their hour long program, to do a retelling of, War of the Worlds, based on the H.G. Wells novel. But Welles wanted to broadcast it as if an invasion from Mars was happening ‘in the moment’. In the style that many listeners commonly heard when it came to news bulletins on the radio about the war. Having reporters talking with professors from creditable universities, and eyewitness interviews with live actualities from the backyards of actual towns and cities.

Back on NBC, after a whimsical Halloween bit from the ventriloquist and puppet, the music from Nelson Eddy and the orchestra began to play. 

Now this may seem odd to us today, but back in golden age of radio shows, when the music started up, people would often turn the dial to hear what else was going on before quickly tuning back into their favored broadcast. And Orson Welles knew this!! And he played to the average listening audience. Welles knew that most people were not listening to his low rated non sponsored radio program that CBS was ready to cancel. But he knew they would hear what was happening on his play when they twirled the dial briefly over to CBS. 

Now here’s what made Orson Welles a genius. Right at the moment when listeners dialed up their local CBS station, Welles stopped the orchestra in studio 1 on the 20th floor of the CBS building in New York City, and cued an actor portraying a news announcer to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the intercontinental radio news…” The announcer reports that several explosions were spotted coming from the red planet Mars and heading towards Earth.

Well, as you can imagine, listeners sat up. The volume was turned up. Remember, those people tuning in at that very moment never heard the beginning of the show where Orson Welles says that this is just a radio play. 

Then another bulletin came in where something crashed on a farm in Grovers Mill, New Jersey with an eyewitness! Orson Welles had them and he knew it! No one is switching back to some comedy program. This was a national emergency. Then another breaking news alert with the reporter broadcasting from the farm when suddenly some creature was rising out of the crater and started gassing people and setting everything on fire! The on scene reporter is screaming in horror! Then……dead air.

I can imagine Orson Welles standing there in the CBS studio with his arms in the air asking for complete silence. Actors waiting for the their cue to continue, to break the deafening hush. Listeners held their breaths as the only thing they heard was their own beating heart. Until finally Welles felt the listeners were about to blackout. 

The radio announcer broke the frightening stillness of the airwaves. “Ladies and gentlemen, due to circumstances beyond our control, we are unable to continue the broadcast from Grovers Mill.”

That’s when all Hell broke loose and mass hysteria broke out. Mom and dads woke up the kids, packed their things and drove off to the hills to avoid the black smoke, they all SWORE they could smell, that would eventually end their lives. They actually believed this was for real!

Switchboards to the police and radio stations were lit up from terrified people who truly believed the world was coming to an end. Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the Air managed to terrify half the nation with such obscurity in less than 15 minutes. 

As the live broadcast continued on, a call came in to the booth of studio one, from CBS executives ordering Welles to stop at once and do a station break, telling listeners that this is only a radio play. The realism was too great. Eventually an announcer would break in. “You are listening to a CBS presentation of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the Air in an original dramatization of the War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. The performance will continue after a brief intermission. This is the Columbia Broadcasting System.”

At the end of the radio play, the host took to the microphone. “This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that The War of The Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo! Starting now, we couldn't soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night. . . so we did the best next thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the C. B. S. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn't mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian. . .it's Hallowe'en.

The next day, while being interviewed by a bunch of real reporters, Orson Welles played innocent but apologetic about his radio production and said he had no intention of spooking the public. Nor did he know that riots broke out because of the fake news of pending death. 

But the truth is, Orson Welles was an innovated radio genius. His timing was perfect. He understood the pulse of the American listeners. He knew how to brilliantly entertain and play to them. In this case, he played upon their real life fears. He had to be a genius. How else would Orson Welles and the great actors able to convince listeners to believe they were actually being invaded by monsters from Mars?

Years later, many would try to duplicate the idea on both radio and television. At the time, the FCC did investigate the broadcast, but found no laws were broken. But, because of Orson Welles scary stunt, laws were passed to prevent a fake broadcast like to ever happen again. 

Could someone pull off a stunt like this today? I mean, really? Martians? Who would believe such fake news?

By the way. Orson Welles would soon pack his bags and move west to Hollywood, where he would direct and star in what is arguably considered the greatest film of all time, Citizen Kane.

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