“The War of the Worlds”
A Made-Up Martian Invasion That Continues to Fascinate
By Anne Levin
Decades before the term “fake news” became familiar, there was “The War of the Worlds.” The infamous 1938 radio broadcast, inspired by the H.G. Wells novel of the same name, announced to fans of the CBS Radio drama series Mercury Theatre on the Air that Martians had crash-landed in a farmer’s field in Grovers Mill, New Jersey, and were invading the earth.
It was the golden age of radio, and Sunday night was prime time. October 30, 1938 also happened to be mischief night. Led by 23-year-old Orson Welles, the theater company decided to take things a bit further than usual and give listeners a jolt. Just how much of a jolt they intended remains in question.
An announcer who claimed to be at the crash site just a few miles from Princeton breathlessly described a slimy Martian slithering its way out of a metallic cylinder.
“Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake,” he began. “Now here’s another and another one and another one! They look like tentacles to me. I can see the thing’s body now. It’s large, large as a bear. It glistens like wet leather…. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, it’s so awful! The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is kind of V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate.”
It was all a spectacular hoax, of course. But to some listeners across the country, the sophisticated sound effects and supposedly terrified announcers reporting Martians firing “heat-ray“ weapons created chaos. Newspaper reports at the time said people claimed they saw things that didn’t exist, and crowded the roadways in an effort to escape the invasion. Local legend has it that in Grovers Mill, an inebriated farmer shot at the wooden water tower because he thought it was an alien (never proven, but people who grew up in the West Windsor town have recalled seeing bullet holes in the tower).
Orson Welles, center, meeting with reporters in an effort to explain that no one connected with the “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast had any idea the show would cause panic. (Wikimedia Commons)
The legend lives on. In leafy Van Nest Park just down the road from the actual Grovers Mill buildings, a series of four plaques along the pond tell the story of the broadcast. A large, sculpted monument that pays tribute is prominently positioned. Over the years, West Windsor has commemorated the notorious event at key anniversaries. A section of the township’s website is devoted to the broadcast, its history, and the havoc it caused.
On Saturday, October 30, a family-oriented celebration of the event will be held at the MarketFair mall on Route 1, in collaboration with the West Windsor Arts Council.
“Every year, especially come October, we get inquiries,” said Gay Huber, West Windsor’s municipal clerk. “That’s why we put all that information on the website. There used to be several individuals who actually lived through it, and I was able to give their names to people. But they’re no longer with us.”
While newspapers reported widespread panic due to the broadcast (“Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact” read the front page of the New York Times), most local residents may have taken it in stride. “If you think about it, there was no Twitter, no Instagram or social media,” Huber said. “So, a lot of people didn’t know about it. My family’s farm was only a couple miles away, and I’m not sure they even knew about it. It wasn’t something my grandparents talked about.”
Plaque commemorating the radio broadcast in Van Nest Park, West Windsor. (Wikimedia Commons)
But October 30, 1938 certainly put Grovers Mill on the map. “It’s still something that we consider one of the more popular aspects of West Windsor history. However, there used to be a lot more interest,” wrote Paul Ligeti, head archivist of the Historical Society of West Windsor, in an email. “For the first half century, WotW [“War of the Worlds”] was actually a point that many in town did not want to highlight, because of the image that many thought it would give the town (of local yokels running for their lives from a hoax – whether this was actually true or not). However, in the late 1980s, there was a push to reframe WotW as a point of pride, and in 1988 there was a series of celebrations for its 50th anniversary.”
In a strip mall a few miles from the “crash site,” the Grovers Mill Coffee House celebrates the broadcast with newspaper clippings, photographs, and artifacts. Prominently on display is a mural by Princeton artist Robert Hummel, showing the water tower said to be the target of the gun-toting, drunken farmer. The mural is one in a series of artworks Hummel has created that were inspired by the broadcast.
Hummel painted the coffee house mural after listening to the recorded 1938 broadcast for the first time. “It was what I had thought listeners that night may have been imagining while tuning in if not realizing it was only a radio play,” he said.
His second painting, created for the 75th anniversary of the broadcast, is the artist’s version of the action that might have taken place later in the night, with more Martians and destruction. For the 80th anniversary three years ago, his painting was focused on the Princeton University Observatory, which plays a part in the radio play. Hummel is having the painting framed in oak wood trim that was salvaged from an office inside the observatory. “When they tore it down last year, the head engineer let me in to see it before it was demolished,” he said. “He gave me some of the oak wood that was around the doors.”
Scene two, as well, is framed in salvaged wood with a historical pedigree – interior pine planks from within the red barn in place at the time of the broadcast. They were given to Hummel by the barn’s current owner when he was transforming it into living accommodations.
The farmer firing at the water tower is just one example of the folklore surrounding the broadcast. “Another [legend] talks of someone being so scared that they took off in their car so quickly they forgot to open the garage door and crashed right through it! Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell currently whether these stories are 100 percent accurate or not – they could be, or they couldn’t be,” wrote Ligeti.
Hummel’s mother had a lifelong friend from Shamokin, Pennsylvania, – coal mining country – who claimed that a frightened relative hid in a coal mine to escape the Martians. “I find that hard to believe, personally, but that’s the story she told,” Hummel said.
Scoutship by artist Eric Schultz, in front of the West Windsor Arts Center. (Courtesy of WWAC)
At the West Windsor Arts Council’s building on Alexander Road, a 12-foot sculpture by Eric Schultz, called Scoutship, greets visitors. It was commissioned to help launch a sculpture program and mark the 80th anniversary of the broadcast. In recent years, the nonprofit has created programming around the annual mischief night anniversary of the event.
“‘War of the Worlds’ is important because it was the first time there was this realization that art was used to surprise people, and maybe fool them,” said Aylin Green, executive director of the arts center. “Orson Welles didn’t like to look at it that way, but that’s kind of what happened. It was able to happen because of the tenor of the times, and what was going on in the world. There were general fears about invasions. I love that this was a work of art – a theatrical production. That gets a little bit lost in the story. But it’s an example of art having a real impact.”
In interviews just after the craziness caused by the broadcast, Welles claimed that he had no idea it would affect people the way it did. But as time went on, he admitted that his intentions weren’t so innocent.
“I still meet people all over the place, everywhere in the world who’ve had experiences, bitter or otherwise, as a result of our little experiment in broadcasting,” he said in a filmed interview that is available on YouTube. “I suppose we had it coming to us. We were fed up with the way in which everything that came over this new magic box, the radio, was being swallowed. Anything that came through that new machine was believed. So, in a way, our broadcast was an assault on the credibility of that machine. We wanted people to understand that they shouldn’t take any opinion pre-digested, and shouldn’t swallow anything that came through the tap. Whether it was radio or not.”
Orson Welles in the studio in 1938. (Wikimedia Commons)