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). more