Martians in New Jersey: Remembering the War of the Worlds

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Grover's Mill, New Jersey is lovely at this time of year. The long tree-fringed pond still glows with the late blaze of fall foliage. Down at the mill itself, you'd think you could buy a pumpkin; but it's now a mower-repair shop - perhaps a more appropriate business for a commuter town. It's quiet: way off on the left you can just hear the shouts from the football field and running track of West Windor-Plainsboro High School North, and on the right from the track and fields of ditto ditto ditto South.

How very different from the scene here 69 years ago today: "Good heavens, something's wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake... it glistens like wet leather. But that face, it... Ladies and gentlemen, it's indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate." Listeners to CBS at 8:15 that evening could have been excused for a slight sense of unease; in their cars or kitchens, tuning in at random, they would have heard enough to give anyone a fright - not necessarily the pulsating lips or the "great tripod machines" wading across the Hudson, or the "heat-rays" incinerating bystanders, but the more credible atmosphere of clogged roads and panicking crowds, the emollient but useless reassurances of high politicians, the increasingly chaotic and terrified news bulletins. It was very well done: that Orson Welles was a talented director - and, at the age of 22, a very naughty boy. Moreover, since his Mercury Theatre of the Air's production of The War of the Worlds was a cultural program, there were no ads to break the spell: sponsors had assumed there would be few listeners.

There weren't many - possibly six million, as against 30 million for the Chase & Sanborn Hour, but those few were spurred into action. Police switchboards were quickly overwhelmed. People in Newark rushed out of their homes and stood looking toward the sky, from whence came their doom. Members of the National Guard called their armories, asking where to muster. A West Orange bartender actually turned out six customers to go home to his family. A man called the Dixie Bus Terminal to report the disaster - but refused to go into details, explaining that "the world is coming to an end and I have a lot to do." My father's father, forty miles north of New York, bundled his whole family into the car and drove out to the woods; but then, having fought through a revolution and shared a prison with the young Stalin, he had a keen sense of the possibility of the improbable.

Though we talk of "mass hysteria," the number of the hysterical was not actually massive. The New York Times played up the story, but could report only "scores" of people in the streets; its own switchboard received a total of 875 calls. Significantly, many of the most upset people were alone - women at home, men in cars - without the opportunity to discuss and consider their fears. Few, also, mentioned Martians or walking tripods - they babbled of "gas attacks" or bombing from the air. They weren't worried about extraterrestrials; this was exactly a month after the Munich crisis: they were worried about Hitler. When the truth was explained, most settled down quickly, annoyed rather than shaken at having been taken in by such a stunt. One Louis Winkler of the Bronx provided a typical reaction: "in my mind, it was a pretty crumby thing to do."

The newspapers made much of The War of the Worlds because they feared radio's usurpation of the news audience; radio made much of it because an aura of "social manipulation" provided a powerful weapon in its campaign to gain advertising. Welles himself called it the "radio version of dressing up in a sheet and saying Boo!" - for he knew that tomorrow things would return to normal and we would continue to get our facts from responsible, conscientious sources. But now - as newspapers collapse, radio and television pander for shrinking audiences; as we get our news from the entertainers or controversialists whose opinions we already share - we may soon have no way to be sure what is honest reporting and what is just theatre of the air, nor whether those frightening figures in sheets are neighbor children... or real monsters. Happy Halloween.