THE BLOG
10/30/2013 09:18 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

First Person Account of 1938 Martian Invasion

It's a quiet night in the small central-Illinois city of Jacksonville on October 30, 1938. Lou Lemmons, a 19-year-old-waitress at Winston's Cafe, is pouring coffee and chatting with patrons. Lou's manager, stationed in an office by the kitchen, has just tuned the radio into the music of Ramón Raquello and his orchestra out of the Meridian Room in downtown New York.

Portrait of Orson Welles cerca 1948, taken by Carl Van Vechten. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

When suddenly...breaking news! A giant meteorite has crash-landed within 20 miles of Princeton, New Jersey. 

The manager passes word to the staff, who wait for whispered updates between taking orders and bussing tables. The radio cuts back to its regularly scheduled programming, only to be abruptly interrupted: An alarming story development. The meteor has burrowed deep into the earth, creating a cavernous crater. A reporter, live at the singed-earth scene, bears witness to a shocking spectacle:

"Good heavens, something's wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now it's another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing's body. It's large, large as a bear and 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."

With a timbre of terror, the journalist describes the alien beast in bone-chilling detail. Then screams. Explosions. Exclamation: "The whole field's caught fire...it's spreading everywhere!" Silence.

Panic proliferates throughout the restaurant: "Something's happening--we're being attacked!"

As military units reportedly mobilize, Lou slips away to call her aunt. Franticly, she describes the impending invasion. To which the elderly woman calmly replies.

"Nonsense. The other stations are all playing dance music. It's a radio drama, dear. Go back to work." 

______________________________

Lou and her companions had been hoodwinked by a radio version of H.G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds, lovingly adapted by the actor Orson Welles. This year marks the 75th Anniversary of their dramatic doomsday broadcast. Lou and her friends weren't the only ones to be fooled. Many listeners of CBS radio took the Halloween gag at face value. The next day, The New York Times ran a headline reading, "Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact," and claimed the hour-long broadcast "disrupted households, interrupted religious services, created traffic jams and clogged communications," as well as caused a score of adults to require "medical treatment for shock and hysteria."

Seventy-five years later, Lou still remembers that night with vivid detail--the shock, the dread, the collective relief of everyone at Winston's when they realized the world would not be annihilated before their very ears. Chuckling, the 94-year-old says that young people today may scoff at her gullibility, but in a time when radio was a primary news source, the drama struck a chord.

In particular, it seemed to stoke national anxiety at a time when mass media uncertainty and fear of global war ran high. Radio was still young and, as is common with new technology, engendered angst. Some even suspected radio had the ability to brainwash or mentally control listeners. To add to the tension of the time, Great Britain and France had signed the Munich Pact with Hitler only a month prior to (temporarily) pull Europe from the brink of world war. 

What made The War of the Worlds especially authentic, explains Christina Dunbar-Hester, Assistant Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University, was the news format in which it was written. The choreography of music coupled with faux breaking news reports was specifically designed to alert and alarm an audience that often left the radio on for background noise. 

While it's debated how widely people actually bought into the broadcast, what is clear is that The War of the Worlds became a cultural meme. As for the crowd at Winston's that fateful Sunday, after the program concluded, Lemmons recalls the defensive claims of coworkers insisting they "never really believed" the sci-fi narrative. Her take? They were just embarrassed. 

"We were royally duped." 

Welles himself seemed to take pride in the persuasive production, ending the program with a rhetorical wink.

"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 Halloween."