The Martians Are Coming!: Orson Welles’ Production of ‘War Of The Worlds’ Terrified The Nation
Do flying saucers exist?
Radio listeners in 1938 thought so after hearing the broadcast of a ‘Martian invasion.’
Announcer (with urgency): “Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special news bulletin.”
Intuitively, thousands of CBS radio listeners, from Maine to California, turned up the volume on their radio dials.
“Martians have landed in the town of Grovers Mill, New Jersey!” the announcer gasped. “I am standing on a small hill observing what is just not possible. A silver spacecraft of some sort has landed here.”
In a voice trembling with fear he uttered his final words: “Huge slug-like beings are coming out of the spaceships, their ray-guns are shooting deadly flames” … (pause) …”OH, NO!” (gasping sounds) … “More flying cylinders are landing. The military is moving in …their weapons have no effect. …. Arrrgghhh!” (Fade out …. Silence.)
Thus, CBS radio listeners heard the news of a Martian invasion. “This was all for real! Invaders from outer space had landed on earth!” Or so a hysterical listening audience believed. Armed with the radio announcer’s horrifying information, panicked radio listeners fled into the streets.
War of the Worlds Production
The date was October 30, 1938. What the radio audience had actually heard was a production of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. Orson Welles, the bad boy of radio, had just played a Halloween prank on CBS radio listeners, a prank that would make radio history and terrify a nation.
While most young men his age were swallowing goldfish, playing pinball or learning to tango, 23-year-old Orson Welles, a self-proclaimed genius, was hosting CBS radio’s Mercury Theater and contriving ways to impress his listeners. The October broadcast was his brainchild and intended to be a practical joke. He had no idea his trick would cause such fear and panic. At the close of his broadcast, Welles chuckled briskly and signed off with the words, “If your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that’s no Martian, it’s Halloween!” Unfortunately, most of his audience never heard him-they’d already abandoned their radios to head for safer ground.
The First Flying Saucer Report
Despite the hysteria caused by the 1938 broadcast, it wasn’t until 1947 that the first report of flying saucers was received. On June 24, 1947, Kenneth Arnold, a highly reputable airplane pilot, claimed to have seen nine dish-shaped objects zig-zagging over Mount Rainier. He described them as looking like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water. The term “flying saucers” was soon coined by the media.
Since 1947 the Air Force has received thousands of saucer sightings, the largest number coming in the late 1950s, coinciding with the launching of the Russian satellite Sputnik on October 4, 1957, and America’s Explorer 1 on January 31, 1958.
As a teen, I remember the excitement felt by the whole family as we raced outside at 9 p.m. each night to track Sputnik through Dad’s field glasses. I suppose it was unavoidable, with all this star-gazing, that sky-watchers would inevitably see more than just satellites.
In 1947, the Air Force set up a special file on UFO reports. Not unlike Fox Mulder, of The X-Files, Air Force specialists vigorously investigated these sightings. However, contrary to The X-Files, most of the reports turned out to be nothing more than weather balloons, grindstone clouds, ball lightning or radar glitches.
But not all of these sightings can be explained. The most famous of these occurred in 1947 outside the town of Roswell, N.M., east of the White Sands missile base where the first atomic bomb was exploded. Eyewitness accounts told of a saucer-shaped object that crashed on nearby ranchland.
Rushing to the scene, several residents saw what they believed to be metallic debris scattered over a large area. They also reported seeing what appeared to be four small, human-like occupants of the ship being taken away by the military. The area was immediately cordoned off by Air Force personnel. The military denied these rumors, insisting the residents of Roswell saw nothing more than a weather balloon.
Objects In The Sky
Whatever it is people are seeing up there, weather balloons or manned spaceships, there are thousands of objects floating around the Earth every day. Since Sputnik 1 was launched in 1957, 4,000 satellites have been put into orbit. In 1962, a 21-pound fragment of Sputnik 4 crashed at the intersection of Park and N. Eighth Street in Manitowac, Wis.; in 1978, another Soviet satellite came crashing back to earth, contaminating hundreds of miles of Canadian territory with radiation; in 1981, a Soviet satellite exploded into 135 pieces after colliding with space debris. Of the more than 7,000 objects floating in space being tracked from Earth, only 5 percent are satellites.
Sometimes, while staring up at the moon and stars, I wonder about the existence of flying saucers, but mostly I wonder about that “giant leap” Neil Armstrong took for us back in 1969.
We are inspired to keep looking up to the skies and wondering
It’s been a lot of years now since that historic walk. Like a lot of people back then, I envisioned a different kind of world by the year 2000. Maybe it came from watching too much Star Trek in the 1960s, but I imagined by now grand spaceships, like the U.S.S. Enterprise, would be hauling passengers through a shimmering galaxy-planet hopping among the stars, enjoying guided tours to Venus and Mars. And that romantic moon above was sure to replace Niagara Falls as America’s favorite honeymoon resort. Maybe that giant leap wasn’t so big after all.
Are flying saucers real, or just a combination of people’s daydreams, illusions and contrivances? Perhaps the latter, but isn’t that the stuff great inventions and accomplishments are made of? It’s also what inspires us to keep looking up to the skies and wonder…?