Remembering the ultimate BOO

IMAGE PROVIDED BY CURT DEATHERAGE Bob Wright, in a composite photo, listens intently to “War of the Worlds” in 2002, the first time he had heard it since the original broadcast in 1938.

By Curt Deatherage

The Creswell Chronicle

Afternoon was turning toward evening on Oct. 30, 1938 as Bob Wright was finishing up his daily chores, which included milking the cows, feeding the cows and pigs, bringing in firewood and other tasks on his family’s farm just south of Creswell on Davisson Road. Sunday typically meant fewer chores, and 14-year-old Bob had other things on his mind that cloudy and hazy afternoon. He wanted to make sure his high school homework was done, and more importantly, tomorrow was Halloween.

Halloween was a special day for the local area, not unlike today, with plenty of decorating and trick-or-treating to look forward to, and maybe tipping over an outhouse just for fun. As he came into the house about five-thirty, just as darkness was falling, he was in for the surprise of his life.

Just as Bob topped the steps to the back door, his mother, Gladys, was hanging up the phone following a call from a neighbor, Alma Grousbeck. Mrs. Grousbeck excitedly told Mrs. Wright that she had heard that disaster had struck. Alma had heard a radio broadcast that suggested the end of the world was imminent.

Gladys hung up the phone and quickly turned on the family’s huge cabinet-style Zenith radio. She first tried Eugene’s only radio station, KORE, but all she heard there was a program featuring music by Bach. She turned the dial and found a broadcast on KOIN, Portland’s most powerful radio station, and heard the most horrible thing imaginable.

Between his mother’s description of the phone call and the sounds emanating from the radio speaker, Bob had a hard time understanding what he was hearing. According to the radio, a Martian spacecraft had landed near Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, a continent and a world away from rural Oregon. The craft was annihilating everything and everyone in sight. The longer Bob listened, the more dire the Martian situation was becoming. More of these craft were being spotted, first in the northeast and later throughout the country, and the Martians were wreaking havoc. The United States was in danger of being destroyed by these extraterrestrial warriors.

By this time, the community telephone party line was abuzz. Neighbors were calling neighbors, spreading the horrible news. Panic was taking over people’s thinking. People were terrified. Genuine fear was instilled in most everyone who heard that broadcast.

Of course, the world was not invaded by Martians. What Bob and millions of other listeners heard that night has been called the “Most Famous Radio Broadcast of All Time.” They had tuned in to the CBS radio network’s Mercury Theater on the Air presentation of “The War of the Worlds.” It was a dramatization of an 1898 novel by H. G. Wells of the same name. Orson Welles, later to become famous as a film star, directed and starred in this unique bit of entertainment.

Briefly, “The War of the Worlds” was a radio play. It started with what sounded like a regular weather report, followed by a program of popular dance music. The music was interrupted several times by news reports, first of unusual explosions on Mars, later of severe seismic events in New Jersey. These news breaks were very convincing and were very similar in both tone and content that  listeners were used to hearing in updates as Europe prepared to go to war.

The “War” gets underway when a seismic event turns out to be the landing of a Martian spacecraft, and the invaders destroy most everyone in their path with their deadly “Heat-Ray.” The story develops as on-the-scene reporter Carl Phillips and “noted astronomer” Professor Pearson of nearby Princeton University describe in great detail the carnage inflicted during the space invaders’ blitzkrieg. A single fighting machine annihilated nearly 7,000 members of the State Militia. As the broadcast winds toward the end of the hour, the Martians eventually succumb to human viruses to which they have no immunity.

The broadcast caused near panic throughout the entire country. The New York Times reported thousands of telephone calls from frantic listeners. Police and fire stations in the northeastern United States were deluged with calls as well, from people reporting sightings to the ones seeking escape routes. Reports of suicide threats surfaced in the aftermath; people would rather die by their own hand rather than by the Martians.

The local media coverage of the event was extensive. The front page headline of the October 31, 1938 edition of the Eugene Register-Guard read: “Fictional Radio Play Causes Terror in U. S.” The front page featured two stories about the program. A national story explained what had taken place, as well as reaction in locations all across the country. Another headline, “Eugene Radio Fans React to Thriller, Too” reported that the phone lines to KORE, the local station of the rival Mutual Broadcasting Network, was swamped with phone calls both during and after the broadcast. The Register-Guard’s office phones were busy Monday, with local residents seeking additional information on the terrifying program.

According to radio industry figures, it is estimated that the program had nearly 12 million listeners that evening, and nearly two million of these believed what they had heard was true. In listening to the program, it is easy to understand why so many listeners believed what they were hearing.

First, the program was so well presented. Although a disclaimer was read at the beginning, and repeated several times throughout the broadcast, many listeners either missed or ignored it. Even though it was apparently performed live, the hours of rehearsal must have been endless. Everything sounds so real and authentic. Every character was performed flawlessly.

Second, radio was the primary source of up-to-date news. There was no television, no internet, no 24-hour cable news programs. Radio was the most instantaneous source of news at the time. According to Bob, “Radio was the best means of communication we had.” Whenever something came on that sounded like news, people of that day considered it to be news. Perhaps people of that era were more trusting. This type of entertainment hadn’t been attempted before.

People were so confused that many had a difficult time believing that it was a hoax. As Bob recalls, “There were some diehards that were still hibernating, waiting for the world, as we knew it, to come to an end. It took months before they finally got everyone convinced that there wasn’t anything to it.”

Although there were disclaimers read at several times throughout the broadcast, many listeners were outraged that the broadcast had taken place at all. The sheer volume of complaints prompted the Federal Communications Commission to review the broadcast. The hysteria that erupted after the broadcast forced radio stations to modify their on-the-air policies. Guidelines were established for presenting breaking news in a timely and clear way, so as not to confuse the audience or keep them waiting about potentially terrible news. Those developments would prove critical as the world really went to war, with more conventional foes, in 1939.

This reaction to this program was used in establishing guidelines during the formation of the United States Civil Defense program, and was the source of the first academic study (by Princeton) of mass hysteria. It even played a part in global politics when Adolf Hitler used it as an example of U.S. political weakness.

In the Oct. 31, 1938 issue of the New York Times, Orson Welles expressed his regret that the performance caused so much trouble when he said: “I don’t think we will choose anything like this again.” He initially hesitated about presenting this particular play, saying “It was our thought that perhaps people might be bored or annoyed at hearing a tale so improbable.”

On a cloudy and hazy fall day a few days before Halloween of 2002, I had the pleasure of playing the broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” for Bob. He had not heard it since that fateful evening nearly 62 years prior. He seemed anxious to hear it again. He thought that listening to it might “stir up some memories.”

“Yes, that is exactly what we heard.” “It’s amazing, it was all planned, even down to the music.” “It sounded so real, it’s no wonder that we believed it.” “They just kept building and building, why, what they were doing was dangerous, they caused sheer terror in the listeners.” Those and similar comments by Bob as he listened intently to the replay of the broadcast were genuine and real. I could tell hearing it again had a great effect on him. Bob passed away in 2008 and I’m glad he got to hear the broadcast once again.

With the knowledge we have today of this hoax, what would be a more appropriate day than Halloween to pull off a stunt like this, except maybe for April Fool’s Day?

Orson Welles himself summed up the intent of the broadcast in his comments at the close of the program, when he said: “This is Orson Welles, out of character, to assure you that the “War of the Worlds” has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be, the Mercury Theater’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and shouting BOO.”