Sunday, October 30, 2011
The Night the Martians Landed: A Family Story from 1938
My Aunt "Sister", who would have been 101 years old on Halloween, shared this story at her birthday celebration the summer of 2010. Those who can remember the night of October 30, 1938 are becoming more rare, and it was a true gift to hear her first-hand account of family members' responses to a phenomenon of wide-spread panic and fear as a result of the radio broadcast of an adaptation of HG Wells' novel, War of the Worlds.
I had heard and read about the broadcast and its effect on individuals and families across the country. It was planned as a 60-minute Halloween radio drama, an episode of the Mercury Theatre on the Air, and was directed and narrated by Orson Welles. The first two-thirds of the broadcast was presented as news bulletins which suggested that an actual invasion by Martians was taking place. There were no commercial breaks, which added to the sense of realism. The use of the news bulletin format also contributed to the believability of the story, as well as to the resulting panic, since people were accustomed to legitimate newsflashes, but not those used as part of a work of fiction.
According to Wikipedia, historians have calculated that six million people heard the broadcast, 1.7 million believed it to be true and 1.2 million were genuinely frightened. According to my aunt, a number of those who believed it and were frightened resided in southeast Missouri, and were outside that Sunday evening, gazing toward the sky.
Aunt Sister, Uncle Jesse, and their three children stayed home from church and were listening to the radio, probably doing the equivalent of today's "channel surfing" between the Chase and Sanborn Hour, featuring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and singer Nelson Eddy, and the Mercury Theater. The first comedy sketch on the Chase and Sanborn Hour ended about fifteen minutes into the program and was to be followed by a musical selection, presenting a good time to change the station. This would have taken them directly into the middle of the Martian invasion on Mercury Theater, with no reassurance that what they were hearing wasn't really happening.
This is a part of what they heard:
Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed. . . . Wait a minute! Someone's crawling. Someone or . . . something. I can see peering out of that black hole two luminous disks . . . are they eyes? It might be a face. It might be . . . good heavens, something's wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now it's another one, and another one, and another one. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing's body. It's 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, 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.
How many of us have thought about what we would do if the world was coming to an end? Their instincts were to gather with other family members, so they left in their car to travel the few miles to the my grandparents' home.
On the way there, my aunt noticed that baby Sandra's shoe was missing, that she must have dropped it or left it at home. Uncle Jesse reassured my frightened aunt, that Sandra "wouldn't be needing her shoe."
She also noted that people standing out on the dirt roads as they travelled, looking at the sky and exclaiming, "They're coming! They're coming!"
When they arrived at Mom and Pop's, the house was empty. Mom and Pop had gone to Arkansas to church and hadn't yet returned home. After a short time, they and the rest of their children arrived, asking what was going on.
According to Aunt Sister, Pop didn't believe a word of the story. He also scoffed at his oldest child's fear, declaring, "I didn't know that I raised a child who would be afraid to die."
Little brother Earl, then stepped up and joined forces with his sister, put his arms around her and said, "You raised two of them!"
The family story ends here, and we can imagine the relief they and others like them felt when they learned the truth. We can also understand their panic and fear in a time when modern communication was still in its infancy. We might also want to temper any thoughts or comments we might have about naivete or the willingness to believe the unbelievable -- at least until after Halloween!
p.s. You can hear the Mercury Theater broadcast on YouTube. It is in multiple parts, so I am not including links.
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