Today is the 60th anniversary of the invasion of the United States by creatures from the planet Mars. On Oct. 30, 1938, CBS radio announced that a cylinder loaded with hostile Martians had just landed in a field in central New Jersey.
The invasion, of course, wasn't real; it was the famous "The War of the Worlds" radio show devised by Orson Welles and his Mercury The-a-tre. But while the invasion was illusory, the reaction was not.Thousands of people, believing the broadcast genuine, rushed to the streets, clogging highways with mile-long traffic jams; others called the police and army, swearing they could see the Martian cylinders and poison gas. Churches overflowed; so did hospitals and bars. Panic was nationwide.
This panic - one of the best-known events in U.S. history - is troubling. How could people believe Martians had landed? Were our grandparents really that gullible?
Actually, they weren't; it's easy to see why people believed the broadcast was real. Although the opening words of the show clearly stated that this was a radio play "suggested by the H.G. Wells novel `The War of the Worlds,' " not everyone tuned in at 8 p.m. when the show began.
Those who didn't missed the introductory material. Instead, they came in on a phony "news flash" from New Jersey where a "huge cylinder" had just landed. Suddenly the cylinder opened and out crawled a being "large as a bear" with "saliva dripping from its rimless lips."
Then the "news flash" broke off and the so-called regular programming - piano music from various New York hotels - returned.
Had this piano music not been played, most likely the "Mars attack" would have alarmed nobody. But in 1938, radio audiences had become accustomed to news flashes: "Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt this program" was commonplace.
Five weeks before "The War of the Worlds," Welles' own broadcast of Sherlock Holmes had been interrupted by a news bulletin on the Munich crisis. When the piano music came on as the "real" show, suddenly the fake "news bulletin" seemed real, too.
For several minutes, the piano music continued, interspersed with "news flashes," hissing sounds and fake static. As the "news flashes" became more alarming, the music grew increasingly insipid, making the news even more riveting.
Suddenly there was a crash, followed by what may be the greatest sound effect in radio history: dead silence. Even during a Martian invasion, everyone knows silence is costly; it was inconceivable anyone would waste air time on nothing. The invasion had to be real.
By the time a cheerful voice announced an intermission and reminded listeners that this was a dramatization, a good portion of Welles' audience had already hit the streets.
When the truth came out, hysteria turned to embarrassment and anger. Lawsuits were filed - sound familiar? - for everything from sprained ankles to premature births.
We will never know exactly how many people believed the Martians had really invaded; we do know, however, that those who did, did so not because they were gullible fools. Rather, they believed because they had fallen, unknowingly, under the spell of some excellent art, presented to them in a friendly and popular medium; they trusted this medium, and they believed this art to be true.
Which is why, ultimately, Welles' broadcast is still so troubling. It is a stark testimony, not to gullibility, but to the power of the media. "The War of the Worlds" should remind artists in every medium to be careful with what they present as truth; it also should remind consumers of art to be cautious with what we accept as true.
The image is disturbing: American citizens running through the streets, pointing hysterically upward. We don't ever want to repeat it.