On Sunday night, October 30, 1938, a woman ran into St. Paul's Methodist Church. It was the evening worship for the church, located at Rader and Eugene Streets in Indianapolis.
“New York has been destroyed!” she screamed. “It’s the end of the world! You may as well go home and die! I just heard it on the radio!”
This lady was one of many who had been listening to a radio program entitled “The Mercury Theater On the Air” hosted by Orson Welles. On that particular evening, Welles was presenting a radio adaptation of the classic science fiction novel The War of the Worlds.
The radio drama was presented in an unusual way. It began as a program of orchestra music, but the show was soon interrupted with “news bulletins” about unusual explosions on the planet Mars. Soon it was reported that a large meteor had crashed into a farm field near Grovers Mill, New Jersey. Members of the radio audience were stunned to hear news reports that aliens had crawled from a spaceship there and had incinerated soldiers and state policemen. Before the program concluded, there had been a full-scale invasion of the area and New York had surrendered.
It was just a radio show, of course. As a matter of fact, the announcer had said so at the very beginning. However, many people did not hear the first few minutes of the show. They were tuned to the rival network for the top-rated “Chase and Sanborn Hour” hosted by Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. On that particular evening, Edgar and Charlie had featured a singer whose style evidently persuaded many listeners to turn the dial.
Hearing that a meteor had landed in their vicinity, two professors from Princeton University got their equipment together and went in search of it. What they found were a few farmers in Grovers Mill who reported that nothing unusual had happened in their fields that night. Meanwhile, terrified New Jersey citizens were jamming the highways. Where they were going was not quite clear. Callers overloaded the telephone circuits of police stations, asking for gas masks. They begged the electric companies to turn off the power which seemed to attract the alien marauders.
The program was being broadcast live. Before its end, news of the panic had gotten back to the CBS studio. Welles himself went on the air to remind listeners that it was all make-believe, his radio version of “dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo!” In his words, the radio was a “grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room...an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian...it’s Halloween.”
Media accounts of the time indicated that out of the six million listeners of the program, nearly one million thought the Martians were real. More recent studies have found that the actual number of “panicked citizens” was a fraction of that. However, the uproar was enough to warrant an investigation by the Federal Communications Commission. They found that no laws were broken. The networks agreed, however, to be more cautious about programming simulated news events.
In the many years since the Martians “landed,” we have grown used to false alarms and, nowadays, "fake news." Maybe we can sort it out a little better eight decades later, but it is still enough to keep us on edge.
In 1938, when the woman in Indianapolis rushed into the church to report that the world was coming to an end, Pastor Charles Lizenby took it calmly. After all, they were in church, weren't they? What better place to be? At any rate, he paused to allow concerned members to go home if they wished. Some of them left for a short while, but many returned soon to say it was all a false alarm. As for Rev. Lizenby, as he looked back on that strange October night, he probably saw a sermon in there somewhere.
The Night the Martians Invaded Indianapolis
They stumbled into the “Mercury Theater” just as the “news bulletins” were coming fast and furious. As soon as they realized that Martians were invading the earth, many of them decided to hit the road. Unfortunately, the automobile radio was not a widespread accessory. Therefore, most escapees left home in alarm with no way of hearing the announcer’s periodic reminders that the program was fiction.