In that era 75 years ago this Halloween, there was nothing to fear but fear itself.
But fear itself got a gnarly claw into the American psyche – for a brief time at least – with Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds.”
His adaption of the 1898 H.G. Wells classic started at 8 p.m. Oct. 30, 1938, on WBT radio and other CBS stations across the nation. Welles explained at the beginning it was just a dramatic interpretation. Music played, interrupted by official sounding bulletins from the New Jersey countryside. It ended at 9 p.m. with news that the Martians had been conquered by Earth’s most primitive defense: common germs.
Problem was, a lot of people missed the disclaimer at the beginning of “Mercury Theatre on the Air,” and subsequent announcements that it was just a play. And it was a great play. People thought it was true.
Sgt. John Dwyer, who was not listening to the radio, was on the desk at the Charlotte Police Department that Sunday night. He became aware of the hysteria when a woman walked in, an infant in one arm, a Bible in the other and a trembling boy clutching at her dress. She asked for protection from Martians.
“Sgt. Dwyer admitted that it was the strangest request the department had ever had,” The Charlotte Observer reported the next morning beneath the banner headline: “Thousands Terrified By Mock-War Broadcast.” He did his best to assure her all was well and sent her home.
She was but the vanguard of Charlotteans who would be appealing to police that night, most of them by phone.
At the Observer, calls poured in seeking information on the invaders’ advance. After answering 100, those on duty lost track of the number.
“Many of them refused to believe that what they heard was a play,” the paper said. “Others seemed panic stricken.”
He’s still got the radio
In Concord, Robert D. Raiford was a lad of nearly 11 (he’s pushing 86 now) when he heard the broadcast.
“They said during the show that this is not real, it is a dramatization,” he recalls. “Any fool who listened to it could tell. Even I could tell and I was just a boy.”
Raiford heard the show on an Atwater Kent cabinet radio that his father bought in 1929. When his father built their Concord house in 1935, he installed an antenna in the rafters so distant stations could be received at night.
They’re all still there in the house — the antenna, the radio and Raiford.
“I cut my teeth on that radio, literally,” says Raiford. There’s a piece of decorative woodwork gnawed off by Baby Robert when he was teething.
In 1952, Raiford went to work for WBT and then onto a long career in broadcasting. He’s still at work, as resident curmudgeon on the “John Boy and Billy” morning show on WRFX-FM ( Fox 99.7).
And his memory of 1938 is still crisp. “That next day when everyone was talking about it, I couldn’t believe how dumb they had been.”
Gullibility on campus
On Carolinas campuses, the hive mentality was easily excited.
At Charlotte’s Chicora-Queens College, as it was then known, the broadcast was widely believed. Two women fainted, as women were apt to do back in those days.
Men, too – five male students had to be revived at Brevard College.
At Clemson, one student was found standing next to the river, prepared to jump in to escape Martian heat rays.
Another found religion. “One cadet was playing poker when the broadcast started; when it ended, he was praying,” The Charlotte News said.
Clemson cadet Ed Schmidt tried for 30 minutes before he managed to get a call through to his father in Roselle Park, N.J., not far from the Martian beachhead.
“There came the reassuring words, ‘If anything had happened, I would have known about it before you. By the way, how did Clemson come out with Wake Forest?’” the News reported.
‘An exciting experience’
Marion Dobbin of Davidson was a newlywed visiting her in-laws in Lake Forest, Ill., the night of the broadcast.
“I didn’t hear it from the beginning,” says Dobbins, now 97. “At first, I think we thought it was for real, then as we listened we realized it wasn’t. It was an exciting experience.”
Especially later, when those who’d been fooled found out it was just a play.
“People who tuned in a little late thought that was for real, and there was great consternation.”
As Halloween scares go, it was a classic. Scholars disagree on how many people were mistakenly taken in, but 75 years later, the show retains its notoriety in the nation’s — and the Carolinas’ — imagination. Welles’ soliloquy at the end of the broadcast was more insightful than he even he could have known at the time.