(Dear Readers, to illustrate this story I found children’s drawings of aliens shared by Evan Hoovler. To enjoy his other contributions for your enjoyment, click here. http://goo.gl/bHi3V)
In 1938 on Halloween night at the Home for the Friendless, adults and children listened to a terrifying radio show starring Orson Welles. In the middle of the broadcast, Mr. Welles announced that aliens were invading our planet. He sounded afraid and, naturally, listeners were afraid. But at eight years of age, I wasn’t afraid. I was curious. If aliens really invaded Cedar Rapids, would they hurt us? Would the world be a big mess?
The next day at school was not normal because the only thing kids could talk about was that radio show and Orson Welles, the man who wrote the script titled The War of the Worlds. The teacher even set aside our Palmer Method penmanship lesson so we could talk about what we had experienced. My third grade classroom at Polk Elementary School became a solid mass of arms in the air with hands wiggling, and everyone begging to tell their own personal experiences. Arthur said, “I was scared to death, and I hid under the bed for a long time.”
Violet said, “Not me. I knew it was a joke.”
Phillip said, “It was not a joke, just a misunderstanding.” Phillip was very grown up.
A boy whose father worked at the police station said someone phoned to ask, “What time is this going to happen?” A girl whose father was a fireman said a lady called the fire department and asked, “When it happens, shall I close my windows?” Another student said that when her mother checked on an elderly neighbor, the woman said, “I don’t have time to talk right now! The end of the world is coming and I’ve got a lot to do!”
We all laughed at those stories, even the teacher. Then she told us another story, turning it into a lesson. “Students, there is a college in Brevard, North Carolina, where the all the students panicked during last night’s radio show. Who can tell me what the word panic means?”
No one had a clue, so she said, “The word panic means being so frightened that you lose control and do things you wouldn’t ordinarily do. Now, who would like to locate the state of North Carolina?”
Up jumped Bernard, Mr. Map himself, pointing with pride to North Carolina.
Our teacher said, “This is the location of the college where the students panicked during the broadcast.” Then she read from a newspaper clipping:
Five students at Brevard College, North Carolina, fainted and panic gripped the campus for a half hour with many students fighting for telephones to ask their parents to come and get them.
“Boys and girls, a radio broadcast is usually heard by the whole country. So try to imagine how many other people were afraid last night and how many of them probably panicked.”
Every kid nodded in agreement while she continued:
“When large groups of people become frightened by something they can’t see, they sometimes do strange things to get away from the fear. It’s called “mass hysteria” and it means that fear is sometimes contagious, like the measles.”
That night after supper, all of the kids and staff at the Home gathered close to the big Zenith console listening to the news. People were really mad about such a scary and realistic show being broadcast on Halloween. I felt sorry for Orson Welles because he probably had no idea what a ruckus he would cause. On the radio, he apologized to the producers of the CBS Mercury Theater for this getting out of control. He said, “The show was only a story and not real. We explained that before the broadcast.”
An interviewer said, “But, Mr. Welles, anyone who tuned in late missed that explanation. The broadcast seemed so real that everyone was confused.”
Orson Welles said, “I am so sorry. I don’t think we’ll ever broadcast that program again.”
While I was listening to the program, I had been a little bit confused, too, but I didn’t think it was real. Maybe growing up with such hullabaloo in my family had taught me to take things in stride. I was sure glad the world didn’t end on Halloween. It would have wrecked our costume party, and I was really looking forward to stuffing my face with candy.
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Click here for the original 1938 broadcast: