'The War of the Worlds' on a Halloween long ago

"Someone's crawling. someone or ... something. I can see peering out of the black hole two luminous disks.... Something's wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. They look like tentacles to me.... I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, it's so awful...."

Six million listeners heard these words broadcast over CBS radio on the evening of Oct. 30, 1938. Nearly 1.7 million Americans believed they were hearing legitimate news bulletins announcing the landing of a Martian spacecraft in Grovers Mill, N.J.

In fact, they were listening to a Halloween edition of Mercury Theatre on the Air, a weekly radio show directed by Orson Welles. The play was adapted by Howard Koch and John Houseman from H.G. Wells's "The War of the Worlds."

Assigned the task of turning an outdated science-fiction classic into a dramatic radio script, Mr. Koch set the story on the east coast of the United States - substituting real names and places to capture the attention of his audience - and adopted a strategy of using news bulletins to lend a note of authenticity to the otherwise far-fetched plot.

Welles added an impeccable sense of timing, masterly sound effects, and a few well- crafted lines. He also starred in the show.

Those who missed the program's introduction and failed to stay tuned long enough for the station break believed what they heard. Convinced that the world was coming to an end, people fled the fictional monsters.

Hundreds of tales of accidents and deathspoured into Studio One during the broadcast, causing Mr. Welles and CBS station managers great anxiety.

Ironically, those who created the fiction believed - at least initially - reports of terrible tragedies resulting from audience reaction. These reports, like the program itself, turned out to be false or, at most, highly exaggerated.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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