Bring on the Mass Hysteria: War of the Worlds reenactment set for Oct. 28

By Alison Wagener

We interrupt this blog post to bring you a special announcement: 

A team of writers, educators, and lovers of widespread panic have come together to recreate one of the most well-known radio broadcasts in American history. The group, spearheaded by BJ Hollars and UW-Eau Claire physics and astronomy professor Paul Thomas, will perform a live-action version of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds.”

The performance began as BJ’s idea to invite people to simply listen to a recording of the original 1938 broadcast. But Paul had other plans. 

"What I pitched back at him was that we'd actually do the radio show, not just listen to it,” Paul said. “And he typically enough said, 'Alright! Let's do it!'"

Orson Welles’ radio broadcast was intended as a modern day recreation of H.G. Wells’ 1898 science fiction novel War of the Worlds. The seasoned 23-year-old didn’t plan the show as a large-scale hoax, but simply as a Halloween episode of the American radio drama anthology series The Mercury Theatre on Air. The episode was broadcasted on CBS on October 30, 1938.

The October 28 reenactment will technically celebrate the 78th anniversary of Welles’ broadcast, almost to the day. But most people don’t know it was originally a Halloween show. 

“Orson Welles makes a joke at the end, as sort of a low-key joke,” Paul said. “He tries to diffuse the tension set up and he says, 'Well, this is the Mercury Theatre's equivalent of dressing up in a sheet and shouting boo.' So it was intentionally a Halloween show from the beginning.”

Welles presented the story as a live first-person account of what he thought was a large meteor striking the tiny town of Grovers Mill, New Jersey. But then, extraterrestrial beings emerged from metal canisters at the crash site. The increasingly panicked newscaster documented the night’s terror as the Martians attacked all surrounding humans with heat-ray guns and even killed a troop of 7,000 National Guardsmen.

The History Channel reports that the fictitious program caused widespread real-life consequences, causing listeners to flee from their homes, pray for their families, and in some extreme urban legends, take their own lives.

Perhaps as many as a million radio listeners believed that a real Martian invasion was underway. Panic broke out across the country. In New Jersey, terrified civilians jammed highways seeking to escape the alien marauders. People begged police for gas masks to save them from the toxic gas and asked electric companies to turn off the power so that the Martians wouldn’t see their lights. One woman ran into an Indianapolis church where evening services were being held and yelled, “New York has been destroyed! It’s the end of the world! Go home and prepare to die!”

But it’s likely that accounts such as this have been incredibly exaggerated. Slate reported in 2013 that major newspapers fabricated the hysteria, hoping to discredit radio as a credible news source. Either way, the broadcast had a lasting impact on American radio and skyrocketed Welles to critical success.

"I'm an astronomer who studies the planets, and for me, the Orson Welles radio show and the H.G. Wells novel that preceded it are landmark works,” Paul said, later adding, “Wells essentially mapped the history of imperialism onto what he thought was the most advanced technological civilization of the time, but was utterly powerless against the Martians. Orson Welles revamped that into a pre-Second World War version, where the power of the U.S. Army, Airforce, and all of our guns are totally insignificant.”

BJ has taken on the role of director, and rehearsals are well underway. Paul’s first step was to cast himself as Orson Welles, a role he has always dreamt of fulfilling.

"Playing a genius like Orson Welles is a real treat. I sort of hoped that sometime in my life I'd get a chance to do that,” Paul said. “I just didn't see how it would happen… I'm humbled and incredibly proud to be a tiny part of all this. It's just great. It's a hoot, it works dramatically, and doing it with BJ, that's just an even bigger thrill.”

The rest of the cast includes Rob Reid, a professor of education studies at UW-Eau Claire, Ken Szymanski and Jason Splichal, English teachers at South Middle School, and Debbie Brown, volunteer and event coordinator at WPR’s Eau Claire studio.

The performance will be held on Friday, October 28 at 7 p.m. at Volume One and will last for around 50 minutes. Before the show, resident Orson Welles expert Jim Rybicki will give a background on the filmmaker’s life and how the broadcast sent him to stardom.

Paul warned that public excitement for the event has been pretty high, but the Volume One gallery only holds around 30 people. Securing a seat might require showing up relatively early. Their plan is to allow guests to flow into the rest of the Volume One space and play the show over the speakers, giving the rest of the audience a true radio recreation. 

For those looking for a Halloween costume opportunity a few days early, attendees are eagerly invited to join the actors in dressing in 1930s garb. The cast will be dress in not only the get-up you would associate with those working at a radio station in 1938, but also the everyday outfits of the horrified characters their roles portray. Paul said he hopes acting out the drama so realistically will get to the heart of the iconic story: an account of destruction, fear, and helplessness at the precipice of colonization.

“We're gonna try to make it fresh. One of the reasons I wanted to do it—I mean you can't beat Orson Welles, you can't beat the Mercury Theatre—but I wanted to make it fresh and raw,” Paul said. “And every time we rehearse, that's what we're trying to aim for... It won't, I hope, seem familiar and easy to you. It'll seem a bit edgy. That's where we want to be, that's our goal.