The Martians Are Coming!

Martian War MachinesWhen H. G. Wells published War of the Worlds in 1897 (it first appeared serially, much like a Dickens novel), he was grappling with concerns about the future of humankind.  Natural selection suggested that humanity’s place at the top of the food chain was not preordained, which meant that it might not be permanent, either.   In a piece published in 1891, Wells wrote the following:

There is . . . no guarantee in scientific knowledge of man’s permanence or permanent ascendancy. . . . The presumption is that before him lies a long future of profound modification, but whether that will be, according to present ideals, upward or downward, no one can forecast. Still, so far as any scientist can tell us, it may be that, instead of this, Nature is, in unsuspected obscurity, equipping some now humble creature with wider possibilities of appetite, endurance, or destruction, to rise in the fulness of time and sweep homo [H. sapiens] away into the darkness from which his universe arose. (reprinted in Philmus, ed., H. G. Wells: Early Writings in Science and Science Fiction 168)

Wells referred to this evolving “humble creature” as “the Coming Beast.” The concerns he raises here also appeared in Wells’ fiction, especially in War of the Worlds. Forty years later, when Orson Wells produced his radio play of the story, did the fear of a “Coming Beast” still drive the plot? Or were other themes from the original novel more salient? What about the specter of total war (a devastating phenomenon that had never been a historical reality at the time Wells wrote)? Or of hubris and complacency right on the brink of disaster? The field of cultural studies works with the assumption that, by studying changes to a cultural text over time, we should be able to learn something about the values and anxieties of their audiences. Further, while you might expect that any adaptation ought to be true to the original, in fact that might not be a good thing, or even possible. The adaptation of a cultural text, whether from one medium to another (such as literature to film) or one era to another, will entail reworking the tale to fit the needs of its new audience. Wells’ book has been made into at least two radio plays and seven films, and presumably each one is distinct.

With that in mind, what themes did you note in the radio play? And—this question may be related—what goals did the radio play have? For example, in addition to entertaining its audience, I would argue that it clearly wanted to scare them. Did it perhaps want to fool them, as well? What did Orson Welles and the other creators do to try to achieve those goals? We might also investigate the attitude towards science and scientists expressed in the play: is it more or less positive than our attitude today, do you think? Are the scientists we meet in the radio play trustworthy or not? Self-correcting or blinkered? Cowardly or brave? Aside from the scientists themselves, what role does science play in the narrative itself? Does it make the story more persuasive, or does it detract from it?

Those of you interested in more details about audience responses to Welles’ radio production could check out this story at Slate.


About profschell

I am a professor at the George Washington University, where I teach academic writing and conduct research on American popular culture, most recently on Turkish readers of American romance novels.
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37 Responses to The Martians Are Coming!

  1. sm4321 says:

    I will be one to admit that I had a hard time making out everything that was said on the show, so I worked to piece together as much as I could, nothing that I undoubtably missed some of the details. To go on to the questions – I think that the goal of the radio show was to present this scenario (of a War of the Worlds) as something that is possible and could occur. I think that your argument (profschell) is correct in wanting to scare the audience and I would also agree that they wanted to fool them into thinking this was reality. To achieve fooling the audience, they included things in their radio show that made it more believable, such as interviews and mocking the format of a typical broadcast. I am unsure of what the overall attitude is towards scientists, but I am interested in what others think, as understanding this and decoding this would probably add a level of analysis and understanding. I think that the scientists we meet on the broadcast are not trustworthy, rather that they attempt to outline that scientists may not have all of the answers.

  2. The main purpose, in my opinion, was to entertain the audience which listened in to that particular radio station. I do not believe that the radio station had in mind to scare its audience, at least as their primary goal. As current news sources due to this day, things were taken out of proportion. If you, as a listener, were to turn on the radio at the wrong time, you would have been frightened- who wants to be caught in a world invasion. This program, on the other hand, did an excellent job is making the invasion seem realistic. From its scientist to the sound effects, everything seemed real. The scientists we were introduced to seemed trustworthy for one reason, they were from Princeton University. Opinion would have been different if it had been a professor or a scientists from a community or state college. The simple fact that they were from Princeton gave them credibility. The scientists were depicted as brave, knowledgeable individuals who know everything that was occurring and thus our only method of surviving. Science came into play in the narrative as a form of explanation for the occurring events. The use of science, such as the heat guns and the explosions, believed to have been meteorites, make the story even more persuasive, being that the common person would believe it as possible.

    • profschell says:

      Here’s a question, californiarepublic79: If the goal was not to scare people, why was it originally broadcast on the night before Halloween?

      • Profschell- The broadcast, in my opinion, was simply a form of entertainment. Just as movies about Jesus’s crucifixion are shown during the Christmas holidays, at least on Hispanic media, or “It’s the great pumpkin, Charley Brown” is shown during the night of or before Halloween, it provides the viewers a form of entertainment for the upcoming holiday or event. Similar in this situation, the broadcast was presented as a means of entertainment for the upcoming Halloween. In my opinion, there is nothing more relaxing and enjoyable than to sit down and watch a film related to the upcoming event, simply because it encourages and excites you for that particular event. Also, in stating that it was not intended to scare people, I meant to say that it was more to get people in the mood rather than create a serious panic attack nationwide or even statewide.

    • We might watch a scary movie but that is different from CNN telling us that the aliens are invading. I see it as the radio station trying to frighten its listeners like a movie would. Movies try to seem realistic but we know that they aren’t. Unfortunately this got out of hand but I do not think they intentionally tried to make people actually believe that there were aliens.

      • gatorade15 says:

        I would have to agree with both ideas that the purpose is to entertain and scare at the same time. The radio show really entertains its audience by broadcasting a relatively scary and realistic play reenacting the story “War of the Worlds’. I think that the fact that it was broadcasted the day before Halloween plays into this idea of its scariness being used to entertain.

      • butterjones says:

        I disagree, anonymousgwstudent– i think that if the had really wanted people to know that the broadcast was fictional, they would have had periodic re-introductions, as is typical with radio shows. They would have said things like “for those of you just tuning in, this is a dramatic production of HG Wells ‘War of the Worlds”. I think that their omission of such intros was not so much an attempt to keep the story uninterrupted as an attempt to fool latecomers into thinking it real

  3. regan1984 says:

    To possibly offer and insight into what the point of the scientists was in the radio play, it occurred to me that they might be the manifestation of the themes of hubris and complacency you (profschell) mentioned. I interpreted them, in context with this idea of complacency, as Orson Well’s medium to reference our complacency and hubris as a species. We, humans, know that we are at the top of the global food chain. We are the apex predator to all apex predators. Furthermore, I believe that the reason Orson Wells used scientists as a manifestation for this complacency is that, in our society, it is generally them who we associate with advanced knowledge. If a nobel prize winning scientists who holds many other notable awards in his or her field makes a discovery, despite how possibly far fetched it may seem to us, we will most likely take their discovery as now fact. To have the long standing question of are we alone be answered by not only a resounding “Yes”, but also the reality that we are no longer the apex predator of our world probably adds to the realism and fear that was the point of this radio play.

  4. glowcloud says:

    I think a major theme and what makes the terror in War of the Worlds so salient is this idea of helplessness. Mankind has made so much progress but despite all of our modern technology, scientific progress, and infrastructure, we are completely powerless against these creatures. This absolutely is tied to H.G. Well’s idea of a “Coming Beast” in that we have come to assume our dominance in the world is a guarantee and are completely flabbergasted when we need to face something potentially stronger than us. I like how Wells and Welles used the most advanced forms of technology during their times (newspaper and radio, respectively) to advance their narrative as it also functions as a sort of commentary on modernity.

    • thinkbrush says:

      Glowcloud, I agree that the theme of helplessness guides the narrative as well as the production of this radio show. I think it is important to note the era this radio program was produced in and how paranoia played a part in the culture of the US at the time. I think this example excellently combines fears of natural selection and humanity’s precarious perch atop the food chain, the “Coming Beast” and other themes of eugenics and human extinction. I think this show marks the rise of science and technology and its influence on culture in the US in a time where it was not wholly understood.

  5. gwuw2014 says:

    Wells’ quote reminds me of an article I read while researching for my final essay for this class, actually, though I can’t remember where I found it. The article was about human fear of zombies and aliens – they’re most feared because they are “slate-wipers.” They can so easily take over and abolish the human race. Wells’ (and Welles’) use of aliens as the main villain in this broadcast plays on human fear of extinction and the primal desire to survive.

  6. greyelephant1 says:

    I agree with sm4321 in that the radio show was a little hard to understand. I think the goal was to scare the audience. As californiarepublic79 pointed out, the credibility of the speakers on the show made the situation more convincing. The background noises, live interviewers with witnesses and the tone of voices made it hard not to believe it was really happening. Also, having science incorporated makes the situation seem more real. I don’t think the scientists themselves were trustworthy, but having science implies that whatever is being stated must be true. So, in the end, science is adding to the story, providing more reasons for listeners to believe what they were hearing. While I think that the goal was to scare the audience, tit was also to provide amusement.

    • profschell says:

      greyelephant1, you and sm4321 have suggested that the scientists are not trustworthy in this show. I’d like to push that a little further. What makes them not trustworthy? They were mistaken in the beginning, granted: Prof. Pierson poo-poos the notion of life on Mars (wrong!), a relationship between the explosions on Mars and the earthquake near Princeton (wrong!), and so forth. However, being trustworthy is surely not the same as being infallible, is it? Later, they change their opinion in response to new data–that’s very much a scientific approach, but is it one that non-scientists don’t like?

      • butterjones says:

        profschell– being trustworthy is definitely not the same as being infallible, and I don’t quite understand what greyelephant and sm4321 meant when they said that the scientists were “untrustworthy”– to me, the fact that the scientists were disbelieving at first made their later testimony more credible. Had they jumped on the idea of aliens at the beginning, i think it would have been too unrealistic. As you said, it is very much a scientific approach (to change opinion as data becomes available for interpretation) and although we, as an audience, might not like the changing information, it is definitely something we are used to, and so does not make us trust them less

  7. collegeblogger19 says:

    I have to agree with sm4321 in that I also did not catch every detail that was said. However, I do think that though the radio show may have frightened many people, its main goal was to entertain its audience by making it seem as real as possible. The sound effects, abrupt breaks in the “broadcast”, and the scientists’ titles all added to the reality of the show. The prestige of the scientists that were used in the show made it seem like a very important and even dangerous situation from the beginning. Throughout the show, I think it is easy to want to trust the scientists–after all, they are experts on this type of situation. But I think as we listen to more and more, the scientists seem more deceiving–pretending as if nothing is happening that needs to be worried about. They talk as if they are hiding something, and that they are the only ones worthy of knowing what is actually happening.

  8. For me it is really interesting to think about whether or not the mass histeria that was a result of the broadcast was anticipated. I would imagine that they producers didn’t desire to cause that much chaos but I do think that they were trying to fool the audience. They obviously had set out to entertain their listeners and I think that one of the best ways to do that is to scare them. People like to be scared, for fun that is, and the most effective way of scaring them would be to trick them into thinking that the broadcast was real. Which is why I believe they had interviews, breaks, and told it like it was an actual event. There was no narrator simply reading a story to the audience. So I believe they did very blatantly try and trick their audience.
    As to the image of scientist that is portrayed I would say that it is slightly better than it is today. In my opinion the scientist were portrayed as confident hero types. They were sure in their convictions and were willing to change their minds. They were also incredibly brave and had situations where they were getting close to the capsule and telling the audience about the extraterrestrial metal, all while sounding perfectly come and relaxed. The show seemed to very optimistic about the scientist and made them out to be the figures who are most likely going to lead us into the future.

    • pianokid123 says:

      I agree vikings! The broadcast used many of the auditory effects as modern Scary Movies do. For instance, they abruptly cut in and out, and juxtaposed sounds of terror throughout. They were definitley trying to scare, or at least startle their listeners. Additionally, they never tried to reassure their listeners it was a hoax, and only included a brief disclaimer in the exposition of the program.

    • profschell says:

      Historians don’t agree about whether there really was mass hysteria in response to the broadcast. This should seemingly be an easy thing to determine, but there’s evidence that the mass hysteria was just media hysteria…

  9. waterbottle19 says:

    I agree that the show was intending to scare its audience. I think the setting of the story, on a farm in New Jersey, appeals the common American. It presents this idea that this could happen anywhere and affect anyone. It’s not something that is happening in some far off land. This could be your home. This could be your own backyard. I think it’s important to ask why are they attempting to scare their audience. Personally, I believe they are a pro-evolution agenda. It’s a story about the fall of the human race from the top of the evolutionary food chain. As Wells stated, he does not believe in the “permanent ascendancy” of man. It is also interesting how scientists were portrayed. While listening, I noticed they seemed very reasonable in comparison with some of the hosts of the radio show. They did not jump to conclusions about the situation that was unfolding. Only after first hand observation did one scientist finally proclaim it to be an alien invasion. What do you guys think?

    • profschell says:

      Oh, I hadn’t thought about the implication of setting the first part of the story on a farm. That’s a persuasive interpretation.

    • moneytrees3001 says:

      Yes waterbottle19! I very much agree about the show’s pro-evolution agenda, and I think it bears many similarities to the Hall of Human Origins. That exhibit attempted to convince visitors of evolution’s validity by revealing the visitor’s own place in the evolutionary timeline. Different displays showed animations of what our bodies will look like in the future under certain conditions, and the effect global warming will have on our development as a species. Recognizing that humans are not a special species and are simply one development in a long series of developments makes it easier to accept evolutionary science. Wells seems to agree with this idea: “Nature is, in unsuspected obscurity, equipping some now humble creature with wider possibilities of appetite, endurance, or destruction.” This made me wonder about Wells’ religious beliefs and ideological motivations. When I researched him I could only find a wacky Answers in Genesis article ( that seems to suggest he moved away from Catholicism, but if anyone could clarify I think it would add a valuable perspective.

      • profschell says:

        Moneytrees3001, are you talking about H.G. Wells (the novelist) or Orson Welles (who produced the radio show)?

      • profschell says:

        As to H.G. Wells, his religious views were somewhat ambiguous, or at least he chose to write ambiguously about them. In _First & Last Things_ (1908), he wrote, “All these religions are true for me as Canterbury Cathedral is a true thing and as a Swiss chalet is a true thing. There they are, and they have served a purpose, they have worked. Only they are not true for me to live in them. … They do not work for me.”

  10. punky1218 says:

    The scientists on the radio broadcast, I believe, carried a huge weight into the broadcast becoming real for many of the listeners. They attempted to remain level headed stating that the earthquake and the activity on Mars could not have been related. This gave the scientists credibility, which the radio broadcast used later to convince the audience of other more shocking events. Despite the evolution-creationism debate, I think that scientists still hold similar credibility and high esteem in the public’s eyes. In the courts, experts in various fields often hold more credibility than actual eye-witnesses. Media outlets often use scientists to validate news articles and broadcasts. Scientists and other experts carry considerable credibility in the public’s eyes.

  11. I am not aware of the popularity of the book at the time but it was written to take place in Europe. I distinctly remember when I read the book the the United States is not mentioned. The closest Wells comes to referencing the United Sates is something along the lines of “North America” or maybe “the Americas.” The radio broadcast changed the setting to take place in the United States to accommodate the audience and I think that might have had a big impact. It makes the story seem imminent and possibly unrecognizable from its original form. This had to have been intentional. Why else would they change the story from its original form?

  12. The radio show was extremely refined and accurate in its production, hence you can see exactly why it could have caused widespread panic and chaos after the broadcast. There seems to be a level of painstaking detail put into the show, details such as telling the farmer to raise his voice and speak into the microphone, to the eerie music and sound effects that accompany the storyline. Even reproductions of the show, such as the disastrous Leonardo Paez and Eduardo Alcaraz version in February 1949, led to chaos and confusion, and ultimately riots that resulted in the death of Paez’s girlfriend and nephew. The following links elaborate on that tumultuous story:
    The themes of science, mass hysteria, humans’ obsession with the apocalypse and extraterrestrial life are evident throughout the story. The goals of the show are pretty explicit, the creators wanted to create as real a science fiction show as possible. They obviously didn’t account for the aftermath, if at all there was one (considering it’s still a matter of debate). One example of the degree of realism in the show would be the scientists. They maintained a rational viewpoint and were argung against an alien invasion right till the very end; this seemed very much in line with what a scientist would do in the event of an actual alien invasion. The show is extremely detailed and well thought out, a testament to the genius of H.G. Wells.

  13. Wow, quite refreshing to move away from evolution for a change! The realistic approach that the radio producers took, shows their effort to evoke some sort of emotion from the listeners. It difficult to say if inducing fear was the main intention, but they were definitely aware that it was a possibility with the realistic broadcast and ‘play’ that their effort (sound effects, interviews, live reports) would translate to a realistic reaction if extraterrestrial life was to actually land in the middle of NJ. In an effort to make the broadcast realistic the scientists in this broadcast reveal an analytical side that breaks down the events that are occurring in order to persuade the audience. The use of science helps the realistic approach yet it doesn’t outweigh the other strategies such as live reporting and eye witness interviews, with an audience that presumably doesn’t understand astronomy and higher level science.

  14. graduallychanging says:

    Professor Schell, I completely agree that scaring its audience was one of the radio play’s main goals. In order to do so effectively, it had to fool them. I think that the play relied heavily on the assumption that people would turn on their radios after the play had begun. The frequent “interruptions” would attract potential audience members into following the false live news story because they would think there has been a sudden development. Beginning the play by consulting a respected scientist was crucial to the plot of the play. By being brave and correcting his previous statement, the scientist showed that the new evidence undoubtedly pointed towards an alien invasion.
    Also, in terms of wanting to incite fear in the audience, Orson Welles states, “we couldn’t soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night. . . so we did the best next thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears.” He tells the audience that it was all an elaborate gag to scare them.

  15. serrobert says:

    I agree with slowdownyourmind. I do not think that they wanted to make people actually believe in aliens, or that their intent was to truly scare some people into mass hysteria. I think it was just a radio show that was formatted so as to be as similar as possible to real life and some people believed it was real. It is the same today as someone reading an article from the onion and not knowing it is not real.

    • butterjones says:

      i find your connection to The Onion interesting, serrobert– didn’t we learn, just a week or two ago, that a lot of people do take the onion seriously? at least, they do at first. It happens quite often. And though the ultimate intent of The Onion is not to make people actually believe what they print, they do not include any disclaimer stating that it is false information, because I think that they do enjoy when people are fooled by their articles. It lends credibility to their satire. So maybe the primary goal of this production, just like The Onion, is just to be a meticulously-crafted parody, but I definitely think that their secondary goal is to fool audiences (not permanently, but for a time)

  16. sunny2018 says:

    I think the main goal of the broadcast was to entertain the audience through frightening them, much as horror movies due today. They tried to make everything as realistic as possible in order to add to the effect; hence, why science makes the broadcast more persuasive. Because Wells focused on the faults of man in his book, it’s clear that he wanted the same themes to go into the radio broadcast. Not telling the audience that the broadcast was fictional seems, to me, like a modern day viral marketing campaign, similar to how many ads for horror movies claim that they are ‘based on a true story.’ It adds to the fear factor.

    • lumastan says:

      I completely agree, the broadcast was exactly like a modern day horror film, but its important to remember that at the beginning of the broadcast it was stated that it was War of the Worlds.

  17. cfc0567owls says:

    To simply say that the goal was to scare the listeners is insufficient, that is the goal of every thriller or horror film. The important thing to note, however, is HOW they try to scare the listeners. The method by which Wells and Welles try to scare the audience is through the use of realism. Though it seems, at least to the listener who missed the introduction, to be a live music performance, The War of the Worlds consisted of seemingly off the cuff and urgent news interruptions. As the situation worsens, more imformation is given to the audience, as if the reporter is learning it at the same time. In addition, the interviews with eyewitnesses seem to be frantic and unrehearsed. The creepiest part is, after the poison gas kills the radio broadcasters, a voice can be heard repeating “is anyone there.” Another way they tried to scare people was by having the scientists outright deny the invasion. Only after the evidence was far too strong did the scientists admit that it was an invasion. Had they said that it was an invasion from the beginning, the listeners may not have believed it. But, much the way I would presume scientists would react in a similar real world situation, the scientists tried to explain it as being “seismic activity” or other natural causes. Only when all other possibilities had been eliminated did the scientists concede that this was, in fact, an invasion.
    While I have read the book, I have never listened to the radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, and I loved it. It was just so well made! The fame of the broadcast is only compounded further by the fact that some members of the public believed that there was an actual invasion!

  18. arcanium82 says:

    I learned about this broadcast when I was younger but this was the first time that I have listened to it firsthand. It is very entertaining! I can imagine entire families huddled around the radio, listening on the edge of their seats, believing that the world was really coming to an end.

    In my opinion, the radio program expressed the scientist in a very positive light. He was an authoritative and trustworthy character. He also didn’t shy away from danger as he was right there at Grover Mills when the first canister opened up and people got zapped with the heat ray.

    As for the intended impact on society, I wonder if the rise of Nazi Germany played a role in this production? In 1938 the world was on edge with many people seeing the aggressive politics from Hitler as a prelude to war. Perhaps Orson Welles made this broadcast to show America that they are vulnerable. In the beginning of the program the scientist was asked how far away Mars was. He responded with something like 40 million miles away. The news reported then seemed relieved and said that it appears like Earth is at a pretty safe distance.

    Many Americans in this time period felt like the Atlantic Ocean was a similar distance to Europe and whatever was happening over there did not effect us. They felt that there was no way we could get roped into another European war. Perhaps Welles introduced this notion to make a point that if we are not safe from Martian invaders, we are also susceptible people on the other side of the ocean.

    Fun alien fact: The first Superman comic was released in 1938. In the same year, we had aliens come to protect us and destroy us.

  19. macnplease says:

    Before I had read the book or heard the radio show from 1938, I had seen the movie with Tom Cruise. The experience from the movie and the experience from the radio show were very different; in some ways, it felt much more real through the radio show, since the context of the movie included the assumption that what we were seeing wasn’t real, but in the radio that assumption did not exist to the people who first heard it. Imagining their experience listening to the events unfold through their radio was truly chilling.

    At the time of the radio production, the buildup of suspense about a pending conflict in Europe was very real. Hearing about explosions in New Jersey must have been alarming news, no matter what. Without a doubt, the radio show was trying to scare people, and could have certainly been using the fear of current global events as a booster for the effect. The scientists in the story seemed to represent a complacency with humanity’s security as the dominant species on earth, as Wells warned against in his original book. They were meant to seem fatherly and calm, trustworthy and patient, when in reality they were as blind, or ignorant, from the truth of the situation as anyone else. However, the emphasis on scientific explanation for the events in the production give it a chilling realism that certainly would have frightened any of the less-than-well-versed listeners.

  20. lumastan says:

    I really enjoyed listening to this broadcast, not only as a look in to a historic prank but in its simple way of entertainment. It really employed the most of possible persuasive techniques to convince the audience that the broadcast was an actual event. The shakiness of the orchestra, which gave it credibility, the back and forth between the orchestra, on-scene reporting, and interviews with supposed officials, all gave the broadcast a sense of happening in the movement – that this could not have been staged or acted out. It all worked together to create a realistic experience.

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