The Power of Fear and Terror – Halloween 1938   

By Jerry Stewart


Each year, on this Halloween night, as I stand in my doorway, candy bowl in hand, watching all the little ones, and not so little ones, march by my door, I can’t help but be amazed by the scene. Think about it – one of the most popular nights in our America and what are we doing? Dressing our children up like fantasy and cartoon characters, some even dressed like monsters or witches or zombies. Then sending them out with bags in hand, knocking on doors, asking for candy and other treats. Truly an odd site.

How can this all be? The truth is this – terror and horror are big business in America. On Halloween night the Haunted Houses are full and some of the biggest theatre box successes ever are horror films.

But did you know that one Halloween night in our America, over 1 million people were convinced that aliens had landed and were about to destroy us all? It was perhaps the most terrifying Halloween in the history of our nation.

The year was 1938, and radio was in its heyday. One very popular weekly program was “The Mercury Radio Theatre” and it was presented live. In keeping with the Halloween terror theme, the producers of the radio play decided to do an adaptation of the H.G. Wells book, “War of the Worlds”. The lead producer for that week’s show was Orson Welles, a young man soon-to-be a very famous actor.

Well, the show had a simple and truly terrifying plot. A meteor crashes in a farmer’s field in the small farming village of Grovers Mill, New Jersey. When the locals approach the fallen meteor to examine it, they soon find out that it’s not a meteor at all – it’s a ship from outer space full of horrible alien creatures; and almost immediately these aliens begin using their deadly heat rays to destroy the people and their community. From there, the aliens expand their web of terror, make their way to New York City, killing everyone, melting everything in their path, including the U.S. Army; and the radio listeners that night believed it all to be true.

But you say, “How is it that the radio listeners came to believe that the simple radio play was real?” This is where this intriguing story becomes even more intriguing. The Mercury Theatre plays were always presented as live dramas with actors and sound effects, making the stories seem very real. But there was something else – the program was what was called a “sustaining show”, which meant that it ran without commercial breaks for the entire program. Also, the program director, Orson Welles, designed the broadcast to be a series of news bulletins which sounded very real. So, with no periodic disclaimers, no commercial breaks, and very little in the way of communication in those days, those who tuned in could not confirm or deny the program’s authenticity – it sounded like the real thing.

But there was something else going on in 1938 America – there was much real fear – all around the world. America was still in the midst of the Great Depression, and a real monster by the name of Adolph Hitler had already begun his march of terror across Europe with his own terrible invasions. All these factors helped to prepare the listeners to receive a fictional radio play as truth, and to give us a moment in America which is now known as the scariest Halloween in our history.

But there is something else to be considered here and a huge point for “we the people” of America today to remember – that true terror is a powerful tool. And that, given the right words presented in just the right way, at just the right time, we human beings are easily persuaded – and easily terrified. We have so many today, especially in our high political positions, trying to move us in a particular direction, trying to take away more and more of our say in this nation. Their most powerful tool? Terror.

If they can convince us that we are on the edge of oblivion, then we can be convinced to agree to go along with anything they may want to do – and they will have their way with us.

Let us be careful and thorough as we study the facts of our own terror in America today. Let us ask ourselves this question, “What will happen if we do or don’t act right now? What will happen if we give over our permissions or authorities to others without completely understanding the consequences?” Let us not be so easily convinced that the solution to our problems is in giving away our rights too quickly.

Finally, let us remember and take to heart the words of President Franklin Roosevelt which he spoke to a very frightened America in 1933:


    “… the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.


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