Relive (and re-create) the panic-causing 1938 radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds.”
H.G. Wells, Orson Welles, War of the Worlds, Spielberg, radio, theater, drama, Readers Theater, script, broadcast
The year was 1938. Television was in the experimental stages (the number of TVs in the United States numbered in the low hundreds), but people frequently gathered around radios to listen to the popular shows of the time.
On the night before Halloween in 1938, "The Mercury Theater on the Air" radio program presented an adaptation of an H.G. Wells novel, War of the Worlds. At the start of the broadcast, and several times throughout it, an announcer made it clear that the broadcast was fictional, but many people missed those announcements. Another popular radio show, "The Chase and Sanborn Hour," aired at the same time as Mercury Theater, so many people tuned into that popular program and switched from it during commercial or musical breaks to listen to the "Mercury Theater" production.
Can you imagine tuning into the middle of a broadcast and hearing dialogue such as this?
PHILLIPS [RADIO ANNOUNCER]: I see, do you still think it's a meteor, Professor? PIERSON [SCIENTIST REPORTING FROM A SITE WHERE AND OBJECT HAS LANDED]: I don't know what to think. The metal casing is definitely extraterrestrial . . . not found on this earth. Friction with the earth's atmosphere usually tears holes in a meteorite. This thing is smooth and, as you can see, of cylindrical shape. PHILLIPS: Just a minute! Something's happening! Ladies and gentlemen, this is terrific! This end of the thing is beginning to flake off! The top is beginning to rotate like a screw! The thing must be hollow! VOICES: She's movin'! Look, the darn thing's unscrewing! Keep back, there! Keep back, I tell you! Maybe there's men in it trying to escape! It's red hot, they'll burn to a cinder! Keep back there. Keep those idiots back! (SUDDENLY THE CLANKING SOUND OF A HUGE PIECE OF FALLING METAL) VOICES: She's off! The top's loose! Look out there! Stand back! PHILLIPS: Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed . . . Wait a minute! Someone's crawling out of the hollow top. Someone or . . . something. I can see peering out of that black hole two luminous disks . . are they eyes? It might be a face. It might be . . .
Needless to say, many who tuned in without hearing the announcer's introduction, went into a panic. The New York Times, reported on the panic:
" A wave of mass hysteria seized thousands of radio listeners between 8:15 and 9:30 o'clock last night when a broadcast of a dramatization of H. G. Wells's fantasy, "The War of the Worlds," led thousands to believe that an interplanetary conflict had started with invading Martians spreading wide death and destruction in New Jersey and New York"
Language arts: Listening. To give students a flavor of the broadcast so they too might sense what people were listening to that evening, you might play the audio of the above dialogue.
Language arts: Reading aloud. Have students read aloud "readers-theater style" parts of the "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast script.
Language arts: Drama. Arrange students into groups. Divide up the script and have groups rehearse their sections of it. Set aside time for the groups to present their readings. You might "recreate" the original broadcast by recording students' presentations. Students might even add sound effects to their presentations.
Critical thinking and media literacy. In 1938, people were enjoying the Golden Age of Radio. (The first commercial TV broadcasts would not debut until 1941.) Radio -- along with newspapers and newsreels that were shown in movie theaters -- was an accessible source of news and entertainment. People believed what they heard on the radio. To help put that thought into perspective, ask students to talk about how they use books, television, and the Internet as sources of information. Ask: Do you think you could have been fooled by the radio broadcast of "The War of the Worlds"? Why might you have been fooled? Do you believe everything you read? Have you ever been fooled into believing that something you saw on TV or read on the Internet was real when it was not?
You might introduce students to one or more of the following Web sites on the Internet that are entirely bogus. But each of the sites is created so that it looks, feels, and even sounds real. Share a Web site -- see if students of today can still be fooled
Mankato, Minnesota Home Page
Feline Reactions to Bearded Men
Republic of Molossia
Case Analysis Of A Historic Killer Tornado Event In Kansas On 10 June 1938
History and Listening. Listen to some of the broadcasts that were part of the Golden Age of Radio at Old Radio World.
Critical thinking -- comparing and contrasting. Share with students the novel by H.G. Wells that was adapted for broadcast. Have students compare the novel to the radio script. (Click for complete text of the novel on the Project Gutenberg Web site.) Or compare the book or radio script to the movie version filmed in 1953 or the Steven Spielberg version released in 2005. Note: The 2005 movie is rated PG-13, so you will need parents' permission to show the movie to students age 13 or under; or you might show excerpts of the film that are carefully screened for appropriateness.
Given the circumstances of the 1938 radio broadcast of "War of the Worlds," do you think you would have panicked? Have students write a response to that questions in their journals. They must include three supporting ideas to justify their responses.
Lesson Plan Source
FINE ARTS: Theatre
GRADES 5 - 8
NA-T.5-8.2 Acting By Assuming Roles and Interacting In Improvisations
NA-T.5-8.5 Researching By Finding Information to Support Classroom Dramatizations
NA-T.5-8.8 Understanding Context by Recognizing the Role of Theatre, Film, Television, and Electronic Media in Daily Life
GRADES 9 - 12
NA-T.9-12.2 Acting By Assuming Roles and Interacting In Improvisations
NA-T.9-12.5 Researching By Finding Information to Support Classroom Dramatizations
NA-T.9-12.8 Understanding Context by Recognizing the Role of Theatre, Film, Television, and Electronic Media in Daily Life
LANGUAGE ARTS: English
GRADES K - 12
NL-ENG.K-12.1 Reading for Perspective
NL-ENG.K-12.2 Reading for Understanding
NL-ENG.K-12.5 Communication Strategies
NL-ENG.K-12.8 Developing Research Skills
NL-ENG.K-12.12 Applying Language Skills
SOCIAL SCIENCES: U.S. History
GRADES 5 - 12
NSS-USH.5-12.8 Era 8: The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)
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For additional language arts/reading lesson plans, see these Education World resources:
Originally posted on 10/18/2005
Last updated 09/17/2010