ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, here is the latest bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News . . . . It is reported that at 8:50 p.m. a huge, flaming object, believed to be a meteorite, fell on a farm in the neighborhood of Grovers Mill, N.J.
We take you now to Grovers Mill, N.J.
Mabel Dey -- you can call her "Lolly" like everyone else does -- was 16 years old when the Martians landed here. And even today, 63 years later, she can remember the smallest of eerie details from that foggy night when Grovers Mill found itself in the interplanetary cross hairs.
It was Oct. 30, 1938, and Dey was at church.
"That particular night, I was at the piano," remembers Dey, "when someone, I think it was a fella, came barging in and started shouting, 'Martians have landed at Grovers Mill!' Well, I was learning about Hitler in school then, and I thought -- and I know this sounds crazy -- maybe Hitler and the Martians had gotten together, and this was the end of the world.
"So I stopped playing the piano, and I just bowed my head, and I prayed to the Lord."
As one of a dwindling number of "survivors" from that Halloween Eve, Dey remains the de facto expert on the enduring legend of Grovers Mill, the sleepy, creepy farming town that mass media -- and mass hysteria -- plucked from obscurity. And still, despite what she now knows about that pudgy prankster Orson Welles and "War of the Worlds" and the greatest trick-or-treat in Halloween history, Dey will never forget how truly terrified she was that October night -- the night that taught a young teenager to be forever wary of what she hears coming from her radio.
"All I could think in the church that night was that my mother was home alone," Dey says. "And if this was the end of the world, I wanted to be with her."
Good heavens, something's wriggling out of the shadows like a gray snake. Now it's another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me. . . . Ladies and gentlemen, it's indescribable!
Give the Martians some credit: They might not have been the most gracious (or handsome) tourists, but on Oct. 30, 1938, those surly reptiles couldn't have picked a prettier place in the eastern United States to raise an extraterrestrial ruckus. With its geese-populated pond, flora-framed streets and pumpkin-proud homes, Grovers Mill is still very much the sweet-dream embodiment of Small Town, U.S.A., that it was way back when. The loudest noise is usually the rustling of the autumn leaves, and the bustling modern world (that would be the bustling modern world of nearby Princeton) seems a million miles away. Even the chittering squirrels look from a Disney flick.
But then those Martians had to go and start zapping everyone with those nasty heat-ray thingies.
Oh sure, you chuckle now. But 63 years ago last night, Lolly Dey and a good number of the estimated 4 million to 12 million listeners very much believed in the power of those heat-ray thingies. News of a Martian rampage might have been a far-far-away-fetched notion, but a significant number of levelheaded people -- especially people in and around Grovers Mill -- bought into each and every warning that the 23-year-old Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air radio troupe were devilishly dishing out.
From 8 to 9 p.m. that Sunday, Welles's CBS radio play -- now known simply as the "Panic Broadcast" -- was performed as an all-too-believable news bulletin, with Welles and his players taking on the roles of journalists, farmers and scientists, all of whom were screaming that the aliens had unexpectedly dropped in on the Garden State -- and all of whom were lamenting that the end of the world was now.
Needless to say, Welles & Co. were convincing. Sure, there were several on-air disclaimers that it was all make-believe. But the masses wigged out anyway. In Newark, more than 20 families rushed into the streets with wet handkerchiefs over their faces in fear of Martian gases. In New York, a woman dragged her kids and spare clothes into a 47th Street police station begging for help. Brooklyn police assigned eight officers to handle more than 800 frantic inquiries.
In adapting H.G. Wells's seminal 1898 science-fiction novel "The War of the Worlds" -- in which Martians touched down outside of London -- Welles and playwright Howard Koch wanted to bring the story stateside. Koch, not quite sure where to commence the mayhem, picked up a pencil and blindly stabbed down on the state of New Jersey.
"I liked the sound of Grovers Mill," Koch said. "It had an authentic ring."
Authentic is right, now more than ever. Even the old wooden water tower still stands, an impressive display of endurance considering how, on that very night, several shotgun-toting Grovers Millers sent splinters flying from the tank, thinking the fog-shrouded tower was a menacing spaceship.
Otherwise, markers to that chaotic night are few. The biggest one was erected by community leaders in 1988 on the 50th anniversary of the broadcast, a bronze monument in lovely little Van Nest Park at the edge of Grovers Mill Pond. The six-foot marker features the bas-relief images of a looming flying saucer, Welles at the microphone and a fear-stricken family huddled around a radio. An inscription touts Welles's dubious achievement as "a landmark in broadcast history, provoking continuing thought about media responsibility, social psychology, and civil defense."
The attraction gets very little traffic nowadays, and state and local tourist brochures don't even mention Grovers Mill. And if it was up to a lot of the residents here, they'd just as soon forget the whole silly thing.
Still, Roy Wagner isn't surprised when sci-fi geeks and the odd journalists pull in each October, looking for traces of broadcast history. Each year, Wagner says, a few folks show up to take part in some Martian-themed festivities. There's only one problem.
"There aren't any festivities," says Wagner. "There aren't any souvenir stores or anything, either, 'cause you'd only sell shirts about one month out of the year."
For 25 years, Wagner has worked at the Grovers Mill Co., a hardware store, and he knows his duty. Reluctantly going through the tour-guide motions, he points out the once-bullet-riddled water tower just behind his store. Then he ho-humly motions down Cranbury Road in the direction of the monument.
And that's about it. Not much to see. And not too many tourists, either.
"A couple of months ago, there was this weird-looking guy walking around taking pictures of us and the water tower, but that's been about it lately," Wagner says.
"In 1938, this was a farming community of hard-working people, and they were embarrassed by the fact that they were taken by the broadcast," says Kay Reed, tax collector for West Windsor and a member of the local historical society. "There were people that we know who literally packed people in trucks and got out of town. For the longest time, the people of Grovers Mill essentially felt they were being made fun of. We don't do parades. Nothing. It's too bad."
Welles took a lot of heat after the broadcast, including several lawsuits. He repeatedly asserted that he meant no harm, and in his defense, Welles ended the broadcast with a playful debunking of the report, assuring listeners that the show was nothing more than the "Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying, 'Boo.' "
But by then, most of his audience wasn't listening anymore.
In fact, more than a few of them were miles away from the family Philco radio.
They were shouting into the phone or shivering in the yard or shooting up the town water tower.
So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight.
That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch. And if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian . . . it's Halloween.