The Day the Martians Came

Steven Spielberg’s remake of the H.G. Wells science-fiction classic, War of the Worlds, will number among its audience a few of us who survived the night Mars invaded New Jersey. For me, the big scare was pretty close to home – we lived directly in the path of the drooling Martians.

The Spielberg film stars Tom Cruise as a divorced father in New Jersey protecting his family from marauding Martians. Although I was only 5 years old at the time, I vividly recall that famous fright night and know this latest War of the Worlds story won’t be half as scary. The coming attractions make no mention of the historic nightmare the late Orson Welles treated us to in 1938 in his radio broadcast of the horror tale. But there are still some of us who remember the near panic it caused.

“A special announcement from Trenton, New Jersey,” the voice on the radio was saying. “It is reported that a huge, flaming object, believed to be a meteorite, fell on a farm in the neighborhood of Grovers Mill, New Jersey, 22 miles from Trenton. The flash in the sky was visible within a radius of several hundred miles and the noise of the impact was heard as far north as Elizabeth.”

Grandma Crandall, unaware of the shocking report, put my sister and me to bed. It was Oct. 30, 1938 – the night before Halloween.

There was a loud knock at the door.

“Grace! Can you hear me? Are you listening to the radio?” It was the woman next door, almost hysterical. “For heaven’s sake, Grace, turn on the radio! We’re being invaded by Mars!”

Grace Crandall was listening instead to a scratchy Gilbert & Sullivan record on her old Victrola. Though her life as a New York showgirl had ended years before, my grandmother had resisted the growing popularity of radio as suitable entertainment and did not listen to it. She had never heard of Hollywood’s 23-year-old upstart genius, Orson Welles.

After this famous fearful night, she never forgot him.

My mother, widowed two years earlier, had called from New York to say she would be working late. Grandma finished our handmade Halloween costumes, put us to bed and cranked up the old Vic.

“Where’s your radio?” the frantic neighbor asked when grandma opened the door. “We’re being attacked by Mars!”

As thousands of other people that night, her friend had tuned in late to Mercury Theater and missed the start to the evening’s Halloween program – Orson Welles’ dramatization of the H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.

Turning on the radio, Grandma and her friend listened with mounting horror as the announcer talked excitedly about a big explosion at a farm in Grovers Mill, a small town near Princeton. Forty people had been killed. A reporter at the scene broke in with a breathless report:

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Carl Phillips again, at the Wilmut farm in Grovers Mill. This is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed. Wait a minute – someone’s crawling, someone or something. I can see the thing’s body. It’s large as a bear, and it glistens like wet leather. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva ripping from its rimless lips. It’s about 20 yards to my right….”

The broadcast was abruptly cut off. After some dead air, another voice announced nervously: “Ladies and gentlemen, due to circumstances beyond our control, we are unable to continue the broadcast from Grovers Mill.”

My grandmother and her friend, trembling beside the radio, heard martial law declared in South Jersey. Three million people were said to have taken to the roads in terror. The military called it, “The vanguard of an invading army from Mars.”  New York City was being evacuated.

Grandma gasped, fearing for her daughter’s safety and worried about the two toddlers left in her care.

Now the radio was saying that “great machines” were flying over the Palisades toward New Jersey, all headed our way. Aliens big as buildings were said to be “wading the Hudson River like a man wading a brook.” Giant invaders stepped over the Pulaski Skyway, the new bridge my father had helped build. It had opened in 1935, the year before he died.

Within minutes, the behemoths were in Newark, where my sister and I were born, laying waste to McCarter Highway and Elizabeth Avenue, just miles from our home in East Orange. (The next day we would hear that a man had blasted away at a water tower with a shotgun, mistaking it in the dark for a stilt-legged Martian.)

Our terrified grandmother woke my sister and me and took us outside wrapped in blankets. The night was clear and cold. Our neighbors on Norman Avenue were gathered in a vacant lot up the block, talking in hushed tones as they looked to the sky.

“Are they coming?” grandma asked. “Do you see them?”

Some people shouted and pointed to a light moving against the black, starry sky. But it was only an airplane – still not a common sight in 1938.

It seemed we were there a long time. I remember wondering why we were outside in the cold, staring at the sky. Then a man came by and said there was nothing to fear. He was laughing and slapping other men on the back, telling them to go home, that the Martian invasion was just a radio program.

Not everyone was fooled. As an eighth-grader, Robert A. Matthews listened to the entire program in the dark with his family in Morristown, N.J., not far from Grovers Mill. “For us, the real shock came when my father went out to buy ice cream and encountered widespread panic in our little town,” Matthews recalled. “It was an exciting night.”

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