Sunday, Oct. 30, 1938: the night before Halloween and about 10 months before Europe went to war. As a very real global catastrophe was stirring up across the Atlantic, listeners across America switched their radio sets to CBS for an hour of terror: not a world war, but a war of worlds.
Nearly 80 years later, Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast—based on the novel by H.G. Wells—remains iconic, influential and infamous for the widespread panic it reportedly caused (though some historians believe accounts are sensationalized).
This week, Wood River High School students will follow in Welles’ footsteps. In the original radio play, Welles and a cast of actors posed as reporters and experts responding live to a Martian invasion. They delivered their accounts with such detail, emotion and straight-faced candor that some listeners thought it was real.
The broadcast is ideal Halloween listening, and in a time when traditional Halloween celebrations and dramatic productions have almost all been scuppered, “The War of the Worlds” offered a creative solution to one group of local thespians: the WRHS drama department.
Normally, the student actors would perform onstage to a theater full of parents, friends and community members, but with Blaine County’s COVID-19 risk level remaining “critical,” such an undertaking proved impossible.
Rather than simply “calling it a fall” and moving on with the school year sans drama, teacher Karl Nordstrom said, “I felt like I owed it to [the kids] and owed it to the drama department to put our best foot forward.”
Recognizing that he couldn’t produce a regular stage show, Nordstrom turned to his “first love”: radio.
Earmarking the last week of October for the performances, “The War of the Worlds” seemed a perfect option, Nordstrom said.
A cast and crew of 22 students will bring Welles’ radio play to life under Nordstrom’s direction. The students will livestream the show each night at 6:30 p.m. from Oct. 28-30 via the WRHS Facebook page: facebook.com/WoodRiverHighSchool. The drama department had originally hoped to offer outdoor performances, but the school deemed audiences an unnecessary risk while Blaine County remains in the critical coronavirus risk level.
“Everything’s revolved around reducing exposure [to the virus],” Nordstrom said. “That’s the filter you have to think everything through.”
On Halloween night, area radio stations STAR 107.5 FM and KDPI 88.5 FM will broadcast a prerecorded performance by the students. The former will broadcast the show at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. and the latter at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m.
The radio show offered the actors a chance to explore a new medium and also allowed an opportunity for interschool collaboration. “Silver Creek High School let us use their recording studio,” Nordstrom said. “The principal there was all about it.”
Even without the usual parties and festivities, “The War of the Worlds” will give families an appropriately spooky way to celebrate the holiday.
“The whole goal of this was that I wanted them to gather around the radio with their families, to take an hour and sit down with their families and enjoy something on Halloween. I want to recapture, recreate this idea that before TV was in the home, people would gather around the radio and listen to these radio programs.”
So, this Halloween, Blaine County residents will have the opportunity to tune in for an evening of fright, just like those unsuspecting audiences in 1938 (though hopefully no one will panic and riot this time around—remember, it’s all fiction).