Staff Book Review: Spooked by Gail Jarrow
Have you ever been watching a show and it was interrupted by a “breaking news” report? That’s exactly what happened on the night of October 30, 1938 when a radio program featuring orchestra music was interrupted by a special news bulletin: there have been gas explosions on Mars. The music continues only to be interrupted several more times with updates – interviews with astronomers, further explosions on Mars, and a possible meteorite hitting Earth near Grovers Mill, NJ. Eventually, the music program is completely forgotten, replaced by increasingly alarming reports as the meteorite is discovered to be an alien spacecraft. When the invaders become hostile, we hear the screams of people dying, transmissions are ended abruptly as reporters on the scene are killed, and the airwaves are eventually overtaken by military communications as they organize their strike against the invaders. Their efforts prove futile – this is the end of the world.
Of course, Martians never really invaded. What listeners were really hearing was a performance of The War of the Worlds as part of a weekly Mercury Theater radio program starring a young Orson Welles. Today, this broadcast remains well known because of the reported mass hysteria it caused in listeners around the country who believed they were hearing real news reports and the world was ending. In reality, the media greatly exaggerated the effects of the broadcast – only a small fraction of listeners thought they were hearing something real. And with the Hindenburg disaster fresh in people’s minds and WWII looming on the horizon, is it no wonder some listeners were quick to believe that invaders (and not just the extraterrestrial kind) had arrived?
Gail Jarrow’s book Spooked: How a Radio Broadcast and War of the Worlds Sparked the 1938 Invasion of America takes us through all the details of the infamous broadcast, from the initial prep work that went into organizing the program, to a break down of the broadcast itself, and on through the aftermath of the broadcast when, fueled by the exaggerated news reports about mass panic around the country, a great debate arose about censorship and fake news. Questions were being asked like: has the trustworthiness of the radio been ruined? How could listeners determine if the news they were hearing was real or not? And should the FCC oversee all radio broadcasts to make sure something like this never happens again? Jarrow’s book is also loaded with photographs, including copies of complaints to the FCC about the broadcast.
Spooked was part of the 2019/2020 Maine Student Book Award list, which is how I initially discovered this book. Prior to reading it, all I knew about the broadcast was that the news about it causing mass panic was grossly exaggerated. The main reasons I picked this book to read are because I love old radio shows (Rocky Jordan is my favorite!) and because one of my favorite TV shows from my childhood, Hey Arnold, once did an episode inspired by the broadcast of The War of the Worlds (it’s season 2, episode 7 - “Arnold’s Halloween” if you’re wondering), so I was intrigued to learn more about the broadcast and all the work that went into creating it.
It’s easy to sit here more than 80 years later and laugh at how ridiculous it is that anyone would believe the broadcast was real, but actually listening to it rather than just reading about it gives you a whole new perspective. I listened to it after finishing this book and, honestly, it was terrifying. And brilliant, too. It's actually easy to see how someone tuning in late who had missed the program title might have been confused.
Would I have been fooled if I had heard the broadcast in 1938? I don’t know… maybe?
If you'd like to check out the War of the Worlds broadcast for yourself, you can listen to it through YouTube. You can also listen to it through the free Old Time Radio app, which gives you access to the other Mercury Theater productions, as well. If this is your first time hearing the broadcast, I highly recommend reading Spooked first in order to better appreciate the production.