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June 29, 2005:

When ‘men from Mars’ landed close to campus

The June 29 opening of Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” brings to mind stories of the 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast of the same title, which announced that Martians had touched down in Grovers Mill, N.J., just a few miles east of the Princeton campus.

In PAW’s Nov. 11, 1938, On the Campus column, Fred Fox ’39, who would later become the University’s recording secretary and a beloved keeper of Princetoniana, reported:

As everyone who reads newspapers must know by this time, men from Mars gave the campus a good shakeup last week as certain members of both faculty and student body were duped by Orson Welles’s sensational broadcast. Two professors in the geology department grasped picks and hammers and set out with a party of students hoping to reach the “meteor” while it was still hot. Frantic waiters in a Prospect St. club suggested to the steward that they be allowed to bury the silverware, and a resident of Witherspoon complained of the “heat ray” from Martians’ guns.

A sophomore in the R.O.T.C. unit donned his uniform and sped off to Trenton to volunteer. Day or so later the Prince published a fine fake picture of a man from Mars descending into Holder Court. And campus wags organized the League for Interplanetary Defense, with “Tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are Martian” as its theme song.

For the record, the professors were Arthur Buddington and Harry Hess, according to the New York Times. But they were far from being the only people fooled by the fictional account. Some panicked listeners were hospitalized due to shock, according to contemporary news reports. By January 1939, Princeton psychology professor Hadley Cantril had started conducting research to examine the “social-psychological reasons for this reaction.” His book about the incident, The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic, was published by the Princeton University Press in 1940.