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.