Fake news. Propaganda. Deceptive advertising. Sensational journalism. In an ideal world, none of us would ever be duped. But it isn’t always easy to separate truth from lies or news from entertainment. It can be especially challenging when you’re age eleven or twelve.
In SPOOKED!: How a Radio Broadcast and The War of the Worlds Sparked the 1938 Invasion of America, I write about people who were fooled by media…eighty years ago. On Halloween Eve 1938, the radio audience heard a dramatization of the H.G. Wells novel, The War of the Worlds. Thousands became convinced that Martians were invading Earth and annihilating every human they could find. The widespread panicked reaction triggered a national discussion about the media’s responsibility, censorship, and Americans’ gullibility—topics we’re discussing right now.
I decided to write about this moment in history for three reasons. First, after talking with middle grade students, I realized that few were aware of the 1938 broadcast. I thought it was an entertaining story that they would enjoy.
Second, as someone with a science background, I know how important it is to analyze information and to think critically. I’m interested in how and why we can be misled into believing something preposterous. The reaction to the radio broadcast shows what can happen when people jump to conclusions.
Third, I saw parallels between 1938 radio listeners accepting the idea of a Martian invasion and 2018 Internet users falling for scams, misinformation, and falsehoods.
As my research for SPOOKED! went on, the book evolved into a story within a story within a story within a story. The original idea belonged to H.G. Wells, who wrote The War of the Worlds in 1897. (My book contains many of the amazing illustrations from the early editions of Wells’s novel.) Next came Orson Welles, John Houseman, and Howard Koch, who used genuine-sounding newsflashes to turn Wells’s novel into an hour-long radio drama. Then came the listeners’ shocking reaction and the sensational newspaper reports about the night’s events. Finally, the brand new story—a myth about the broadcast—was created by a poorly conducted scientific study. For decades, everyone accepted that myth as truth.
I had fun writing SPOOKED! because the research was so intriguing. Martians, both imaginary and almost real. Impressively talented actors and writers whose autobiographies and taped interviews revealed their creative process. Opinionated citizens who wrote letters and telegrams either praising or bitterly complaining about the program. And best of all, the actual broadcast, still spooky and unnerving today.
I wanted readers to enjoy my research discoveries, too. In the book, I share some of the two thousand listener letters, archived at the University of Michigan and the National Archives. With the book’s MG audience in mind, I included letters from children and teens. It’s fascinating to compare the way people in 1938 and 2018 express their opinions. While a few of the radio listener comments may seem a bit shocking to us, others could have come from a social media post today.
In the back matter, I provide links to the original broadcast so that readers can experience it for themselves. I recommend that they listen with eyes closed or lights off. After they hear it, complete with eerie sound effects and music, they might understand why many people were SPOOKED eighty years ago.
Gail Jarrow is the author of many popular nonfiction books, including Red Madness, Fatal Fever, and Bubonic Panic. Her books have received numerous starred reviews, awards, and distinctions, including Best Book awards from the New York Public Library, School Library Journal, the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, Kirkus Reviews, and the National Science Teachers Association.
See where Gail has been, and where she’s headed next, on her SPOOKED! Blog Tour: