Halloween was never an overly exciting time where I grew up in rural Missouri. Trick-or-Treating was something we were only allowed to do twice because it was a far drive to get to the nearest town where the houses weren't half-a-mile apart. On the same token, trick-or-treaters, they never came to us, either.
Well, almost never.
As such, October 30, 1938, a day when most American children were probably putting the finishing touches on costumes, should have, by and large, been just like any other Sunday at our household. We went to church in the morning, did our chores, ate breakfast, lunch, the usual.
The evening hours, on the other hand, was everything but.
My sisters and I sulked in the living room, playing a very unspirited game of Go Fish, knowing that the next day would probably be yet another treatless Halloween, as my mother was busy cooking dinner. Not even the drool-inducing aroma of her delicious breaded pork chops, which had begun to invade the entire first floor, could lull me from my complacency. The crackling sound of the chops frying only reminded me that dinner tonight - and tomorrow - would be nothing out of the ordinary. I hated that word that day. I even said so to my sisters.
"It's just a word, Pete," said my older sister, Pam, snottily. She was fourteen at the time and I was twelve.
"I wanna go Trick-or-Treating!" exclaimed my six-year-old sister, Katie, when my father walked in the door. His hands, as well as some spots on his denim overalls, were covered in black grease.
"The transmission in the car is goin' out!" he said. I assumed he had been out there working on it. "Gotta keep it for just goin' back and forth to work for now. 'Sides, y'all just went trick-or-treatin' last year. This'll give your teeth more time to recover."
"But Dad," Pam said, "we didn't go for three years before that."
"You guys got your little party at school tomorrow dontcha?" Dad asked as he walked into the kitchen.
"But it's not the same!" I pleaded.
"Quit your whinin'!" he said, turning to look at all of us. Then he glanced over at his belt, which was hanging from a nail on the kitchen wall. Whenever my father did that, we all knew we'd better shut up and that the argument or discussion was over. He was not as hard as probably most fathers in those days (when he said "this is gonna hurt me more than it does you!" I think he had actually meant it) but he made sure us children knew our place. And arguing with him was still dangerous ground, all things considered.
My mother called out that dinner was ready a short time later and we all scrambled to get to the table. My sisters and I liked to think that we were in a race to get there first. In reality, we knew that not getting there on time had consequences; Dinnertime - and being there precisely at 6PM - was a Big Deal at our house. Also, on that particular night, we knew that there'd be Halloween shows on the radio and the quicker we finished dinner the quicker we could listen to them.
We scarfed down our dinner under the scornful eyes of our parents so we could race to the radio. We would get a Halloween treat, one way or the other, and it'd have to be a scary story on the radio that year, like most years.
"May we be excused?" I asked, a little bit of carrot still in my mouth.
"You're 'sposed to EAT your dinner, not inhale it!" my father warned us. My mother smiling at him and patting his hand as if to say "Just let those kids be kids, dear." Dad rolled his eyes, then nodded to us. Exactly three seconds later we were all clamoring to get to the living room. My sisters jumped on the couch while I crawled over to the radio.
"Find us somethin' good, Petey!" Katie exclaimed excitedly.
I began turning the knob, seeing what I could "scare" up. I found a mildy compelling show about Dracula, but it was over about fifteen minutes later, at 7. So I went from station to station, trying to find something else, hearing bits and pieces, mostly advertisements, when I came upon an announcer saying "...a huge, flaming object, believed to be a meteorite, fell on a farm in the neighborhood of..." It was semi interesting, but nothing particularly scary so I went on.
"Turn it back!" I heard my father shout. I whipped my head over to his chair. He had been there cleaning his rifle, no doubt getting ready for deer season. I hadn't even noticed when he had finished his dinner and come into the room.
"To what?" I asked.
"The thing about the... the meteor!" my father stuttered impatiently, pointing at the radio with his little brush. "Hurry up, boy, I wanna hear that!"
As I tried to find it again I heard my sisters grumble about finding a scary story.
"In the meantime, we take you to the Hotel Martinet in Brooklyn, where Bobby Millette and his orchestra are offering a program of dance music," I heard. It had nothing to do with meteors, but it sounded like the same announcer so I stopped.
As swing music began playing Pam said "This isn't scary! Dad! Come on!"
"Are you sure this is it?" I asked.
"Hush!" my dad exclaimed. "They'll come back to it!"
And they did. When the broadcaster returned they began talking about the meteorite. He seemed nervous and excited as he interview some professor about it. As they described it didn't sound like any meteorite I'd ever heard of.
"Daddy, where's New... New Jersey?" Katie asked.
"Up East somewhere, far away, now hush, I'm listenin' to this!" Dad said impatiently.
"Was there an Old Jersey?" Katie asked Pam. She shushed Katie as well. Apparently she had become engrossed. Me, I still wasn't hooked yet, trying to be patient, wondering when I could change the station again. That didn't last much longer, though.
"It's openin' up!" Dad said, leaning about as far forward in his chair as he could without falling off. A chill trickled down my spine as they described the a lid on the metal thing (that they had thought was a meteor) unscrewing.
"Dad, what is it?" Pam asked nervously. "Meteors don't open up. I learned in science last year--"
"I don't know!" Dad shouted. "SHUSH!"
We all became terribly frightened as they described the grotesque alien occupants coming out of it. My sisters screamed when the announcer described them setting the field - and the people around them - on fire! My finally father jumped up out of his seat. My mouth and throat grew dry and my extremeties felt cold as if the heat had shut off.
"We're under ATTACK!" my father announced.
"Oh, Ed!" my mother shrieked, rushing in from the kitchen.
"Martians are invading!" he continued.
"What's Martians?!" Katie squealed.
From there it's pretty much a blur. There was so much excitement and yelling as the broadcast continued that the details... well, they mesh into each other. At some point my father determined that they were going to invade the entire country, even the world, and that we weren't safe. He reassembled his rifle quicker than I'd ever seen him do it. My sisters and my mother were scared to death. I was terribly frightened myself, partly because my father was scared. I had never seen him so scared. He was our Protector. To see him so bent out of shape, I knew things must be bad!
Dad ordered us to grab some things, that we were headed the wine cellar as they described Martian space ships being spotted over other areas besides New Jersey like Virginia and Long Island. That was still quite a ways from Missouri. But after we had grabbed some canned food and my mother had filled a jar of water, they announced one of the cylindrical, metallic ships being spotted over St. Louis. That's when Dad began to really panic.
"Wine. Cellar. NOW!" he yelled at us.
We scampered down those stairs as quickly as we could. Katie was sobbing. Pam was silent, but as white as a sheet. My mother trembled terribly, almost falling down the steps. Once I started down, my father followed me and slammed the door. My mother turned on the light, a single light bulb with a chain as you might expect.
The air down there was stale and smelled of old wood and dust. It was rare that we ventured down there as a family. The last time was when a tornado was spotted in town a few years earlier. Usually it was just Dad who went down there to retrieve something, like a bottle of wine (yes, we actually kept wine in our wine cellar).
Once down there my father frantically grabbed for a box of bullets from a dusty and cobweb-ridden shelf. He grabbed a handful, some of them slipping through his fingers and clinking below on the cement floor. He quickly began loading the rifle. My sisters started whining while my mother comforted them. They didn't like guns, they were scared to death of them. Then my father did something that surprised the hell out of me, almost made my heart jump out of my ribcage. After shutting it closed with a loud, satisfying CLACK! he handed it to me.
"That one's yours!" he exclaimed.
I cradled the thing nervously in my arms, which I had only ever fired when target shooting at tin cans, and felt the full weight of the heavy wood and metal weapon. I looked back at my mother, who was casting a knowing and worried look at my father.
"Honey, no..." she said, shaking her head at him. My mind began racing as to what she could possibly have meant. It didn't have to race for long. My father ran past the girls to the back of the cellar. He produced his key ring from the front pocket of his overalls, knelt down to a big metal box, unlocked the lid and opened it.
"Please don't get that thing out!" my mother yelled.
"The aliens got death rays!" he yelled back as he lifted a large gun out of the box, the likes of which I'd never seen. I knew that my father had fought in The Great War (how we had referred to it at the time) and had brought home his infantry weapon. I had no idea what it was at the time but later I learned that it was an automatic MK1 American Enfield.
Dad opened it up, nodded, then clacked it shut.
"That thing was LOADED?!" my mother cried.
"I'm always prepared!" Dad shouted back.
"What if one of the kids--?!"
"NOW's not the TIME!" Dad cut my mother off. He ran to the foot of the stairs.
"Mommy, what is it?!" Katie asked, pointing to Dad and his gun.
"A very dangerous gun!" my mother replied very pointedly.
"It's one of those automatic things, ain't it?" I asked him, half-scared, half in awe. "You used that in the War, didn't you?"
"Yes, and I'm gonna use it in THIS one!" he replied.
We were down there a good while, mostly silent, while we waited for something to happen. Something did.
Pam screamed. She was pointing at the window. We all looked at it. Ice ran through my veins as I saw strange, shadowy figures traipsing by it. They were not the shapes of people, no! I can only speak for myself, but I am fairly certain we were all convinced right away that they were definitely not human!
"It's the Marisians!" Katie squealed, mispronouncing the name of our frightening, blood-chilling new enemies.
"Oh God!" my mother explained as both my sisters screamed.
My father firmly gripped my forearms. He looked directly into my eyes, more serious than I'd ever seen him. "Son, in case something happens to me, you're the man of the house now. Do you understand, Petey?"
"M-man--?" I stammered.
"DO YOU UNDERSTAND?!" he yelled.
"Y-yes," I answered, not really comprehending the weight of it at the time.
As my father started up the stairs wielding his tool of mass death, my mother cried out. "Stay on the defensive, let them come to us! No need to--!"
"I'm the soldier HERE!" he yelled back. My mother had served as a nurse in the War - that's where they'd met. It was true that she wasn't a soldier but she knew more about the tactics of warfare than the average woman. "These ain't no Germans, they got DEATH RAYS! Gotta hit them first before they fry us!"
With that, my father scrambled up the stairs. He fumbled out the door and slammed it shut. An eerie silence followed. My heart slammed against my ribs as my sweaty palms gripped the gun, still in the exact same hold I'd had it in since he'd given it to me. I was not prepared to fire it, much less at aliens.
Then, I heard the front door creak open. I heard my father yell something. Then I heard this...
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
Three loud shots rang out - loudest gunshots I'd ever heard in my life. I heard other muffled screams. My heart sank into my feet. A sense of dread gripped me more intense than the one I'd felt when we saw the strange figures go by the window.
The screams did not sound like aliens.
"Oh my GOD!" my mother screamed. We all raced up the stairs and out of the cellar. We found my father standing at the door, holding the gun in both arms, staring outside. We looked around him to see three bloody figures, illuminated by our porch light, lying on our front porch. One of them was draped in a sheet with eyes holes cut out, perfectly clean and white except a growing, crimson stain. One darkly-dressed figure was lying next to a crooked, black pointy hat. The third was dressed as a pirate.
As the horror of it dawned on all of us we just stood there, staring as my father had been, trembling, our eyes tearing up. Dad let the gun fall to the floor in a loud thump. My mother pushed us all out of the way and checked each of them. She looked as white as the ghost sheet as she turned and shook her head slowly.
They were friends from school, not very close friends, who apparently had been coming over to show off their costumes, perhaps get some early treats. They instead got something horribly different.
A loud swell of music from the radio drew our attention to it. We heard the announcer utter those words, those words that have been burned into my brain forever, those fateful words:
This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that "The War of The Worlds" has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo!
"Boo?" I squeaked. It took me several seconds to realize the enormity of the situation, what Mr. Welles had just told us.
Dad picked the gun back up, turned around, aimed it at the radio, fired, blowing it to pieces. We didn't have a radio again for about two years. I have permanent hearing loss in my left ear because of that blast.
Amidst much protest by my mother, my father ordered us and made us swear not to breathe a word of it to anybody... ever. She said he might get off easy, that it was a tragic mistake. But no, he had a family to take care of, couldn't leave us alone while he did time. He buried them under the barn. That is where you'll find the bones of Billy O'Neil, his brother Calvin O'Neil, and their sister Marge O'Neil, Detective. I still own the property. There. Their disappearances, after all this time, are all solved.
Why am I telling you now? Well I'm the last person living who knows this tragic secret... until now that is. My father died in 1970 of a heart attack. My mother followed, old age, in 1989. My sisters both passed away in the mid-90's, both from lung cancer, which is what is killing me now. We all ended up heavy smokers. Can you blame us? All three of us had psychological problems from that day forward, keeping that terrible secret inside of us. The first few years were the hardest, what with everybody searching for them and all.
God I feel so relieved, despite the fact that I can scarcely breathe! As cliche as it may sound, a huge weight has been lifted off of me. I can go in peace now.
Yes, yes, I'll show you to the spot, first. Got plenty of gas in your tank? It's quite a drive.
For the 2006 Quest for Fear
War of the Worlds script