Though WAR OF THE WORLDS is a terrifying property in anybody’s hands, the version which scarred me as a youth was ‘Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds.’
Back in the mid ‘90s, my neighbour/best friend had an older sister who recorded it off the radio for us onto a cassette. Our neighbours had a shed which was kinda like our hangout as kids, there were chairs and a radio there and we used to keep toys and stuff there also. So we used to listen to WotW on a beat-up old radio/cassette player in the shed, and because we were kids, it seemed to be incredibly long and epic… not to mention terrifying. We’d listen breathlessly to RICHARD BURTON‘s commanding voice (I still know the opening narration off by heart) describe the coming of the Martians, backed by the most otherworldly sounds that British ‘70s prog-rock could offer. The music was mysterious, eerie and threatening, and combined with Wells’ alien-invasion story of heat-rays and incinerated bodies, it was certainly enough to traumatize.
A couple of years later, we discovered that another neighbour living further down the street had the actual LP from the ‘70s. This opened a whole new level of trauma- the paintings of the Martians themselves contained within the record booklet. The tripods just looked incredibly alien- we were unsure if they were supposed to be the Martians themselves of if they were machines controlled from within (due largely to one image of the crows tearing bright red flesh from a downed tripod)- which only added to the horror. The most stirring painting was the one in which a tripod is destroying a street, and some of the fleeing crowd pass close to the ‘camera’- and we can see the blood on their faces. Horrifying.
The biggest factor adding to the trauma was that all this was happening in the 19th century- I was deeply troubled that these people were being confronted with a horror they had no means of understanding, never mind combating. For some reason I found the idea of an alien invasion terrifyingly real, but found the quick-fix-it ending (nothing the humans do succeeds, the Martians are killed by bacteria) unconvincing and therefore unconsoling.
Years later, and the opening bars are still enough to send a chill down the spine, though I am amazed at how ‘70s, and how disco (!), War of the Worlds really was. But however strange, this was one property that definitely scared more than a few kids.