Fright Night Remembered: the 70th Anniversary of the War of the Worlds Broadcast

Geek Culture

Alien tripod illustration by Alvim Corréa, fro...Alien tripod illustration by Alvim Corréa, fro...Image via WikipediaYesterday marked the 70th anniversary of Orson Welles‘ infamous "War of the Worlds" broadcast.  For those of you actually raised by Martians, this broadcast was a radio-show put on by Welles’ "Mercury Theater on the Air".  It was an adaptation of H. G. Wells (no relation) science fiction classic of Martian invasion of the same name.  Turning the original story on its ear, Welles had the Martians attack the little-known unincorporated New Jersey area of Grover’s Mill instead of the world famous British capital of London.  (Perhaps the Martians were short on cattle for mutilating.)  Orson Welles staged the broadcast to sound like an actual newscast to add dramatic tension to the story.

The horrendous side-effect was that this prompted many people to believe that the story was real and that Martians were actually attacking Earth.  In the days following the broadcast, Welles and CBS, had to answer a lot of questions and field a lot of complaints.  The fact that Welles’ contract with CBS specifically stated that Welles would bear no legal liability for the content of his broadcasts prompted some to believe that he intended for the broadcast to be taken for real, and the "hoax" was some sort of bizarre prank.

While much of the hysteria spawned by the broadcast may have been exaggerations and unsubstantiated claims of newspapers in the days following the broadcast, it is estimated that over a million people listening to the broadcast actually believed it to be a real newscast.  The idea of a faked newscast was very avant-garde for the time, and not the sort of thing that regular listeners would expect.  According to Welles biographer Barbara Leaming, Welles was assaulted in a hotel lobby years after the broadcast by a man who claimed that his wife committed suicide to avoid who-knows-what at the hands of the Martians.

Many point to the hysteria generated this broadcast as a sign of the tense, political times.  Others may point to the advancement of technologies, such as rocketry, opening up the mind of the average non-geek American to previously unknown – and thus frightening – possibilities.  I personally think it’s a sign of how much news reporting and journalism of the time was simply accepted without question.  Anyone who was tuning in to listen to Welles’ latest Mercury Theater broadcast, most likely knew it for what it was.  They would have recognized the voices of Welles and the other Mercury Theater actors, and would probably have heard the introduction citing the broadcast as fictional.

Having listened to the broadcast myself, it is tempting to think that people mistaking the show for real were just stupid.  There is a disclaimer at the beginning, the middle, and the end telling you that it’s a show, not a real broadcast.  During the broadcast you hear, among other things, radio communications directly from fighter pilots in their planes as they perform reconnaissance on the Martian craft.  How would that have been possible?  It seems most likely, that anyone who listened to the broadcast and actually thought it was real, tuned in between disclaimers, and only listened long enough to get scared and then either furiously tuned to other stations to see if they were picking up the same story, or locked themselves in the basement with a shotgun (there’s no evidence that people actually left their homes and shot at water towers or people they didn’t know).

The only thing I can say in these people’s defense, was that it was a simpler time.  The news was information, not spin.  The solar system was mysterious and opening up to us for the first time through modern rocketry.  Welles himself was a master of the radio show.  His work was compelling and cutting edge for the time.  (Something to try for Halloween: listen to the Mercury Theater broadcast of "Dracula"!  It stands up nicely, even to modern video-dependant times, and is an excellent adaptation of the novel.)  Halloween was also something that could, like a vampire, really sneak up on you as it was not promoted in shops, or on non-existent television for a full month ahead of time.

Post by Jacob Russell.

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