history meme: 02/10 moments | Orson Welles “War of the Worlds” Radio Broadcast
On the night of October 30, 1938, families everywhere were gathered around their radios for another episode of CBS’s Mercury Theater On The Air. The evening’s episode was a radio adaptation of the H.G. Wells classic War Of The Worlds, in which the Earth is invaded from outer space and narrated by actor and future filmmaker Orson Welles, The story was familiar to many, but was about to be presented in a way that had never been heard before. Instead of simply telling the story, the broadcast presented it as a series of newscasts that interrupted “regular programming” to describe a martian invasion that started in a small town in New Jersey.
While the live news format had been used in radio drama before, it had never been done as realistically or for as long without commercial interruption. The episode prompted many listeners to flee their homes and call friends and family for verification, suggesting to many that an actual alien invasion by Martians was currently in progress. While somewhat primitive by today’s standards, the broadcast was far ahead of its time and was an early demonstration of the power of radio for both news and entertainment. [more]
This is still regarded as one of the greatest hoaxes in history, even though it was never intended to be a hoax (some say that the reports of the panic it caused were exaggerated by Newspapers, who just had it in for Radio which they thought was a threat to them).
Here in the UK, I’m afraid lots of my fellow Brits still cite this as proof of how stupid and gullible Americans are… but, oh… how quickly we forget. For example:
Broadcasting the Barricades – Yes, over ten years before Orson Welle’s show, the BBC had a similar idea in the UK. Rather than Martians, Bolsheviks were taking over London. The whole thing was in fact a satire… a joke… but, supposedly, women fainted and listeners started calling the admiralty and demanding that the Navy be dispatched up the Thames to help deal with the riots.
Oh no, but it doesn’t end there. See, a long time after The War of the Worlds, in 1977, there was this:
Alternative 3 – See, Anglia TV’s Science Report was a serious TV show about, well, science. But, when it’s last episode was scheduled to air on April 1, the producers decided to play an april fool’s prank on people. The episode started off as an investigation into the disappearance of several scientists, but on the way a much larger conspiracy is uncovered. It seems that the world’s leaders and science community have concluded that climate change is irreversible, and are planning to evacuate themselves to Mars, leaving everyone else to suffer the apocalypse (similar to Ben Elton’s later novel, STARK). In the end, they manage to decode some footage of a secret manned landing on Mars… but then, it seems something is alive under the surface. Anyway, a lot of people fell for it, a lot of complaints… might have had something to do with the broadcast being delayed until May or June, IIRC. But, still…
But that’s gotta be it, right? Brits couldn’t possibly get any more gullible than that. Unfortunately, it turns out that, yes, we can… forward to 1992:
Ghostwatch – In this halloween drama, a camera crew spends a night in a haunted house (similar to a lot of supposedly ‘real’ supernatural TV shows today). But by doing so, it turns out that Michael Parkinson inadvertently starts a nationwide seance. Sarah Greene is locked in a cupboard, where she has stayed ever since, and in the end the ghost becomes so powerful that he invades the TV studio and wreaks all sorts of chaos. All pretty silly when you watch it now, but at the time there were huge numbers of complaints, people saying they had been possessed and were suffering from post-traumatic stress because of the show.
So, there you go Britain. Next time we start thinking ourselves somehow intellectually superior and less naive than our cousins across the Atlantic, maybe we should remember some of this.