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Help Harlan Ellison in his fight for creators' rights on the Internet.
 

"The War Of The Worlds Radio Broadcast And The Duping Of America"

by James M. Palmer

(Originally Published in SciFiNow October 26, 2000)

This Halloween marks the 63rd anniversary of one of the most famous and infamous radio broadcasts of all time. On that night back in 1938, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater on the Air staged a modern adaptation of H.G. Well’s The War of the Worlds. What Welles didn’t count on was the audience’s response: people fleeing from their homes and crowding churches, bus terminals and train stations in a panic. This panic offered perhaps the greatest case study for those interested in mass hysteria and the psychology of fear and panic. This interest in the broadcast has been explored in fictionalized accounts of what happened in TV and movies for years, and the Army has a division known as Psych Ops, or Psychological Operations, that studies ways to demoralize and freak out enemies. But how did this happen? Will it happen again?

To figure out how this radio broadcast caused such a widespread panic, we need to look first at the broadcast itself. Before becoming infamous, the Mercury Theatre on the Air was a struggling, unsponsored, Sunday-night dramatic series playing on CBS opposite the more popular NBC show The Chase and Sanborn Hour, starring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy (I don’t know how people could believe a ventriloquist over the radio, but that was the way things were). Welles was a fan of science fiction, and even supported himself for a while by writing for the pulps. He wanted to adapt The War of the Worlds for radio by updating the setting from Victorian England to modern-day America. He decided to perform it in the guise of a newscast, which his company had already done in an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

No one else shared his enthusiasm. Scriptwriter Howard Koch thought it would be impossible to pull off, but Welles insisted, and he, Koch, producer John Houseman, and typist Ann Froelich hurriedly banged out a script.

After a rehearsal, Welles thought it was dull, and they did a rewrite of the script, incorporating a remote news hookup, and adding more commercial breaks and interruptions. At 8p.m. the next night, Welles launched into the opening monologue and on into history.

Meanwhile, most of Welles’ eventual audience was listening to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. After a commercial break, the show returned with a singer who was not too popular. Rapid dial-twisting ensued, and many people happened upon The War of the Worlds, already in progress. Because they missed the opening, the show sounded just like plain old news radio, although with some very interesting events unfolding.

Now, before we get any further, I just want to state that everyone who heard the broadcast didn’t believe that invaders from Mars were torching New Jersey. Many of the listeners figured it was really the Germans. People during this time were very worried about what Hitler would do, and simply translated the incredible parts of the play into something inside their ordinary experience.

The fact that this broadcast caused such a stir is a statement both to Welles’ creative talents and simple human gullibility. But it also says something about the power and importance of radio at that time, and the importance of the Internet now. The radio then held the same place in our lives as the Internet does today.

The world of 1938 relied heavily on the radio for news and information, even more than on newspapers. In today’s society, people listen to the radio while in their cars, but at work or at home they often turn to online news sources. Newspapers are dying out as people drop their subscriptions in favor of television and online sources that have the specific news they want.

The point is that the Internet is probably the greatest information tool ever devised, but misused it can become a global rumor mill. Last August, the stock in a company called Emulex plummeted 50 percent because of a phony press release sent out over Internet Wire, a Web-based dissemination service. Online news services often get in a hurry to be the first to print some crucial piece of information and won’t check their facts first. And that doesn’t even begin to cover the shenanigans perpetrated on April Fool’s Day, or in the science fiction community. Just look at the number of fanboys who start drooling over the movie rumors they read on Ain’t-It-Cool-News and other genre movie sites. It doesn’t matter if there have been conflicting reports on who is playing the lead in the new Spider-Man movie, as far as the fanboy is concerned, the project has a green light and will be in theaters next year.

Orson Welles fooled his audience with talented actors, creativity and skill. Today one only needs to have access to a chatroom or bulletin board to get everyone listening in into an emotional frenzy. We need to be careful about what we see and read on the Internet, because everything appears to have the same weight to it.

Could something like this widespread panic happen again? Probably not on the same scale, but the Internet makes it very easy to create a very convincing joke that will full some of the people some of the time.

Listen to The War of the Worlds because it’s good radio drama. But also, let it remind you of a simpler and crazier time, when a million people fell for a Halloween prank. You can order this play on cassette or CD by visiting , which will send you to their section of MediaBay. Happy listening.

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