2013 marks the 75th anniversary of Orson Welles’s notorious War of the Worlds broadcast, in which his Mercury Theatre on the Air company enacted a Martian invasion of Earth. Welles was just 23 years old, a prodigy who would subsequently go on to direct and star in Citizen Kane.
The year was 1938. The radio had become a fixture in many homes. As well as providing music and light entertainment, it was the most immediate source of news for most Americans. And that news was not good. America was still in the grip of a severe economic depression while Europe was on the brink of a major conflagration, which the USA could easily find itself being dragged into. At the time programmes would often be interrupted with news flashes about this or that crisis – it had been barely a month since Munich conference had been held.
Orson Welles’s 62-minute CBS radio dramatisation brought H.G. Wells’s 1898 novel to life. He would use all kinds of trickery – constant interruptions, fake newsflashes, phony scientific authorities, bogus military analysts, eerie silences and roving reporters being zapped by a beast with tentacles – to scare his unsuspecting audience. What better way could there have been to create terror on the day before Halloween?
One of the stars of the show was Frank Readick playing Carl Phillips, the reporter on the spot who describes the invasion before becoming a victim himself. In preparation for the part he had watched that iconic footage of the 1937 explosion of the Hindenburg airship over and over again to. He wanted to capture commentator Herbert Morrison’s horror as the tragedy unfolded before his eyes.
The programme opened with the dance music of the fictional Ramón Raquello and his orchestra, adding a Spanish touch with “La Cumparsita.” In fact, it was the CBS orchestra under the direction of Bernard Herrmann. After announcing that there had been gas explosions on Mars, it was back to Ramón Raquello at the Meridian Room of the Park Plaza Hotel, situated in downtown New York. The show went on like this, with Welles gradually ratcheting up the tension.
Here a quote from the show that will give you a flavour of what Welles was up to:
Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make. Incredible as it may seem, both the observations of science and the evidence of our eyes lead to the inescapable assumption that those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars. The battle which took place tonight at Grovers Mill has ended in one of the most startling defeats ever suffered by any army in modern times; seven thousand men armed with rifles and machine guns pitted against a single fighting machine of the invaders from Mars. One hundred and twenty known survivors. The rest strewn over the battle area from Grovers Mill to Plainsboro, crushed and trampled to death under the metal feet of the monster, or burned to cinders by its heat ray. The monster is now in control of the middle section of New Jersey and has effectively cut the state through its center.
Only at the end of the transmission did Welles come completely clean
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! Starting now, we couldn’t soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night. . . so we did the best next thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the C. B. S. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn’t mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian. . .it’s Hallowe’en.
There is a generally accepted version about what took place in the aftermath of the broadcast. Millions of dumb Americans were unable to distinguish between fiction and reality and the United States experienced a senseless outbreak of mass hysteria. This is how the incident has been portrayed in many academic textbooks, in Simon Callow’s sprawling biography of Welles and this year on a documentary from America’s prestigious PBS. Their documentary about War of the Worlds is part of the public broadcaster’s history series, American Experience. It is a beautifully crafted piece of television, but it is a shame that they missed the opportunity to set the record straight.
The mass hysteria never happened. The panic was so insignificant that it could barely be measured. No deaths have ever been attributed to the War of the Worlds broadcast. Had the hysteria that was supposed to be sweeping the country that night been real, there would surely have been more deaths and serious injuries. You would also have expected those responsible to be in deep trouble, but that was not the case; neither CBS nor Welles received any type of sanction. The Federal Communications Commission chairman Frank McNinch did obtain an informal agreement from the radio networks that fictional news “flashes” would not be used again. However, no new regulations were brought in.
In an earlier post I explained how our memories are not like video recordings; we are constantly recreating them. A similar phenomenon can take place at a societal level. And once these stories get out, they take on a life of their own. As memories of the show became more distant, its notoriety just kept growing. More and more people claimed to have heard it. As weeks, months, and years passed, the audience’s size swelled to such an extent that you could be led to believe most of America was tuned in to CBS that night.
Nothing could be further from the truth. According to one ratings survey, only 2% of listeners actually listened to the show. We must remember that Welles was up against stiff competition, namely Edgar Bergen’s Chase and Sanborn Hour, a light entertainment show, featuring a ventriloquist. It may be the case that some listeners did change stations during a musical interlude, but no scholar, however, has ever been able to pin down an actual number. I think we can safely say that were very few listeners around to be taken in by Welles’ broadcast.
A number of players did their very best to hype the story. Princeton academic Hadley Cantril claimed that about one million people had been “frightened” by the show. But frightened is one thing and panicked is a very different phenomenon. The audience may well have felt scared, but that doesn’t mean they ran into the streets screaming, convinced that the world was about to end. Newspapers too had a vested interest in playing up the story. Facing a significant loss of revenue that had been provoked by the emergence of radio, they seized the opportunity presented by Welles’ program to try to discredit radio as a source of news. Radio could just not be trusted. The newspaper industry’s trade journal, Editor and Publisher, had a stark warning:
“The nation as a whole continues to face the danger of incomplete, misunderstood news over a medium which has yet to prove … that it is competent to perform the news job.”
Why has this myth just refused to go away? I think it speaks to the way we see the media as an all-powerful force. This story plays on our fears about how we can be so easily manipulated, like those totally unsubstantiated stories about subliminal advertising. Jeffrey Sconce argued that it’s not the Martians overrunning the Earth that we fear. What really terrifies us is the idea that the big media companies are invading and colonizing our consciousness. In the 30s the enemy was radio – today we face a new invader – the internet.