I had written previously about my grandparents and father who grew up on old-time radio shows as the source of their entertainment. This record of Orson Welles’ adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds was another that had been passed on to me because I enjoyed listening to it so much whenever I visited.
On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles played the ultimate Devil’s Night prank on America with this adaptation. Neither television nor the internet existed back then, so it was the radio that connected people to the broader world than their communities. News, sports, comedy, suspense, and music emerged from this new magical box which engaged the theater of the mind. Welles, with script writer Howard Koch, chose to create a version of Wells’ classic that came across as if it were actually happening. A musical program interrupted by breaking news reports of unusual gas explosions on the planet Mars. The music continues, then a new update about something crashing to the earth near Princeton, New Jersey. The music returns, then a cut back to the site where a flying saucer had landed, its pilot emerging from it and firing a heat ray at the witnesses, cutting the reporter’s commentary and connection to instant silence. The radio station is then taken over by the government for use of a coordinated effort to put down the invasion. Act One does not end well for us Earthlings. In Act Two, Welles, who is playing the character of Professor Richard Pearson, an astronomer from the observatory at Princeton University, narrates a monologue of what he, as one of humanity’s last survivors, witnesses.
Act One was so realistic it created a panic in the country. The back of the album provides samples of Associate Press reports such as:
Pittsburgh – A man returned home in the midst of the broadcast and found his wife with a bottle of poison in her hand, screaming, “I’d rather die this way than like that.”
Indianapolis – A woman ran into a church screaming: “New York destroyed; it’s the end of the world. You might as well go home and die. I just heard it on the radio.” Services were dismissed immediately.
The video below is a BBC interview of Orson Welles and some of the after-effects he experienced due to his dramatic program.
As a kid, first hearing it on a record album, it was thrilling. Unlike the stories portrayed on old time radio, it was intentional on the part of Welles and Koch to present the story in a realistic way. The second act reveals its fictional nature with Welles’ monologue, but by then, the monster was loose on the public, and hysteria commenced.
This is a masterpiece of horror. It didn’t rely on blood and gore and sudden shocks to create fear. It was a slow and subtle build up to the end of the world as it was happening at a particular place, with the belief that the martians would soon appear in your town, and brought to you through the most intimate and powerful media of the time.
As you watch the BBC interview, at the end of it Welles shares that he had intended to provoke Americans this way. The media holds power. The internet, television, and back then, radio, has the power to sway our perception of reality. In the video Orson Welles confesses that this was his attempt to shake Americans into not believing everything heard on this new, magical box called the radio.
This message is relevant today. Just because a story is on the news or on a news commentary program on television or radio, or reported on a website, doesn’t mean it’s true. It is being presented for some reason and from a viewpoint. Question it.
You may wonder how people back on October 30, 1938, could have fallen for a story about a martian invasion. How many irrational beliefs have you encountered that people profess because they read it on the internet or saw it on TV? Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq? Kenyon-born United States presidents? The Newtown massacre as a hoax? Climate change deniers? Creationism as science? The list goes on.
When it comes to things reported in the media, trust little, question a lot.
I didn’t realize how early in my life skepticism of the media had originated until I listened to this album again.