Day 702: Orson’s Phenomenal Freak-Out

originally published December 2, 2013

Mention The War Of The Worlds to someone, and they’ll have one of four distinct reactions:

  1. They’ll recall images of that creepy Tom Cruise movie.
  2. They’ll remember stories of massive public hysteria surrounding an old radio broadcast.
  3. They’ll have no idea what you’re talking about because they are either too young or too culturally obtuse.
  4. They’ll ask you to stop pestering them, as they’re simply trying to select a second ice cream choice since the supermarket is out of Chunky Monkey, and you’re invading their personal space.

For the purposes of today’s cultural investigation, I’m most intrigued by the second one. Was the world in 1938 so naïve, so dependent on the radio as a source of factual information that they could have been nudged into an outright panic by something like this? Was Orson Welles, the producer, director and star of the show, this much of a genius? And how does a supermarket run out of Chunky Monkey? How hard is it to place a damn order with the Ben & Jerry’s people?

First, a bit of background: War of the Worlds is an 1898 H.G. Wells novel about aliens invading Earth. Orson Welles (no relation), who had yet to redefine the visual and narrative aesthetic potential of film with Citizen Kane, was an actor and radio performer with a penchant for creating original material. Howard Koch and Anne Froelick were pivotal cogs in Orson’s Mercury Theatre On The Air radio drama series, and together they adapted the novel, importing the story from England to New Jersey, and modernizing it into a radio-age newscast, reporting on the horrors of the invasion.

CBS was a little bit concerned about the show’s content, requesting 28 changes to make it a little less realistic. Orson, who was aiming for realistic, made the changes as subtly as possible, tweaking actual locations (like Princeton University) into legitimate-sounding places (like Princeton Observatory). Welles played the radio footage of the Hindenburg disaster for his cast to demonstrate the level of panic and fear he wanted to achieve. Welles may not have penned the text of the broadcast, but he was most certainly the project’s creative force. Well, he and co-producer John Houseman, who would later go on to play Ricky Schroeder’s grandfather on Silver Spoons.

Yes, there were a few auditory reminders to listeners that what they were hearing was a fictional broadcast, not an actual news report. But they still would have had to tune in at the right time to hear those warnings, otherwise the panicked reporters would sound frighteningly real. To be fair though, the tales of a nation gripped by fear that Martians had swooped in and begun the decimation of New Jersey were fuelled largely by overblown media reports after the fact. Yes, some folks freaked out. But it wasn’t anything close to the rioting/looting/unrestrained public urination-type panic that the myth would have us believe.

For one thing, not a lot of people were actually tuned in. Of those who were, many either heard the disclaimer or simply assumed it to be fiction, given that the Mercury Theatre On the Air broadcast was a regularly scheduled affair. That’s not to say there wasn’t a certain degree of horror gripping the ears of some of the nation’s radio audience that evening. And that was precisely how Orson Welles had planned it.

NBC Red Network was airing the Chase And Sanborn Hour, a popular variety show, at the same time. Orson knew that at about the 15-minute mark, the first comic sketch would come to a close and a music number would come on. That’s when a number of people would flip the dial for something else, much in the same way countless TV viewers will desert Saturday Night Live this weekend when host Paul Rudd steps aside for One Direction to take the stage. Orson therefore had his team plunk the first on-the-spot report of the aliens at about the 12-minute mark – that way the roaming listeners would pop in just as the reporter was frantically describing the aliens emerging before his eyes.

There was no sponsor for Welles’ show, so they were free to schedule commercials whenever they wanted to. And because the audio disclaimers that the show was fictional would only happen as a segue from commercials back to the story, the producers specifically scheduled breaks for the beginning of the show, then 40 and 55 minutes in. Those Chase And Sanborn schmucks never stood a chance. The drama was customized specifically to snag them.

The thing is, there was an actual invasion threat that already had the public a little on edge when this show went to air on October 30, 1938.

Whether it was a genuine fear of Martian invasion or the belief that Hitler’s minions would make a legitimate grab for the American coastline, there were a number of frantic listeners. Eventual Tonight Show host Jack Paar was fielding calls from worried members of the radio audience for Cleveland affiliate WGAR that night. He tried to calm the listeners with assurances that the world was not in fact coming to an end, and wound up accused by some of those terrified listeners of being part of the government cover-up.

In Concrete, Washington, an inconvenient (yet wholly coincidental) power and phone outage occurred that night, leaving residents isolated from their friends and family, and believing that their utilities had been taken down by an alien attack. Within one month, newspapers had published over 12,000 articles about the phenomenon. The tales of a fiction-inspired panic made for great copy, even if they had to exaggerate or inflate the truth to make a story.

One dribbling of fallout from the broadcast came in a series of scathing editorials, calling upon the radio industry to police themselves and to never allow something like this to happen again. A more impactful effect was the reevaluation of the medium, and indeed of the power of any mass-media to stir the souls of the public, to dupe them, to frighten them, and if one were to extrapolate beyond the horror/sci-fi genre, to inspire, motivate and deeply affect them.

Yes, the broadcast helped to make Orson Welles a star and would lead to a film career packed with influential and brilliant work. And sure, many of his costars landed solid careers, as did the play’s writers (though they were both elbowed out of the industry by the House Un-American Activities Committee for being communists). But the real legacy of War Of The Worlds is the power of radio, TV and film to blow our collective mind.

Which is – I’m sure – precisely how Welles had planned it.

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