Orson Welles and the War of the Worlds
Aliens have invaded Earth. Their technology is vastly superior to ours. Our puny military forces are powerless to stop them. This is the scenario laid out in H.G. Well’s seminal science fiction work – War of the Worlds.
In the late 1930s Orson Welles ingeniously adapted it into a radio drama set in contemporary America. His great conceit however, was to present events as if they were actually happening in real time, with panicked reporters calling in from around the country.
Panicked ListenersThe broadcast began with an introductory statement, clearly presenting it as a piece of theatre. It then moved into a simulation of conventional radio programming, however, featuring dance music which began to be interrupted by news that strange gas clouds had been seen on the surface of Mars. Something was then reported to have landed in New Jersey and the reporter on the scene described events in terror and amazement as something emerged from a strange, metallic cylinder before… his voice was abruptly cut off. Martial law was soon declared and control of the broadcasting system was handed over to the military. Various members of the American armed forces were then heard offering commentary as they pitted themselves in futile struggle against the Martian enemy.
Just a Dramatic Production?As a radio drama, it is extremely well done, making terrific use of the constraints of the medium. The script contains many small details designed to convince listeners that they were listening to live events. There were also cues that it was nothing more than a dramatic production, however, but these came at the beginning, end and mid-point of the broadcast. Crucially, there was a long stretch of time in which it must have sounded completely authentic to listeners who were tuning in late. Many people hearing the broadcast accepted it as genuine. It set off panic across America, particularly in the north-eastern regions where the Martians were reported to have landed. Theatres were evacuated; roads became clogged with traffic; and telephone systems were overloaded as a frightened populace called the police, their relatives and news organisations in an attempt to warn them or to find out what was really going on.
The power of expectation in shaping perceptions, something often discussed in connection with the UFO phenomenon, was painfully apparent. Some people claimed to be able to smell the poison gas the Martians had unleashed, to see the fires that their “heat rays” had started, even to see the Martian machines as they rampaged across America. There were even stories that some worthy citizens had equipped themselves with firearms and were taking pot-shots at water-towers, thinking they were Martian war-machines.
Hoax Created UproarWhen the hoax was discovered, there was uproar across the country. Many felt the CBS network had been grossly irresponsible in broadcasting a programme of this nature. No doubt the atmosphere of tension existing just before the outbreak of the Second World War contributed greatly to the nervousness of the public mood.
Interestingly, it was not only in America that the broadcast set off general panic. Years later, adaptations of the Welles script broadcast in Chile and Ecuador set off similar panics, and similar waves of indignation once the hoax was revealed. Tragically, some people actually died during these later episodes.
Consequences of the War of the Worlds BroadcastAlthough it may seem like nothing more than a historical curio, there are those who believe that the Welles-inspired panic had a profound and serious influence on the way the U.S. government approached the extra-terrestrial phenomenon. They believe that it caused those in positions of influence to fear the public’s reaction to revelations about extra-terrestrial life. To them, it must have seemed that ordinary people were not psychologically prepared to share their universe with “aliens.” Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, the man who led Project Bluebook, the U.S. government’s official investigation into the UFO phenomenon, later discussed the Welles broadcast in his Report on Flying Saucers. He noted that official memorandums on the UFO topic were strewn with references to the War of the Worlds production, and the panic it caused.
Moreover, he mentioned it in connection with the change in official attitude to UFOs that he detected while still carrying out his investigation. Previously, military spokesmen had been open-minded about the subject. A military intelligence report had even concluded that the UFOs were real. Now, however, UFO reports were routinely being rubbished. Official skepticism seemed to be the order of the day. This puzzled Ruppelt because the reports coming in seemed to be even stronger and more substantial than before. If anything, he thought, the change in attitude should have been the other way – from skepticism to belief. Did the memory of the Welles-induced mass panic lie behind this change in the public stance of the U.S. government on the UFO issue?
Listen for YourselfThe War of the World production was one of a series of radio dramas performed by Welles’ Mercury Theatre Company in the late 1930s. You can learn more about the history of the company, and even listen to or download most of the original broadcasts, including War of the Worlds.
ConclusionThe Orson Welles production of War of the World was one of the most exciting events in radio history. It demonstrated the extra-ordinary power of the mass media to influence public perception, and it made painfully apparent how suggestion and expectation could affect the nature of those perceptions.
But did it also persuade the all-powerful government mandarins that the public simply couldn’t be trusted with the truth behind the UFO mystery? Could it have been one of the seminal events which shaped the emergence of the great government conspiracy of silence about extra-terrestrials?