A historic radio show is still scary – The Brookhaven Courier


Orson Welles’ Halloween adaptation of HG Wells’ classic “War of the Worlds” always captures the imagination of listeners.

The media is a powerful tool. Media can shape views, lifestyle and perhaps most importantly, actions. In 1776, Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” stoked the long building fires in the hearts of the settlers. Immediately after 9/11, Disney Channel commercials aired where popular Disney stars expressed an undying love for their country coupled with a desire for recovery. They raised an entire undergeneration of more war-friendly American citizens.

The media has the potential to influence people in major ways. Orson Welles’ version of “War of the Worlds”, first broadcast on the eve of Halloween in 1938, is a particularly dramatic example.

In 1938, science fiction was a joke, almost universally considered children’s entertainment and nothing more, according to the Smithsonian Magazine. The days of widespread belief in concepts such as extraterrestrial life or UFOs were over, while the revitalization of the genre with works such as ‘Star Trek’ and ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ was still a long way off. Americans now boasted of being a nation of logic and realism.

For these reasons, CBS and Mercury Theater planned no serious risk — or reward — in the production of their radio adaptation of HG Wells’ 1898 sci-fi hit “War of the Worlds,” according to Smithsonian Magazine. After all, who in those enlightened times would believe that real aliens from Mars were invading Earth, especially with this invasion that didn’t even last 40 minutes?

What no one took into account was the wild card that was Welles, a future Hollywood director and prolific producer. For now, just the small but far from humble owner of the Mercury Theater.

Welles thrived on drama and realism, so he was rather unhappy with the first draft of the radio script presented to him, finding it unrealistic and devoid of any tension, according to Smithsonian Magazine. With just hours to go before the program went live, Welles burst into the broadcast room – fresh from a disastrous rehearsal of a play he was directing – with a myriad of changes and additions to the scenario, as well as special instructions for some. actors.

It’s those changes, such as the emphasis on the real-time reporting aspect of the story, getting an impersonator of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt to interpret the government’s speech to the people, and more, which would strike fear into the hearts of hundreds of people. listeners later in the evening.

The program suddenly morphed from a pulpy but boring fantasy plot to a full-fledged horror spectacle full of realism and captivating scenes.

To make matters worse – or better, depending on one’s point of view – the program didn’t pause with a warning until nearly 40 minutes into it. The average listener wasn’t reassured about the fictional nature of the story until it was far too late.

Apparently, shortly after the program began, people were panicking on the streets, according to the Smithsonian Magazine. It was a terrifying experience for those who believed it was real. While the newspapers published the next morning gave wildly exaggerated information about mass hysteria and even suicides, in reality the show’s most drastic actions were a handful of farmers shooting their guns multiple times in the sky.

Yet the damage was done. The public demanded an apology and explanation from Welles and his team. Welles apologized the next day at the CBS building, where he played the role of an extremely regretful and traumatized man. It is, however, in the author’s opinion, much more likely that Welles had little real remorse for his actions.

And really, why should he? “War of the Worlds” remains one of the most acclaimed pieces of media in its genre, and for good reason. The engrossing drama, realistic-for-the-era production, and stunning sound design make for a one-of-a-kind experience, especially in 1938.

What was then seen as a cruel trick on society is now admired as a masterstroke of psychological experimentation. Welles himself perhaps summed it up best in his closing remarks at the end of the controversial program:

“The ‘War of the Worlds’ has no meaning other than the vacation offer it was meant to be. The Mercury Theatre’s own radio version of dressing in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and to say “boo”… We couldn’t break through all your windows and steal all your garden doors by tomorrow night, so we did our best. We wiped out the world in front of your ears and destroyed CBS.


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