Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mass Hysteria And The War Of The Worlds

It seems difficult to believe today, but a radio drama that aired in the 1930s caused a mass panic by making its listeners believe that aliens had invaded Earth. The show was The War of the Worlds, inspired by H.G. Wells' classic novel. It was produced by, and starred, theatrical wunderkind Orson Welles as an episode of his anthology show Mercury Theater on the Air It aired on Halloween 1938.

Wells' novel concerned a Martian invasion of the planet, and was set in a small village in England. In adopting the novel for radio, Welles shifted the setting to Grover's Mill, a village in New Jersey to make it more relevant for the American radio audience. He also conceived the device of telling the first part of the drama as a series of news bulletins interrupting a seemingly genuine live broadcast, to give the story some verisimilitude. Further enhancing the show's air of reality was the fact that the one-hour drama aired without commercial breaks.

Although the precise extent of the mass hysteria that resulted from the airing of the radio show has long been debated, it is clear that thousands of listeners took The War of the Worlds to heart, genuinely believing that a Martian invasion of the Earth was underway. While the program repeatedly professed its fictional nature, many may have merely heard part of the show while they were switching programmes, leading them to believe that what they heard was in fact real. The panic may also have been fueled by the atmosphere of uncertainty prevailing at the time, as the world was on the brink of World War II.

Thousands of people reportedly rushed out of their homes, terrified of the alien invaders. Others prepared their guns to be ready to meet the Martians. Others hid in their cellars. There were even reports, which may have been false, of people committing suicide.

Welles later expressed 'profound regret' at the widespread panic his drama had caused. Ironically enough, he also claimed that he had first hesitated doing the program, as he feared people would find it too unbelievable. But he failed to reckon with the power radio held over its audience, as well as his own dramatic prowess. His powerful radio drama helped conjure images of alien war machines striding across the American landscape in many listeners' imaginations. Media critics also said that Welles had expertly blurred the line between fiction and reality by effectively mimicking how radio genuinely worked in an emergency situation.

Although we may never know exactly how widespread the panic fueled by that radio show was, it is clear this incidence of mass hysteria continues to fascinate us, and it serves as a testament to how radio once intensely engaged the imaginations of its audience.

By: Allan Michael Taylor

George Brown is an expert when it comes to old time radio. To take a trip down the memory lane, visit his website and find out more about old time American radio.

No comments: