October 30 marks the 75th anniversary of Orson Welles War of the Worlds broadcast. I started the quest of writing this post with the intention of focusing on the story’s original author, H.G. Wells, a father of steampunk, but I found a controversy brewing over the panic surrounding the broadcast.
The story I’ve heard all my life (pretty sure I first learned of it in 6th grade social studies) is that on the day before Halloween, Orson Welles did a radio broadcast about Martians invading the earth. LOTS of people believed him and panicked. I remember thinking how silly that was – Mars can’t support life. Now if the invaders had been from one of the planets orbiting Alpha Centauri, that would have been a completely different ballgame….
I discovered this week that a modern group of researchers say the fear was all drummed up by newspapers. They claim publishers were eager to discredit the relatively new medium of radio, urging people not to trust it. Thus the splashy headlines blaming the irresponsible broadcast for scores of tragedies. This article in Slate explores that theory. Here’s another one disputing the widespread panic. They even go so far as to criticize PBS.
PBS has devoted an episode of American Experience to Orson Welles broadcast, using their own dramatic methods to illustrate the event. I thought this was very interesting because that is exactly what Orson Welles did in 1938 – he took H.G. Wells original novel War of the Worlds and changed the setting to New England (the broadcast area) and made it more compelling with on-site reporting (all done from the studio). PBS included black and white interviews with people about the broadcast, as if these statements were filmed in 1938, but in fact they were actors reading from a book published in 1940 about the broadcast. This information is disclosed in the bonus material available on the PBS website.
If the panic was overstated, Orson Welles certainly didn’t correct anyone about it. Here’s a video of him apologizing for the broadcast, though this was definitely filmed years later. Welles incorrectly states the year of the broadcast as 1939. He knew there is no such thing as bad publicity and he didn’t mind at all being known as the person who had convinced America’s eastern seaboard that Mars was attacking.
Too often we think of H.G. Wells as a fixture of the Victorian era (which technically ended with Queen Victorian’s death on January 22, 1901) and War of the Worlds was first published in 1898, so it does qualify as a “Victorian” novel. However, H.G. Wells survived nearly the first half of the twentieth century – he died in 1946. So, he was very much alive for this adaptation of his novel. H.G. Wells and Orson Welles did a radio interview together in 1940 in San Antonio (to promote Citizen Kane) where they talked about the panic caused by the broadcast. H.G. seems skeptical about the mass panic and Orson somewhat concedes this comparing it to someone putting a sheet over his head and pretending to be a ghost. Listen to the interview and judge for yourself.
This tangled web raises interesting questions about fact and fiction, and how we view history. Whether we believe that mass panic happened on the evening of Oct. 30, 1938, or in the years afterwards when history accepted the story that there was a mass panic, it is an example of the public being manipulated by those entrusted to provide us with information. At the heart of this lies the question, just how willing are we to believe everything we hear or read, whether the medium is radio, television, newspapers or the internet?
Here’s one more recording of the broadcast. As you listen, ask yourself if it is really that different from the last crisis story you heard on one of those 24-hour cable news shows (you know, one of those where they really don’t have any information, but they have someone on the scene to tell you what he thinks is happening….)