Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Night of the Alien Invasion

I was reminded today, when I went to the campus to advise the newspaper staff, that this is the 75th anniversary of the broadcast of Orson Welles' radio adaptation of "War of the Worlds."

It was performed by Welles' "Mercury Theatre on the Air" group, which included the likes of Ray Collins, Joseph Cotten, Arlene Francis and Agnes Moorehead among others.

Roughly the first 40 minutes of the 62–minute CBS broadcast were presented as news bulletins reporting an alien invasion. The bulletins apparently were quite convincing — aided, no doubt, by the fact that the drama had no commercial interruptions — and a mass panic ensued.

Well, it was said that there was a mass panic, but there has been a debate over just how many people actually did panic on the night of Oct. 30, 1938. The number that has been settled on is 6 million.

That sounds like a lot, but it is actually about one–fifth the audience of rival NBC.

Welles and his group were criticized by some for the allegedly deceptive nature of those news bulletins, but the broadcast opened with a passage from the novel that described the aliens' intentions and noted that the events in the drama were set in 1939 — the following year.

Listeners who came in on the broadcast after that opening wouldn't have known what was going on — but such a listener, if he/she really listened to the broadcast and used some logic and common sense, could have figured out it wasn't real. At one point, the broadcast announced the start of a battle — only to announce not only the conclusion of the battle but also a body count within a minute.

Of course, you have to remember the context of the broadcast to understand why some people panicked. War was in the air in Europe. Within a year, the Nazis would invade Poland; within two, they would be in Paris.

In fact, the Radio Research Project studied the Halloween Eve broadcast and concluded that roughly one–fourth of the estimated 6 million listeners believed it was real — but most did not think Martians were invading. They believed the Germans were invading.

I have to think they were predisposed to react as they did.