Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Martians Have Landed!

Front page of the New York Daily News, October 31, 1938.

It was 80 years ago tonight, on October 30, 1938, that actor Orson Welles “vaulted into stardom by narrating”—for The Mercury Theatre on the Air—“his famous radio presentation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds,” recalls the blog Pulp International. “In adapting the [1898] novel, which concerns an invasion by malevolent Martians bent on the total destruction of humanity, Welles decided to use fictional news bulletins to describe the action. These were presented without commercial breaks, leaving listeners to decide whether the familiar-sounding news flashes were truthful. Since a radio show had never used the news flash for dramatic purposes, many people were confused. The public reaction was described at the time as a panic ...”

The Writer’s Almanac supplies some more background:
It has been estimated that of the 6 million people who heard the original broadcast, more than 1.5 million believed it to be true and more than a million others were genuinely terrified, and contemporary accounts tell of police stations swamped with calls. Within a month there were more than 12,000 newspaper articles on the broadcast and its impact, and as far away as Germany, Adolf Hitler is said to have cited it as “evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy.” Many listeners sued the network for mental anguish, claims that were all denied save one for a pair of size-nine black shoes, by a man from Massachusetts who complained he’d had to spend what he’d saved for new shoes to escape the invading Martians. Welles insisted that that claim be reimbursed.

Welles and the
Mercury Theatre were censured, but the broadcast secured Welles an instant, notorious fame. In 1988, Grover’s Mills, New Jersey, celebrated its hour of fame by installing a Martian Landing Site monument near Grover’s Mill Pond, not far from the remains of a water tower shot to pieces by its frightened residents 50 years before.

So give yourself a little pre-Halloween scare by listening to that dramatic old broadcast, embedded above. The Mercury Theatre on the Air Web site also offers it and other episodes for free downloading here. To watch Welles talk about the fallout from his radio program, click here. And if you’d like to learn still more about that controversial show, grab a copy of A. Brad Schwartz’s Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News (2015).

POSTSCRIPT: You will find a selection of book fronts from H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds by clicking over to Killer Covers.

READ MORE:The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic,” by Jefferson Pooley and Michael Socolow (Slate); “What War of the Worlds Did,” by Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey (Aeon); “The 70th Anniversary of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast,” by Terence Towles Canote (A Shroud of Thoughts).

No comments: