I don’t need to tell you H.G. Wells birthday is today, Google already has. What I can tell you is a bit about how the night Orsen Welles and H.G. Wells captivated a nation into fear. It wasn’t necessarily planned and it changed the way the world, saw their universe. This one night was one that perhaps we’ll really experience one day, but this was a drama.

Orsen Welles conducted his Halloween eve radio drama anthology series “Mercury Theatre on the Air”. The show had an introduction and if you listen to the introduction, you’re aware that you’re listening to a drama program. However, after a brief introduction the show starts as follows: It’s a radio broadcast of some music program, with a brief news interruption about gases on Mars being spotted and that later they’ll talk to a astronomers.

A few minutes later they tune back in with the astronomer and ask him a bit about it, but it’s seemingly typical. Then they cut in with a news of a meteor crash. More music, then they cut back to the scene where this meteor crash. Soon these news casts are describing a full scale alien invasion. A nation soon was gripped in fear. As many as 6 million people listened in with several million believing the entire thing. This was not because people in the 1930s were stupid or naive, rather it was done so well that people were accustom to these types of news breaks, especially prior to World War II.

The entire thing is done without pause, the show was a “sustaining” show which means it didn’t have commercial interruptions. At the time NBC’s show that came on at the same time was more popular, so often times people would tune into CBS a few minutes in, much like channel surfing of today to see what was on. When they tuned in, they could hear this “news broadcast” and think that the show had been interrupted with news of an alien invasion.

Pure pandemonium is what ensued next. For years what all happened has been debated. Some spoke of full panic that had people committing suicide. Other have said it just resulted in a general public panic and that some people went and got their guns… Some even reportedly took to shooting local water towers (thinking it was aliens) and without a doubt at least, a large portion of the nation was gripped in fear. If you tuned in more than 5 minutes late, you were petrified.

What makes this adaptation so superior to any other medium before or after is the realism. The news networks speak with scientists who deny this can be happening… Then they’re stunned and speechless. The eye witness reports go from whimsical to suddenly panic stricken. The show keeps cutting out and going back to the piano concert, for dramatic effect. It’s as if this is a continuing series of news breaks.

Of course the effect was super amplified at the time by the fact that so many of the country would be listening to this. There was no TV to counteract the fear. No other news channel to not be reporting it. There was no one to call. If you called the local Police and said, “Hey what’s this going on the radio about Martians?” They would either tell you it was just a radio show (which you wouldn’t believe) or they’d listen in themselves and suddenly be caught up in the fear too. There was another announcement some 40 minutes in that this was fiction, but because of how it was done it was easily misread as just more radio show before another news cut in.

Initially Grover’s Mill (where the story was supposed to be happening) was deserted, but crowds developed. Eventually police were sent to control the crowds. To people arriving later in the evening, the scene really did look like the events being narrated, with panicked crowds and flashing police lights streaming across the masses. Further adding to the chaos of the evening.

Hilariously or frighteningly, depending on how you look at it, one area of the country and something like 1,000 homes lost power about halfway through the broadcast. While pure coincidence, it added to the fear of those people that this event was really happening.

Lack of mass communication changed the game and played on people’s most basic fears. It was brilliant and although it’s H.G. Wells story that inspired this, it was truly Orsen Welles genius that created this. Perhaps no finer contribution has ever been made to science fiction.

You can listen or download the entire thing here on MP3 War of the Worlds

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