Let’s All Panic

Welles was young and smart and talented.Six million people listen to a radio broadcast, and a quarter of them run screaming from their houses. Their frenzy and fear infect many other people who have no idea what’s going on. Mass panic! Are the Martians really invading? The streets are crowded with people who all believe it.

Note: It used to be somewhat difficult to find this radio broadcast, but now, thanks to the magic of the internet, just click on this excellent resource.
On the evening of Sunday, October 30, 1938, the Mercury Theatre on the Air, directed by Orson Welles, broadcast their version of a famous book by H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds. The hour-long radio show was part of a well-known dramatic series that had done other spooky material such as Dracula. It was introduced as an adaptation of the book by Wells, and interrupted by commercials at the 40 minute point. None of the other radio stations on the air had any related news and the broadcast itself was filled with jumps in time that would have been impossible in a real-time transmission.
All evidence to the contrary, people were consumed by panic. Why?
The most basic reason: the broadcast was devilishly well written and performed. I’ve listened to the show several times, and I’m always impressed by the repertory of tricks and illusions that Welles put to such good use. We’ve been stealing from him for a long time, but the fact remains that this is one scary and effective bit of storytelling. And the Mercury Theatre provides some excellent voice-acting work. If you read this radio drama on paper, the writing is great (as I’ll discuss next) but it simply doesn’t have the same fire to it.
This is an excellent adaptation of the novel by Wells. Howard Koch, the writer for the Mercury Theatre team, jettisoned the British setting and the critique of colonialism, and replaced it with a swift comeuppance for American might, glory, and arrogance. Martians land in Grovers Mill, New Jersey, and have soon demolished most of the coast, with reports from announcer after announcer abruptly terminated amid screaming and mayhem. The Martian fighting machines advance on New York, spreading poisonous black smoke, and even destroy the Columbia Broadcasting System building (perhaps the most obvious clue that this was a piece of fiction, as the broadcast continued after that point).
The rest of Wells’ book was summarized in the last twenty minutes, with Welles’ voice as the much-wearied astronomer Pierson. He walks through a destroyed country, meets a mad parson, and finds the Martians dead from exposure to terrestrial bacteria. The people who had already panicked were no longer listening, so this part is not of interest in relation to the panic, but it is effective in the smaller context of a radio drama. First-rate writing from beginning to end.
Welles was young and smart and talented.Few events in the history of science fiction can compare to this broadcast. Writers toil away in obscurity for years, just dreaming of having such an effect on an audience. The question still remains, why the panic? Did all of the hysterical people believe in aliens? Probably not. How could people in New Jersey and New York ignore the evidence of their own eyes that said their respective states were not engulfed in poison smoke? Was it just some kind of pre-WWII hysteria? There doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory answer. Even the writer, Howard Koch, in his book The Panic Broadcast, had few helpful insights.
The whole incident might remain one of those bizarre moments of human history, except that maybe not much has changed. We can look back and laugh at those hapless residents of 1938, falling for a story about Martians, but what will 2070 think of us in 2004? A sophisticated set of media tactics has convinced half of Americans that Saddam Hussein was working with Osama bin Ladin. Substitute a different set of political references in the situation, and would we examine them any more closely? True media literacy is never a completed process; listening to this version of The War of the Worlds should always be humbling.
I love Welles’ epilogue, where he calls the broadcast nothing more than “the Mercury Theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying boo!” No one was killed in the panic, and Welles might have faced more criticism if that had happened. As it was, he would go on to fame in the movies (this is all covered in the early sections of the documentary “The Battle For Citizen Kane” which can be found on the Citizen Kane DVD). As much as later cinematic works would bring Welles fortune or misfortune, he had already created a moment for all of the history books.
This review was originally published a few years ago in slightly different format at Challenging Destiny. At that time, I also reviewed the original book by H.G. Wells, the 1950s movie, and the hilariously bad 1970s musical.

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