War of the Worlds
On October 30, 1938, a small-time radio actor and producer awoke to find that overnight he had become one of the most talked-about men in America. The name Orson Welles may seem familiar now, but in the early 1930s, he was somewhat unknown. But this all changed when the radio station he worked for decided to air a Halloween special in a series of literary classics brought into the modern age. The classic they chose? H. G. Wells’ sci-fi masterpiece, War of the Words. Welles and his production team labored for weeks to implement their vision: a realistic, real-time, news bulletin detailing a Martian invasion of New Jersey. The program included elements such as sound effects, interviews, and government announcements.
Several times throughout the night, the station repeated the fact that the program was fictitious. But that did not stop panicked listeners from rioting in the streets, threatening suicide, or volunteering to defend Earth from the Martian invasion. Or so it was reported. The real story is slightly different and not so frenzied. It is true that the program sparked a panic. It is true that some people thought it to be real. It is not true that the whole country turned upside down because of it. The radio series The Mercury Theater on the Air did not have a very large following and in all honesty, there were better things on the radio to listen to that night.
But if this is true, then why does America seem to remember a full-blown panic on Halloween, 1938? Because in the aftermath of a small disturbance caused by a fictional radio program, newspapers looking for a reason to discredit their high-tech rivals pounced on the story, inflating it to include tales of mass hysteria. This had two main results. First, it cemented the event within American folklore. To this day, people speak of the event as fact. Second, it propelled Orson Welles’ career onto the silver screen where he made his mark in American film history. All thanks to sci-fi master H.G. Wells and his extraordinary imagination and vision.
Written by Kimberly Kuntz
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