It was brilliant subversive theatre posing as radio news, that created widespread panic in the U.S. The reality of the broadcast, interspersed as it was between musical numbers, as if it was a real news broadcast created the illusion of 'reality' for the listener.
We often overlook the importance of radio which dominated 20th century culture for over fifty years.
On Oct. 30, 1938, a radio reporter went on the air with a terrifying broadcast: A meteor had slammed into a farm in Mercer County. Thick, poisonous gas seeped through the air. Martians had descended on the nation, martial law was declared and scores of people were dead.
None of it was true. But hundreds of listeners tuning in to "War of the Worlds" had missed the introduction explaining that the program was fiction. They panicked, sending waves of hysteria and confusion across New Jersey and the country.
The program began as the Halloween episode of director Orson Welles' radio program, adapting H.G. Wells' novel "War of the Worlds" for the airwaves -- and plunking the alien invasion in Grovers Mill, New Jersey. The broadcast unfolded in a series of news bulletins that whipped listeners into a frenzy.
Calls poured in to police, newspapers and radio stations from fearful citizens. In Newark, more than 20 families rushed from their homes on Heddon Terrace, covering their faces with wet rags as they fled the "gas attack." National Guard armories in Sussex and Essex counties took calls from confused soldiers who heard on the radio that they were mobilized against the invasion.
At one point in the night, the New Jersey State Police issued a teletype they hoped would halt some of the panic -- which later earned both criticism and praise as an infamous moment in radio history. "Note to all receivers," the police message said. "WABC broadcast as drama re this section being attacked by residents of Mars. Imaginary affair."
Click to play the original recording of "War of the Worlds."
In writing "The War of the Worlds" in 1898, Herbert George Wells was inspired by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli who reported seeing "canali" on Mars, which had been positioned close to the Earth in 1894. "Canali" meant channels but was mistranslated as canals, leading to much speculation about life on the red planet.
"The War of the Worlds" was written in response to several historical events, said teacher Paul Brian in his "The War of the Worlds" on-line study guide created for his students at Washington State University. "The most important was the unification and militarization of Germany, which led to a series of novels predicting war in Europe, beginning with George Chesney's 'The Battle of Dorking' (1871).
"Most of these were written in a semi-documentary fashion; and Wells borrowed their technique to tie his interplanetary war tale to specific places in England familiar to his readers. This attempt at hyper-realism helped to inspire Orson Welles when the latter created his famed 1938 radio broadcast based on the novel."
E-text of The War of the Worlds by HG Wells.
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