Mass Hysteria of the War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast

Topics: Radio, World War II, Orson Welles Pages: 5 (1874 words) Published: September 27, 2012
“Something's wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now here's another and another one and another one. They look like tentacles to me ... I can see the thing's body now. It's large, large as a bear. It glistens like wet leather. But that face, it... it ... ladies and gentlemen, it's indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, it's so awful. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is kind of V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate"(Eidenmuller). During the golden age of radio, many people tuned their radios to the Sunday night Halloween eve radiobroadcast of Orson Welles’ adaptation of the War of the Worlds. As the sun was setting and the moon began to take its place, listeners all around the country sat on the edge of their seats as Orson Welles orchestrated the greatest hoax radio had ever seen. In fact, this horrifying broadcast twisted believers to its will in such a way that it is still thought to be one of the most significant events in radio history. In 1938, Orson Welles capitalized on the fragile state of naive pre-World War II and mid-depression Americans by broadcasting the War of the Worlds, the broadcast that will forever live in infamy. Orson Welles’ growing fame and skill together with clever adaptations by his theatre group, led to the now infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Time magazine described the 23-year-old Orson Welles as the “brightest moon that had risen over Broadway in years. Welles should feel at home in the sky, for the sky is the only limit his ambitions recognized”; this type of publicity is what helped Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre group obtain the Sunday night premier spot in the CBS line up (Naremore). When the producer first suggested the War of the Worlds as Mercury Theatre’s Halloween broadcast, director and star Orson Welles laughed it off as juvenile and boring. However, after much consideration, it was decided that they would perform the broadcast, but instead of reading the original War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, which is set in England, they would adapt it and use real cities and news bulletins (Cruz). This decision is what resulted in the fame of Orson Welles, and most importantly, the widespread panic that ensued as a direct result of Orson Welles’ clever adaptations and design. The formatting and details of the radio play is the main reason its effect was so convincing. Welles introduced the radio play with a spoken intro that flowed into a weather report, and then the audience was taken to New York to listen to an orchestra. The story seemed to be forgotten (Welles Scares Nation). However, the orchestra was really playing in a CBS studio and was soon interrupted by increasingly alarming new bulletins. The bulletins began from a Princeton observatory where an “astronomer” described to a reporter the explosions of incandescent gas that could be observed on Mars (Lovgen). Next came reports that a huge flaming object had slammed into a Grovers Mill farm, prompting New Jersey officials to seize control of the radio station and declare Martial law, an extreme and rare measure used to control society during war or chaos. In the final stages of the invasion tripods descended upon New York and poisonous gas suffocated New Yorkers. The signal was then cut out to indicate destruction. After the broadcast supposedly cut out from CBS an announcement finally came on that the plot was fiction (Abramson). The precision and detail made the broadcast realistic, and created doubt even in the minds of people who thought they could just shrug it off as “nonsense.” Orson Welles’ national listening audience was deeply affected. It is estimated that there were about 5 million people across the country listening to the War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Many were amused and aware of the fact that it was a dramatization. There were some people however, that were terrified and didn’t know how to react....
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