history 101

History 101: War of the Worlds

History 101 is an original, regular feature here at The Pretty Good Gatsby that combines my two passions: history and reading. Each post I’ll discuss a historical figure or event and then pair it with a book. Interested in previous History 101 posts? Check out its page!

Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” is synonymous with hysteria and mass-panic. Apart from a few details, however, how familiar are you with what really happened? I thought this would be a fun Halloween edition of History 101!

In the 30s, evening entertainment came in the form of radio. There were no Wiis or Playstations for families to gather around. Instead plays and variety shows ruled the airwaves. The most popular show of the day was NBC’s Chase and Sanborn Hour and Orson Welles’ The Mercury Theatre on the Air ran during the same timeslot on CBS. In an attempt to garner more listeners, Welles and one of his writers reworked H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds into a more radio-friendly adaptation (along with a local setting) for its October 30, 1938 broadcast and the rest is history.

The Mercury Theatre on the Air saw its commercial-free program as an advantage. Instead of working breaks and pauses into the play, Orson and his crew were able to continue along, lending credibility to their news reports of alien sightings. It also meant that notices stating this was just a dramatization were few and far between – and many listeners tuning in managed to miss them. Welles knew how the Chase and Sanborn Hour ran and about ten minutes into the show there was a musical act. Many listeners would tune in to a different station during this act and Welles saw this as an opportunity. Sure enough, twelve minutes into War of the Worlds, new listeners were tuning in and were shocked to hear reports and interviews, not realizing it was all fake. Soon radio stations and police were flooded with calls and there were even reports of people packing their belongings and fleeing their homes!

With the tension of World War II looming, any talk of invasions – supernatural or otherwise – didn’t sit well with the public and after the broadcast ended the outcry led to lawsuits and police investigations. Radio was still relatively new and newspapers leapt at the chance to badmouth it. Within a month of the broadcast 12,500 articles had been written and it’s possible the hysteria was played up, that it wasn’t nearly as wide-spreading as we think. Until radio came along, newspapers held a monopoly on news and entertainment. With radio, news programs and shows were readily accessible and journalists weren’t pleased. There are people who believe angry journalists wanted to show just how unreliable radio was and exaggerated the numbers.

Regardless of the actual numbers, War of the Worlds has an unparalleled legacy and to this day it’s still being broadcast. Yesterday marked its 75th anniversary and to celebrate the town of Grover’s Mill, NJ (where the play was set) celebrated in style with live reenactments; movies; a discussion led by a panel of historians; and, of course, the original 1938 broadcast.

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