What “War of the Worlds” can teach us about media

What "War of the Worlds" can teach us about media

With it being Halloween, the day of tricks and treats, it’s worth revisiting one of the greatest tricks ever played on an unsuspecting American public. On the night before Halloween in 1938, then radio personality Orson Welles broadcasted an updated radio drama of H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel “War of the Worlds”.

As the legend goes, Welles’ realistic broadcast that, was updated for 1938 audiences, was a little too realistic. Not only did it cause panic in the streets but it’s been claimed that mass hysteria followed. Some people allegedly even claimed that one of the ‘flying saucers’ landed on their property or that they had been attacked by Martians.

Originally Welles claimed that it was an unintended accident for so much panic to come from his infamous broadcast. However in a 1965 interview with the BBC, Welles relates a tale where he was hosting a normal Sunday radio show with musical numbers when announcers broke in and announced that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. Since it was Welles hosting the program the news wasn’t believed for several hours. He then said that he probably deserved that since the War of The Worlds broadcast was a protest of source.

At the 12:00 minute mark Welles states that…

I supposed we had it coming to us because in fact we weren’t so innocent as we meant to be. We were fed up with the way in which everything coming from this new magic box, the radio, was being swallowed. People do suspect what they read in the newspapers, but when the radio came , and I suppose now television, anything that came from that new machine was believed. So in a way our broadcast was an assault on the credibility of that machine. We wanted people to understand that they shouldn’t take any opinion predigested, and they shouldn’t swallow everything that came through the tap.

Today we have all sorts of magic boxes that feed us information, probably more than either Wells or Welles could have imagined, yet still many of us believe everything that comes from these boxes the we accept as gospel whether they are true or not, usually from places like Facebook and Twitter.

One has to wonder that if Orson Welles was alive today and tried his experiment with today’s culture would he have had the same success in fooling as many people as he did? I for one believe he would.

Welles’ entire broadcast can be heard below…