On the evening of 30 October 1938, the night before Halloween, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre broadcast a version of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. Gallup Polls taken afterwards indicated between six and 12 million listeners tuned in, and that between one and three million of them actually believed that New York had been attacked by Martians. The show, and the panic it caused, became a legend, and its impact somewhat exaggerated. But a minimum 500,000 people phoned for reassurance after the broadcast.
Welles had been making a specifically Halloween, spooky, broadcast. Perhaps he was using the voice he used as the Shadow the year before (“Who knows what evil dwells within the hearts of men…the Shadow knows. He he he”). He did begin by warning listeners that what was to follow was a play, a fiction, set in 1939, not the current year.
The resulting panic was thought to have arisen from the bulk of listeners tuning in late, while a more popular comedy show on another station went to a musical number. Listeners tuning in late experienced the Welles obsessive, Citizen Kane like documentary treatment. Real places were mentioned, news commentators interviewed alleged professors, policemen and the Secretary of State and seemed obviously shaken. One broadcast was continually being interrupted by another, more urgent one. The Martians were advancing, and there was nothing the government and the armed forces could do to stop them.
There was definitely an audience for this kind of thing. A 1927 broadcast in Adelaide Australia about Martian invasion also sparked a panic. Those Martians would have felt right at home had they seen Ayers Rock and the Red Heart of the central desert. The broadcast built on an earlier one mimicking a military invasion. Like the Welles’ broadcast, the resulting panic after both broadcasts was blamed on listeners tuning in late. And the need to panic.
One month before Welles’ broadcast, 30 September 1938, Allied powers signed the Munich Agreement, a weak appeasement of Adolf Hitler’s demands over Czechoslovakia. It was widely feared in Europe that war was coming, and it came 01 September 1939. In America formal neutrality was observed till Pearl Harbour 07 December 1941. After that attack, a real invasion by the Japanese, America entered the war in full force. In the lead up to war all kinds of fears surfaced, and may have contributed to the panic caused by Welles’ broadcast. It was the End of Days. Jews believed the Nazis were invading to put them in concentration camps.
Prophet of doom
HG Wells himself both suffered a panic, and capitalised on widespread fears, when he wrote his War of the Worlds in 1895-7 and published it in 1898. In a book on Wells by Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie (HG Wells, Simon and Schuster NY 1973) the authors emphasise how apocalyptic was Wells’ own attitude at the time he wrote his early fiction. His fears of submergence in the quicksand of poverty that had afflicted his parents’ lives somehow jelled with his learning about the theory of evolution as taught by Thomas Huxley to leave him with a massive disquiet about the society he lived in, which was being shaped in alarming ways by science and the Industrial Revolution. In an unequalled series of nightmare ‘romances’, The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898), Wells voiced his fears with powerful persuasion, using mundane detail to leave the impression of verisimilitude, much as Orson Welles did in 1938. A large part of the British population felt the same way as HG Wells, it appeared. He became quite suddenly one of the most successful authors of the day.
Wells was to spend the rest of his life trying to put the world to rights, and was venerated throughout his career by the public, and Presidents, Prime Ministers and other leaders listened to his every word. He imagined, well before they developed, tank warfare, chemical warfare, nuclear war, the cold war, the League of Nations: he even thought he had preempted Einstein on the Theory of Relativity (he hadn’t based his theory of time on any mathematical structure as Einstein did, which enabled others to ‘prove’ that particular thought experiment).
Wells’ story depicts the Martians using laser beams to destroy forces sent against them, and a weapon that ejected a ‘black cloud’ that killed all who breathed its fumes. The invaders left their space machines and traversed the landscape in small craft with areotraction treads that could cross any terrain. Nothing human could stand before them. Only the Martians’ lack of antibodies (then unknown to medicine) to combat Earthly bacteria saved the human race. The book was a convincing nightmare in print form (much in it later came true unfortunately).
Immediately on publication two pirate editions came out in America. The setting in one was changed to New York, in the other it was Boston. Orson Welles was being far from original in 1938 when he made his broadcast.
The date of Wells’ story, 1898, makes it part of a widespread foreboding across Europe about a coming world war. There were several novels published towards the close of the century that gave warning of Britain’s inability to fight Germany in an all out war. Chesney’s Battle of Dorking of 1871; Le Queux’ The Great War in England of 1897 (1894); and, most famously, Erskine Childers’ Riddle of the Sands of 1903. Wells’ War of the Worlds of 1898 was read in this context. All these books were written with considerable research behind them. They were ‘factual’ in the same way Le Carré’s novels are factual. The reader found it very easy to suspend disbelief, and became immersed in the catastrophe. Wells’ depiction of the panic in Britain at the Martian invasion was an uncanny forecast of the one later inspired by Orson Welles in New York.
Relief for anxieties
Another factor in the reaction of readers to Wells’ story was the date, the turn of the century. It seems that millenarianism is still a potent force, as it was then, despite the fact that the 1000 years interval is set somewhat arbitrarily by different calendar systems. The belief in the coming judgment of god on sinners on earth was originally a major part of emerging Christianity and may have been held by Jesus himself. It is closely related to the Messianic movement of Judaism which immediately preceded the rise of Christianity. The writer of the Book of Revelation elaborated this idea to a rule of the saints lasting 1000 years following a final judgment, and this was accepted for some time as orthodox. It was, however, made heresy by the church, though retained by non orthodox sects. Despite condemnation by the Church, there was widespread panic as the year 1000 AD approached in Europe. It may have been a cause of the conversion of Iceland to Christianity, which occurred in that year.
The coming of a year 1000, and even 100, seems to act as a focus for widespread trepidation about political and economic developments, guilt about ‘sinfulness’, longing for freedom and other disquiets, of which there are always many. Perhaps the consequent panics are beneficial, a form of therapy. The year 1900 AD was no different. In Britain the effects of the Industrial Revolution were transforming society, creating widespread poverty, making a small minority unbelievably wealthy, while degrading the landscape. Worries about excesses of the Empire fuelled a popular war in South Africa. And, already, as mentioned above, some were looking ahead at political developments in Germany. No one looked ahead with more amazing prescience than HG Wells. He also warned against the use of intellect without emotional balance, irresponsible scientific development, and notes in his story how humans have treated other species and races as the Martians were now treating humans.
In the 1930s it was Hitler’s turn. He offered a new, militant millenarianism, a thousand year Reich. Hundreds of thousands of Germans humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles bought it. Luckily it didn’t last, as Hitler developed delusions of grandeur and thought he was invincible, and began to fight everybody. It did last a regrettable 12 years though.
Some will recall the widespread alarm in America as the year 2000 AD approached. Old computers, it was said, only recorded a year with two integers, and would read the year as ’00’ and stop working. It was a bit like an update of the number of the beast beloved of horror fans: year zero; end of time, end of days. Planes would stop flying, and other computer driven machines would stop functioning. Chaos would ensue. Everybody enjoyed their panic, those who had old computers updated them (a boom period for Microsoft apparently), and then it was revealed that almost no computer since 1986 had a two integer year date record. But the need to panic was still there, and had been satisfied.
All this makes one think of the distinction, as Marshall McLuhan put it, between the media and the message, or between what we panic about and what we are told to panic about. Are they the same? Is there a reality being reported on, or is the reporting itself creating a new reality? This is a point made repeatedly by the British documentary maker Peter Watkins. In his so called ‘docudramas’ from The War Game of 1965 Watkins recreated a reality which didn’t exist. In that film it was a nuclear attack against Britain. He shows, however, a reality, Britain’s lack of preparedness for such an attack. It was the same in America during the cold war. People were told to dig a hole in the back yard and cover it with a lid. School children were advised to hide under their desks. What was really being said was that most people were going to die, because those in authority didn’t know what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.
No difference today. We can expect a pandemic some time this century. No hospital system in the world can cope, and many will die. No government body knows what to do.
Instead, and this is Watkins’ point, as seen in other films he’s made, what we get is pseudo reality. In 1967 Watkins made Privilege, in which a pop singer is used by a totalitarian state to control young people and divert them from protest. In 1969 there was Gladiators, in which war is waged as a spectator sport for TV audiences (anyone remember that great show, The Gulf War?). And in 1971 Punishment Park extended the idea to crime and punishment. It takes a while to sort out which reality is at question. McLuhan was right.
This, of course, is media uncontrolled, assuming power over people’s lives which it has no right to. What I find interesting is the audience. Research has shown, apparently, that many viewers don’t distinguish so well between TV drama series and news broadcasts. Both seem to show police chasing criminals. And the audience is not paying a great deal of attention. The set is just on, and they are maybe calling someone on the phone or playing a RPG at the same time. You know, multitasking. But I think them at risk.
There is a big audience out there whose idea of reality is a bit skewered. Depressed folk without a job are vulnerable to reality distortion. Uneducated people cannot use their critical sense to evaluate what they see. Some are persecuted for their religion, colour, habits or even their sex, which makes them a tad unbalanced. Insecure people go for security in totalitarianism, the Nazi Party or the KKK or are born again to a religion that takes all their money or tells them to commit suicide. People are expecting the end of the world, and are constantly making predictions about when it will happen (so far wrongly, unless it’s happened and we just haven’t noticed). UFO spotters scan the skies for flying saucers or are kidnapped and brainwashed by aliens. Bloggers talk and no-one listens, it’s the sound of silence.
The show goes on
No wonder HG Wells’ audience was a huge one in 1898. No wonder Orson Welles affected a million people in 1938. Today we have a more complex problem. Is the invasion an amazingly realistic CGI and a cast of thousands of (simulated) extras and a mass of special effects? Or is it real, and if so, what the heck do we do? Maybe the invasion has already happened. Some of those Republican politicians look a little other worldly. Or is it a show put on to keep us quiet while a real invasion is taking place and those in authority dither (and do a deal with the invaders). Thing is, nobody can tell the difference any more, not even Philip K Dick. An emergency will never be solved if Hollywood is the only one to react to it.
If you think differently, just tell me where you get your information from. As for the rest of us, we might as well enjoy the show, and hope there’s another series. Maybe we’ll have an Andy Warhol star spot to look forward to. Before the invasion. Before the end. Or maybe the Gallup Polls will show audiences think we’re not realistic enough.
©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.