It is so easy now to mock the millions who freaked out at the "War of the Worlds," the Halloween radio play 75 years ago this week about an invasion by Martian monsters. Millions who heard it believed it, calling police stations in terror, fleeing their homes, gathering with families to wait for 'the end of the world'. Ridiculous, we scoff. How irrational, we sniff. How just plain stupid.
But a closer look back at Orson Welles' brilliant production challenges that hubris and reveals some frightening lessons for you and me, because the seemingly silly public response to what became known as "The Panic Broadcast" in 1938 bears a striking resemblance to how modern society has responded to all sorts of dangers since then, and speaks profoundly to how vulnerable we are, right now, to the powerful instinctive emotion of fear.
An American Experience documentary on "War of the Worlds" airs Tuesday night, October 29th, on PBS (9 p.m. east coast time. Check it out. It's really quite entertaining and richly informative. I was interviewed for that program.) It makes clear that given what was going on in America at the time, and given the instinctive way our risk perception psychology works, it was easy for Welles to scare millions into believing humanity was in its last hours.
-- The Depression had been under way for nine years. Millions were out of work, or struggling to get by. There was a sense of powerlessness, a loss of control, and deep fear about the economic future. (Sound familiar? In the wake of the economic collapse of 2008, hundreds of millions around the world remain out of work, struggling, angry at losing control over their own lives and deeply worried about the future.)
-- The world in 1938 was gripped by fear of impending war. Hitler's mad dog rants filled the radio airwaves. Just a month before the "War of the Worlds" broadcast, the Munich Crisis had been pretty much the only news for more than a week, as Hitler threatened war if Germany was not given parts of Czechoslovakia. (Sound familiar? Now we face the constant threat of terrorism, tension in the Middle East that could turn global, Iran getting nuclear weapons, China and Japan bristling at each other with rising nationalism.)
-- For years leading up the "War of the Worlds" broadcast the news had been full of dramatic frightening events. The 1932 Lindbergh baby kidnapping, the 1937 crash of the Hindenberg, the 1938 east coast hurricane that killed 800 people, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1938_Hurricane (Now? It's impossible to escape news of mass murders, killer hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy, crashing planes and trains and even space shuttles.)
-- In the 1930s a mass medium was tying the country together in real time as never before. 80 percent of Americans in 1938 had a radio. Listening, especially in the evening when the "War of the Worlds" broadcast aired, was a national ritual. And listeners constantly heard an ever increasing drumbeat of alarm-raising "We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin" announcements. (60 percent of Americans now own smart phones, we stay connected 24/7 via Twitter/Facebook/social media, and the news media steadily bombard us with "THIS JUST IN!!!" alerts.)
So Americans were incredibly vulnerable for the trick Welles intended as a treat for them that Halloween. And the play itself did a brilliant job tapping the innate emotional cues that trigger fear... cues beyond our conscious control, beyond reason.
Fake reality-inducing news bulletins set up an on-the-scene report by Carl Phillips in rural New Jersey, describing a strange machine that had crashed into some farmland after flashes had been seen not long before on the surface of Mars, with glowing jets of gas heading toward earth. (The possibility of life on Mars had frequently been in the news back in those days as well, including speculation by a prominent national scientist just three days earlier.) Then, with convincing sound effects and great drama, Phillips reported;
"(yelling chaotic crowd noise)..." Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed . . . Wait a minute! Someone's crawling out of the hollow top. Someone or . . . something. I can see peering out of that black hole two luminous disks . . are they eyes? It might be a face. It might be . . .
(SHOUT OF AWE FROM THE CROWD)
Good heavens, something's wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. (how's that for classic fear-evoking imagery?) Now it's another one, and another one and another! They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing's body! It's large, large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face, it . . . Ladies and gentlemen, it's indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it its so awful. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate. The monster or whatever it is can hardly move.
What classic 'scary' symbols... snakes, tentacles, glistening skin, quivering drooling mouth on an "indescribable" "awful" face too horrid to look at! Then, after returning to normal music programming, came another "Bulletin!" and a report from Carl on the scene. Frank Readick, the actor playing the part, had spent the afternoon preparing by listening to the radio broadcast of the Hindenberg crash from the on-the-scene reporter, and his horrified voice saying "Oh. It's a terrific thing ladies and gentlemen! There's smoke and there's flames now. OH the humanity...!" Readick, in almost the same terrified frantic voice, now reported;
A humped shape is rising out of the pit! I can make out a small beam of light against a mirror. What's that? There's a jet of flame springing from the mirror, and it leaps right at the advancing men! It strikes them head on! Good Lord, they're turning into flame!
(SCREAMS AND UNEARTHLY SHRIEKS)
Now the whole field's caught fire. (EXPLOSION) The woods . . . the barns . . . the gas tanks of automobiles . . . it's spreading everywhere. It's coming this way. About twenty yards to my right . . .
And then, silence. Across America, millions listening to the radio heard something they never heard from the radio... silence. For 6 interminable seconds. Letting the imagination of the listeners run wild.
When the broadcast returned, military officials described the scene, talking about batallions of troops, martial law, military operations, tapping the fear of war so alive in Americans of the time. "It looks almost like a real war," an army Captain says.
Then listeners learned that the person we got to know, Carl Phillips, was dead, making the risk real, human, and horrible, both factors that play into the psychology of risk perception and makes things scarier:
Ladies and gentlemen, here is a bulletin from Trenton. It is a brief statement informing us that the charred body of Carl Phillips has been identified in a Trenton hospital.
A CBS official announced that the network was giving control of the broadcast to the government. And just a couple minutes later (this is still only about 20 minutes into the play at this point);
Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make. Incredible as it may seem, both the observations of science and the evidence of our eyes lead to the inescapable assumption that those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars. The battle which took place tonight at Grovers Mill has ended in one of the most startling defeats ever suffered by any army in modern times; seven thousand men armed with rifles and machine guns pitted against a single fighting machine of the invaders from Mars. One hundred and twenty known survivors. (more war imagery)
Moments later, another bulletin, from Washington D.C., a statement from as Secretary of the Interior, who sounded precisely like President Roosevelt;
"Citizens of the nation. I shall not try to conceal the gravity of the situation that confronts the country nor the concern of your government in protecting the lives and property of its people."
The broadcast continued with the announcer reporting that 'Bulletins too numerous to read are piling up in the studio here." Listeners learn that the invaders are spewing black poisonous smoke. They hear the voices of military people who are attacking the invaders, starting to choke and cough, then falling silent. More ominous radio silence. Time for fearful imaginations to summon up fearful images.
The broadcast reported;
"Bulletin. Highways to the north, south, and west are clogged with frantic human traffic. Police and army reserves are unable to control the mad flight.
...a powerful social cue that undoubtedly prompted thousands of listeners to do the same. We tend to do what others do, especially when it has to do with safety.
The American Experience program uses actors to depict the people who wrote letters after the "War of the Worlds":
The realism got me. I didn't know then it was a play. I swallowed the whole thing as it came over the air. Like a new national emergency or something
The awful silence of the broadcaster. I presumed he had fallen with the dead because he stayed to witness the awful site 'til the last moment, at his own risk to do his duty and be of service to the world."
I was skeptical, but not for long. Hasn't science proved there is life on Mars, through the observations?
My wife came in just wringing her hands and wailing away her eyeballs about to pop into her lap going 'What Is It? What Is It? What Could it Be Is It The Germans?'
We all felt it was the end of the world...I just ran out of the house. I guess I didn't know what I was doin'. I kept saying over and over again to everybody I met. Don't you know. NJ has been destroyed by the Germans!
I began to cry. I ran downstairs and grabbed my mother and coat and key I kept coughing and crying we are all going to die to night mother the black smoke is getting the best of me can't you smell it too?"
People actually smelling smoke? Hearing "Germans"? Jamming highways, their cars packed with whatever belonging they could quickly throw together? Literally believing in men from Mars and the imminent end of human existence? Sounds like something out a movie, doesn't it?
But doesn't it also ring just a little familiar? Remember after the 9/11/2001 attacks the recommendation to get plastic and duct tape to seal off a room in your house in case of chemical or biological or nuclear terrorism? There had been no such attacks but 90 million people bought some. Then the anthrax letters hit, and public safety officials spent weeks responding to thousands of calls of 'suspicious white powder', including some on tables next to bags of donuts or under the sink next to the bottle of cleanser.
And now? A false story runs on Twitter or Facebook and we send the link to our friends and followers and, as quickly as Welles had Martians taking over the earth, false information takes on the imprimatur of truth. A study out last week found that one Tweet in three during the Boston Marathon bombing was inaccurate or purposefully fraudulent. That helped convince two and a half million people across the Boston metro area to willingly stay inside, and, frightened, watch live TV pictures and special news reports of the manhunt for the bombers that was nowhere near most of them.
In the aftermath of "War of the Worlds' there were anger and blame and congressional investigations and calls for government action to protect the public from such abuse...all of which came to nothing. (Sound familiar?) Orson Welles apologized, but insincerely, saying "I can't imagine an invasion from Mars would find ready acceptance." (The insincere apology is becoming de rigueur these days too.) Welles then rode the notoriety to greater fame and a contract from RKO Pictures in Hollywood, (sound familiar?) Pundits in the papers and the radio pontificated for weeks (sound familiar) about how stupid and irrational people were.
The "War of the Worlds" closes with Welles, as himself, saying
So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian. . .it's Hallowe'en."
We should remember. We have Welles, and the "War of the Worlds", and all those frightened people back then, to thank for a lesson learned that is still applicable to all of us. The 'grinning, glowing, globular invader' that freaked everybody out back then, is alive and well in all of us. It's the innately emotional way we respond to signs of danger, a hair trigger system that under the right conditions -- and many of those conditions are right at the moment -- makes us ready to jump at any shrewdly crafted "BOO!"
(The War of the Worlds script makes for interesting reading. The audio is even better.)