The War of the Worlds at 75: Still invading our fears

Orson Welles’ vision of the apocalypse from Mars anticipated today’s Hollywood storytelling and our own doom-minded moment, writes Jordan Hoffman.

We interrupt this article to bring you a special bulletin: the legendary radio broadcast of HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds, presented by Orson Welles on 30 October 1938, is celebrating its 75th anniversary. It catapulted its already notorious director to superstardom, sent radio listeners into panic (though to what degree is the subject of debate), and put Grover's Mill, New Jersey on the map.

More striking, however, is just how current everything about the broadcast remains. Recent years have seen a barrage of mass destruction in film and television, from Cloverfield to The Walking Dead to the final battle of Man of Steel. Changes in technology, most notably mobile phone cameras, have also given birth to a new subgenre rooted in fooling its audience: the ‘found-footage’ horror film. We are not likely to be fooled by radio today, but The War of the Worlds set the stage for equivalent 21st-Century freak outs.

Welles’ radio programme The Mercury Theatre on the Air began airing adaptations of classic literary works in July 1938. After 16 programmes including Treasure Island and The Count of Monte Cristo, Welles decided that for the night before Halloween he would try, as he put it, “the radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying ‘Boo!’” The result was a perfect marriage of content and form – a horrifying examination of the apocalypse presented in a new, and therefore frightening, medium.

Apocalypse now

Stories of humanity’s end go all the way back to Noah and the flood, but the kind of apocalyptic narrative that resonates most is often determined by the political and social factors of its time. In 1938 Americans were looking nervously toward Europe and the threat of fascism. Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of sci-fi website and author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, believes that an ‘end-it-all story’ was just what radio listeners wanted. “[It was] very satisfying for an audience that doesn't know what to expect next and doesn't want to worry about the future,” Newitz says. She feels anxious people still reeling from World War I and the influenza pandemics that followed it, worldwide economic depression and the fear of further conflict in Europe found a tale of definitive destruction like The War of the Worlds to be “comfort food.”

Similar anxieties about an uncertain future invade the minds of pop culture consumers today. The world has yet to catch its breath after the attacks on the World Trade Center, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, housing bubbles, fiscal cliffs and a news culture breathlessly looking for a new threat.

The number of recent films featuring unstoppable doom on the scale of The War of the Worlds has been vast. There have been aliens (Cloverfield, Skyline, Battle: Los Angeles) and viruses (the Resident Evil series, 28 Days/Weeks Later, Contagion). We have seen human biology stop working (Children of Men, Perfect Sense) and the Earth explode for no reason (2012, Knowing, Melancholia).

Newitz cites the critical and popular success of Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road, which, like Welles’ War of the Worlds, possesses very little in terms of backstory. The fear and uncertainty of government is blasted away [in The Road],” she says. “For an audience worried about unknowable terrorist enemies and confused by complex tax and health insurance policies, you strip that off and worry instead about the basics: food, shelter and broken legs.”

Orson’s Martians

The Mercury Theatre’s broadcast offered its similarly knotted-up listeners a heaped plate of the same fare. Loosely adapting HG Wells’ 1898 sci-fi novel, the programme was a fourth-wall-breaking peek at what a radio station would sound like giving an on-the-scene news report of an unstoppable interplanetary invasion.

No one knows for certain to what extent Welles had intended to spread panic, but certain facts remain. CBS' Mercury Theatre on the Air was not the most popular programme during the 8 pm time slot on Sundays. That was NBC's Chase and Sanborn Hour, a variety show. But Welles knew precisely when Chase and Sanborn cut to a musical interlude, which was also when many people would spin the dial to see what else was on. That was when his War of the Worlds, which at the time was masquerading as a similar variety show gave its first heart-stopping “we interrupt this broadcast”.

Since Mercury had only middling ratings, it was not a sponsored show. As such, it did not have regularly scheduled commercial breaks. So if you were somebody who switched over without hearing the introduction, you had a solid half-hour remaining of frenzied reporting from the frontline of the advancing apocalypse.

“There were no other points of verification back then. You couldn't crowdsource on Twitter or check,” says media consultant Max Dawson, a former professor of Radio, TV and Film at Northwestern University. The absence of conflicting reports may have had a greater psychological effect. The other networks might have been covering up what was happening or, considering that the machinations of large radio networks were still unknown to people, it could also be easy to believe that CBS had the only scoop.

Indeed, the most terrifying moments in Welles' broadcast include the use of dead air – an intentional ‘technical difficulty’ – analogous to today's viral videos and found-footage movies shot using shaky mobile phone cameras. It is far more difficult to determine if something is fake if its form is imperfect.

Fool me once

“New technologies are magnets for our fears, and new media is a flashpoint because communication is so central to our experience,” Dawson adds. The Blair Witch Project, a spiritual grandchild of Welles' War of the Worlds, was the first to exploit the internet to spread misinformation in the name of entertainment. And no movie campaign since has pulled the wool over our eyes in quite the same way. It wasn't just the use of then ‘prosumer’ video but the false website that claimed the movie was actually stitched-together from uncovered raw stock. Still, if not actually fooling the audience, other found-footage movies, like Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity have had some success. And always these are movies meant to scare the pants off of people. “Technology changes, anxiety stays the same,” Dawson says. “It's somewhat endearing.”

If we aren't going to be duped by radio or movies again, what is next? Perhaps social media. “I want to see the Orson Welles of Vine,” Dawson jokes. “I look forward to seeing creative people who understand how new platforms can confront our enduring anxieties.”

While fears of terrorism and a fragile global economy remain, and new technology proliferates, there will be no lack of psychological demand for stories of the apocalypse. The most effective storytellers will understand how to translate – and exorcise – real-world fears into symbolic mythmaking, just like Welles did. What was the first mainstream movie to exploit 9/11 imagery for horror-entertainment catharsis, after a tacit agreement in Hollywood to pull back a bit? A certain film by Steven Spielberg in 2005: an adaptation of War of the Worlds.

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