A lot of today's viral videos, conspiracies and even movie hype have Orson Welles to thank. Most people are easily swayed by sensational headlines and end-of-times talk. Who doesn't want to be prepared for anything? After all, baby boomers grew up with the bomb hanging over their heads at any moment.
October 30, 1939, The Mercury Theater on the Air played their Halloween special episode on the radio. This was directed and narrated by Orson Welles, basing the story on The HG Wells' novel, "The War of the Worlds."
The program was set up as a mock newscast that had aliens invading and the reporter giving minute-to-minute updates. Since the program had no commercials, it had a real-time feel. Although the introduction of the show said it was a fictional drama, those tuning in later had no idea.
The outpouring that followed the scary threatening and realistic-sounding show was outraged and people demanded regulations about such programs being aired.
The timing of the airing with Hitler's movements, had some of the audience thinking they were hearing about troop invasions. Another part believed aliens from other planets had arrived. And, another part knew it was a drama.
There were numerous calls to the station and to the police to find out what was happening, but reports of widespread panic were exaggerated, as the show didn't have that much of an audience. It appeared that the news outlets built it up to be a situation of mass hysteria of epic proportions which was far from the truth.
Still, to this day, the broadcast is referenced when mockumentaries and online hysteria to promote film releases are put to the public. In fact, the Internet has become a kind of ongoing experiment in this, as information is often passed around without question from sources that are clearly making up fictitious reports, such as "The Onion," a popular site that makes fun of news stories, but some people truly believe.
The reason this show is still discussed is the way in which the subject was handled. One of the reasons we all found the movie "Signs" to be particularly spine-tingling was the way they portrayed it going down which felt very much like how it really would happen in the media with nonstop video and captured on videotape aliens, glimpses of the 24/7 coverage. Those who recall the 9-11 events remember being riveted to the television that seemed to unify us all in a moment in time when we were scattered across a huge country.
The "War of the Worlds" broadcast may go down in history for simply being the first you-were-there broadcasts that prepared us for that Cold War moment we all feared would arrive. I know I feared it, every time they made us dive under our desks for the drills.