As a child, I remember listening to radio dramas with my dad. We listened to The Shadow and The Green Hornet mostly. I guess the dramas were appealing for me because I had a vivid imagination and could easily picture the scenes in my mind … and usually, the scary parts weren’t so scary that I couldn’t handle them, as long as my daddy was right there with me. According to one source, The Shadow didn’t leave the air until December of 1954. When we were listening, I’m not sure we were hearing the original broadcasts or replays from a later time. (Perhaps only the Shadow knows?)
Thinking about today’s 76th anniversary of the War of the Worlds radio broadcast, I was drawn back to those childhood memories. I’ve often imagined what it must have been like to hear the Orson Welles broadcast in 1938 and to imagine – just imagine – it could be real! I know it’s possible (even probable) the hysteria was not as widespread as some accounts made it out to be. Nevertheless, because the drama seemed utterly believable to many, for me that original Sunday night broadcast would have been much scarier than either The Shadow or The Green Hornet!
An invasion of Martian monsters seems so silly to us today … we’ve viewed numerous iterations of it on the big screen and on television. We’re far too sophisticated – in contrast to those rubes of 1938 – to actually think such a thing could be possible! We’ve traveled (via film, books and television) to other planets, to other dimensions, to other worlds … and we tend to laugh in superiority at the naïveté of our country-bumpkin forebears who experienced panic all over a silly radio program!
The radio script for War of the Worlds was adapted from a well-known H. G. Wells tome of the same name. With his “Mercury Theatre on the Air,” Orson Welles hoped to produce a radio drama that would help him increase his audience, drawing listeners away from his time-slot competitor, the “Chase and Sanborn Hour” (a show with famed ventriloquist Edgar Bergen). Welles and another writer, Howard Koch, rewrote the story and infused the drama with a compelling You-Are-There immediacy.
Whether or not there was mass panic in 1938, the possibility that some listeners believed what they heard (and believed it to be real) speaks to the excellence of the script adaptation. It also begs the question: is it possible such an event (whether radio or television) could be produced today and end up creating a similar sensation?
In some ways, today’s media consumers appear to be more cynical, suspicious of spoofs or scams. There’s a prevalent air that we’re too savvy to be conned. Even the most elaborate schemes are unravelled quickly by astute observers.
In general though, we have been reeled in plenty of times to a story that goes viral and is eventually proven to be well-crafted but false bunk. Several websites specialize in debunking what appears genuine. Are we more sophisticated than our 1938 counterparts … or do we prove ourselves to be just as gullible? From as far back as the Lincoln assassination, there have been conspiracy aficionados who find holes in every “official” narrative.
Were there in fact two shooters in Dallas in 1963? Did the moon landing occur or was it all just scripted and filmed on the back lot of a Hollywood movie soundstage? Did Kristin really shoot J.R. in the shower and did Bobby really die or was Pam just a really deep dreamer? Did Building 7 fall of its own accord or were there explosive charges in the basement set to go off at a certain time? Did Princess Grace really have a stroke when she died or was someone else driving her car when it crashed? Are there actual space aliens and spacecraft being kept in Area 51? Did Lizzie Borden actually need forty whacks to kill her parents with an axe?
You probably get my drift. It’s good to be skeptical, to question what our eyes (or ears) have convinced us is true. As a writer, I want the stories I write to be believable … I want readers to be convinced what I’ve described could actually happen. When radio listeners were poised on the edge of their seats, fully engrossed in War of the Worlds, that must have been a moment of triumph for the writers Welles and Koch. They (or their creative descendants) may have to try harder today to convince all the cynics among us, but that would make the success even sweeter. Just be on the lookout for Martian invaders … they’re bound to show up when you least expect them.