How the mind behind Citizen Kane went a little too hard for Halloween.
Orson Welles yelled “fire!” in a crowded theater, and he parlayed the publicity from the panic into one of the most successful careers in entertainment ever. The Mercury Theater’s The War of the Worlds was broadcast across the United States by CBS radio on October 30, 1938, and harnessed the radio-listening public’s social anxieties of the time by utilizing radio’s unique ability to let the audience’s imagination fill in gaps in the story.
Marshall McLuhan’s term “Media Sense” refers to one’s ability to translate an idea into a communicable package by using the media that best fits the idea’s message. Writer, showrunner, and improviser Anthony King boils this theory down by asking this question: what can this form do that is unique to itself? In the case of improvisation, the unique property it holds is its ability to let the audience discover the comedy or drama at the same time as the performers. In the case of radio, Welles described it best by calling it, “The Theater of the mind.” The audience did most of the creative work, filling in details and settings with their own perceptions and anxieties.
Orson Welles possessed pitch perfect media sense before McLuhan ever had the chance to define it. The polymath’s ability to translate narratives from one form to another while augmenting the story’s impact grew with every project he undertook. No project exemplifies this ability more than the Mercury Theater’s rendition of War of the Worlds.
The radio play, adapted from H.G. Wells’s novella, uses the book as a launching pad. The accusation of literary plagiarism was among the many lawsuits thrown at Welles and CBS in the aftermath of the broadcast. The unfaithful adaptation occurred because Welles understood that simply copying the book’s narrative on the radio would not have the same impact. He showed similar savvy earlier in his career when his staging of Julius Caesar became the first full-length play ever recorded to acetate disc. Welles essentially rewrote the play from initial staging to recording because he understood that certain aspects of the show would not translate to an audio-only format.
The CBS show begins with an announcement of the show by a transatlantic accented announcer lasting about twelve seconds. Next, comes Orson Welles, painting the setting of the radio play, stating, “In the thirty-ninth year of the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.” This sentence eerily predicted Adolph Hitler’s move to occupy Poland the next year. Even with this narration, Welles was innovating on the auditory medium. Traditionally, radio plays utilized narration as a means of getting the audience from point A to point B. The Lone Ranger famously used the now cliché transition, “Meanwhile back at the ranch,” to great effect. However, Welles did not settle for pragmatic storytelling. In The Mercury Theater’s productions, the narration was only given by characters within the story. Instead of taking the audience out of the story to give them information, Welles delivered the information through the lens of one of the characters. This aesthetic choice evoked the radio show’s first (but quickly changed) name, First Person Singular.
After Welles concludes his monologue, the show dons the mask of a languid broadcast of an orchestra performance. Three minutes and thirty seconds into the broadcast, the first news bulletin is announced, introducing scientific developments on Mars. The news bulletins interrupt the orchestra show with greater and greater frequency until the narrative escalates into a total Martian invasion. Welles’s most powerful weapon in deceiving his audience was the fact that the Mercury Theater on the Air really wasn’t that popular. Critics had lauded the show, but it had not reached any sort of mass popularity. Most of the audience that eventually joined the Panic Broadcast (as it came to be known) arrived after the commentator introduced the dramatization and Welles set the scene. There was no indication that this was a dramatization of any kind for more than forty minutes.
The majority of listeners had no reason not to believe that Martians were descending upon the Earth in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. Even those who lived in the real Grover’s Mill took cover from the apparent invasion. Firstly, radio was still a new medium, having only been popularized around 1922. In the 1930s President Roosevelt visited everyone’s homes by way of radio for his fireside chats, telling families they would get through the Great Depression. The year before the Panic Broadcast, Herbert Morrison recorded his firsthand account of the Hindenburg disaster which was broadcast across the country, echoing Joseph Conrad’s line, “Oh, the humanity.” No one had ever used the medium for anything other than sincere communication purposes. That is until Welles and his band of pranksters decided to co-opt both of these sincere broadcasts to add realism to their own.
When the Martian ship supposedly lands at Grover’s Mill, the Mercury Theater’s newsman is miraculously there seconds after. He describes the scene in a matter-of-fact tone until the ship unloads its deadly passengers. When the action begins, the actor announcing the attack does his best Morrison impression, with awkward wording and pauses included. To add to the broadcast’s verisimilitude, Welles invented new ways to record the dialogue and sound effects for his shows.
In an earlier Mercury Theater on the Air broadcast of Les Miserables masterminded by Welles, Valjean and Javert’s confrontation in the sewer was recorded in the bathroom of the studio with the microphone a few feet off the ground to suggest the cavernous and wet setting in which the scene was taking place. Similar techniques were used to create the sound effects of the Martian ship opening to reveal its passengers for the first time. In addition to the evocation of Morrison, another actor impersonates FDR in an address to the now decimated tri-state area. Welles and his repertory of actors knew exactly what they were doing, but the impact on the public was greater than they imagined.
The US public was a raw nerve. They were just barely seeing any improvement from the Great Depression (the experience of the Great Depression could have contributed to the defeatist attitude adopted by so many when listening to the broadcast), they were divided on the issue of isolationism in response to growing Nazi aggression in Europe (many thought the Nazi’s were masquerading as Martians), and (in the strangest contextual point of the time) extraterrestrial life on Mars seemed like a real possibility. While the notion that Martians were digging irrigation trenches on Mars to revitalize the planet was not subscribed to by many scientists, the theory took hold in popular (science) culture. The New York Times genuinely ran a story speculating that Martian engineers may be working on a way to travel to Earth. Even brilliant inventors like Nicola Tesla theorized that humans should be able to pick up Martian radio transmissions.
By the end of the hour-long broadcast, police were at CBS studios, an angry mob was outside, the New Jersey Turnpike was hopelessly backed up, and Orson Welles was a national superstar. He would spin this publicity into an illustrious film-acting career, but his best performance came only a day after the Panic Broadcast aired. On Halloween Welles dressed up as a remorseful man, wide-eyed and unshaven. Reporters grilled him on the ethics of broadcasting such trickery over the airwaves, and the actor feigned remorse, telling them it was only meant as a Halloween spook (he had sounded much more smug at the end of the broadcast the night before when he told the audience as much).
Legislation was drafted to censor the radio but was quickly thrown out when Congress remembered the first amendment. To placate the fuming lawmakers and public, radio stations vowed to increase self-censorship, but by that time Welles was on to bigger things. The aftermath of the broadcast was just as sensationalized as the broadcast itself. Reports of suicides were all found to be false. The worst effect the radio show had was simply frightening its listeners, and after all isn’t that what you really want on Halloween eve?