The War of the Worlds

Introduction

Orson Welles’ adaption of “The War of the Worlds” provides a terrific introduction to the debate surrounding the media’s ability to influence the audience and shape our behaviour and beliefs. Performed live in 1938, the radio drama depicted a Martian invasion of earth, but the broadcast allegedly provoked widespread panic because many listeners thought the attack was real.

Did the programme trick the audience into fearing for their lives or was their reaction exaggerated by certain groups who hoped to benefit from the public outrage? This guide will take you through the most important aspects of this historically significant media text.

The Original Broadcast

Genre

“The War of the Worlds” mixes science fiction tropes with the conventions of radio broadcasts to create a very entertaining narrative. Combining these two elements into a hybrid radio form was a great innovation, but it may have duped some listeners into believing the news bulletins and reports were a true account of the Martian conquest.

Science Fiction

In terms of plot, the script follows the alien machines landing on earth and obliterating all human resistance with their heat rays. The first part of the play concludes with a live report from a Manhattan rooftop detailing their invasion of New York City. After the intermission, the story shifts to a long monologue describing the aftermath of the war and how a simple pathogen destroyed the Martians because they had no immunity to the terrestrial disease. At the end of the incredible episode, humanity is saved!

Radio Programming

Although the story of interplanetary warfare is typical of the science fiction genre, it was presented within the format of normal evening of radio programming. There appears to be a routine report from the “Government Weather Bureau” about a “slight atmospheric disturbance” along the east coast of America. We are then “entertained by the music of Ramón Raquello and his orchestra” who are playing a tango from the Park Plaza Hotel. Even the “special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News”, which interrupts the music, met the expectations of the contemporary audience.

By incorporating these basic radio codes into the start of the script, it is clear the writers were trying to make the story sound plausible. According to Baudrillard’s simulation theory, this would be the first stage which is a “reflection of reality”.

They reinforced this illusion of reality by updating the original 1898 novel to 1930s America “to make the play more acceptable to American listeners”.1 While many of the places are fictional, they bear a close resemblance to their real-life counterparts. For example, in the drama, the military launch an assault from Langham Field instead of the actual air force base at Langley Field and the experts come from Princeton Observatory rather than Princeton University Observatory.

In fact, the writers were warned against using the original names by the legal department at Columbia Broadcasting Company because they were worried about the threat of litigation. These changes are very subtle so most listeners would not be able to spot the difference. This blurring of boundaries between fact and fiction could be one of the reasons why members of audience believed aliens were attempting to destroy the human race.

Public Reaction

The New York Times reported “a wave of mass hysteria seized thousands of radio listeners” with some adults requiring “medical treatment for shock and hysteria”. Apparently, “thousands of persons” phoned different agencies “seeking advice on protective measures against the raids”.2 The Daily News in New York went with the headline “Fake Radio ‘War’ stirs terror through U.S.”3 During a press conference, one reporter suggested the broadcast created “terror throughout the nation”. This question-and-answer session with Orson Welles is certainly worth watching to get a sense of the scandal caused by the programme.

New York times front page from 1939
The New York Times Headline

The hypodermic needle theory suggests a media text can have a powerful and immediate effect on the passive audience. It would seem “The War of the Worlds” production supports this argument because so many terrified listeners, for example, “rushed out of their houses” to escape the “gas raid”.4

Andrew Crisell, a Professor of Broadcasting Studies, suggested radio is a very intimate medium because of the way presenters seem to talk to us directly in our living rooms and other private spaces.5 His concept of co-presence could explain why “The War of the Worlds” had such a tremendous impact on anyone tuning in at home.

The cultivation theory can also explain some of the hysteria. Gerbner’s research suggested heavy users of television become more susceptible to its messages, especially if the texts resonate with the viewer. One army veteran said the radio play “was too realistic for comfort” while another New York resident was “convinced it was the McCoy” when the “names and titles” of different officials, such as the Secretary of the Interior, were mentioned in the script.6 Perhaps it was this group of listeners who believed the broadcast was an accurate report of events that night because they were already familiar with the special bulletin format, which were known then as break-ins, and assumed the war in Europe had intensified.

Even the two-step flow model of communication provides some insight into how the panic unfolded. For instance, a “throng of playgoers had rushed” from a “theatre” because “news” of the invasion had “spread” to the audience. The New York Times also reported how the “rumor” of war “spread through the district and many persons stood on street corners hoping for a sight of the ‘battle’ in the skies”.7 Therefore, not everyone who was terrorised by the radio play was actually listening to the broadcast. They heard the rumours from people they trusted in their social circle.

At the very beginning of the broadcast, several signposts designated the programme as a work of fiction: an announcer introduces The Mercury Theatre on the Air, stating it is their adaption of H.G. Wells’ famous novel, and then the theme tune, which had been used for the previous episodes, is played. Maybe some people missed the opening minutes of the show and did not realise it was fake news. The mode of consumption could also explain their lack of awareness. Some listeners may not have been fully engaged with the message because the radio was only background noise while they did other things in the house. However, the special bulletins grabbed their attention long enough for them to think New York was being attacked.

There were two warnings at the intermission saying it was an “original dramatization” and a “performance”. At the very end, Orson Welles speaks “out of character” and “assures” the audience that the broadcast had no more significance than a child “dressing up in a sheet” at Halloween. Perhaps these disclaimers were simply too late to stop the panic.

Context

In a radio interview, Orson Welles revealed the preferred reading of the text, saying, “It’s supposed to show the corrupt condition and decadent state of affairs in democracy.”8 To fully appreciate why some listeners panicked, we need to consider the historical and social context behind the broadcast. In terms of Stuart Hall’s reception theory and his encoding / decoding model of communication, this is the audience’s framework of knowledge.

First, “The War of the Worlds” was aired by Columbia Broadcasting Systems (CBS) – one of only two national broadcasters who were trusted by millions of listeners every day to deliver reliable and impartial news. It is also important to note that CBS frequently interrupted scheduled programmes to inform their listeners of the latest updates from Europe. In the weeks prior to “The War of the Worlds” episode, the network reported on Hitler’s continued occupation Czechoslovakia and the inevitability of another global conflict.

Of course, Welles exploited the audience’s fear of a foreign power and their weapons of mass destruction. One concerned citizen said, “I knew it was some Germans trying to gas us all but when the announcer kept on calling them people from Mars, I just thought he was ignorant.”9

Finally, since radio was a relatively new form of mass communication, it could also be argued that many listeners lacked the media literacy needed to understand “The War of the Worlds” was a pastiche of its codes and conventions. Although Welles argued his format “was not even new” and it might seem like an obvious trick to a modern audience, many of the listeners may not have realised the drama was just entertainment.

A Moral Panic?

“The War of the Worlds” clearly had some impact on the audience but did thousands of listeners really believe Martians had landed in New Jersey wanting to conquer the world? Or was the scale of the panic exaggerated by the newspapers because they wanted to defend their market share?

The rapid expansion of radio in the 1930s into the homes of millions of Americans was a huge threat to the once dominant position of newspapers. Suddenly, advertising money was being used to sponsor popular radio programmes rather than being spent on ad space in the broadsheets and tabloids. The public no longer needed to wait until the next day to become informed of the most important headlines. Newspapers were yesterday’s news.

By sensationalising the reaction to “The War of the Worlds”, newspapers were drawing attention to the dangers this new media posed to the harmony of American society and calling for greater regulation of the industry. The New York Times reported that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had been “informed of the furore” and that they “might review the broadcast” because “public interest seems to warrant official action”.

Orson Welles being interviewed by journalists
Orson Welles Press Conference

“The War of the Worlds” was not sponsored by any company. Orson Welles was an incredibly talented and ambitious auteur. After the Sunday night broadcast, he was now on the front cover of New York’s tabloids and gaining some notoriety. In show business, never let a good scandal go to waste.

Essay Questions

  1. Explain how Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast used the codes and conventions of radio to convince the audience Martians were invading New York.
  2. How do the cultural and historical circumstances affect the audience’s interpretation of media texts? Refer to the Close Study Product War of the Worlds in your answer.
  3. Discuss how and why audiences might respond to and interpret media texts differently depending on the social context they are consumed. Refer to the Close Study Product War of the Worlds in your answer.
  4. “There is no doubt the media has a profound influence on the audience’s thoughts and behaviour.” To what extent does your analysis of the Close Study Product War of the Worlds support this view?

CBS Press Conference (1938). Accessed: https://www.criticalpast.com/video/65675022243_George-Orson-Welles_War-of-the-Worlds_future-broadcasts_journalists-interviewing
New York Times (1938). Accessed: http://www.war-of-the-worlds.org/Radio/Newspapers/Oct31/NYT.html
The Daily News (1938).
New York Times (1938).
Crisell, Andrew (1986) Understanding Radio.
New York Times (1938).
ditto.
Interview with Orson Welles and H.G. Wells (1940). Accessed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nUdghSMTXsU
Radiolab (2018) War of the Worlds. Accessed: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/articles/war-worlds

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