Thursday, October 29, 2009

We Interrupt this Program...

On October 30, 1938, the Martians invaded New Jersey.

Since I thought hoax week 2009 was so much fun, I decided to experience the greatest hoax of them all: Orson Welles' radio broadcast of The War of The Worlds. I put the mp3 on my iPod and listened to it alone in the dark...

It starts off as a dance music broadcast -- or at least what they called dance music back then. But the party is interrupted by an Intercontinental Radio News report of enormous blue flames shooting out of Mars. Then, minutes later, another report that a meteor has fallen to Earth! Then, a minute later, reporters are ready at the scene for continuous coverage of the meteor. But then the meteor starts to open! It's really a spaceship, and it has tentacles!

"Good heavens -- something's wriggling out of the shadow," the fake newscaster reported. "It glistens like wet leather. But that face -- it… it is indescribable."

The whole thing is so not scary. The timeline alone is unbelievable. I guess it's just one of those things where you had to be there in the 30's, listening to the miracle of modern radio and trusting -- trusting that this was an urgent news bulletin and taking it all as fact. These people weren't stupid, but the world outside our own atmosphere had not been demystified yet. So thousands of listeners panicked:
Believing that the nation had been invaded by Martians, many listeners panicked. Some people loaded blankets and supplies in their cars and prepared to flee. One mother in New England reportedly packed her babies and lots of bread into a car, figuring that "if everything is burning, you can't eat money, but you can eat bread." Other people hid in cellars, hoping that the poisonous gas would blow over them. One college senior drove forty-five miles at breakneck speed in a valiant attempt to save his girlfriend.
But still, there is the annoying detail that during the broadcast there were three announcements stating that this was a dramatization of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. The newspaper that day had also listed the program as an adaptation of the book.

Could it be that the reports of mass panic are also a hoax?
But historians also claim that newspaper accounts over the following week greatly exaggerated the hysteria. There are estimates that about 20 percent of those listening believed it was real. That translates to less than a million people.

At the time, newspapers considered radio an upstart rival. Some in the print press, resentful of the superior radio coverage during the Munich crisis, may have sought to prove a point about the irresponsibility of the radio broadcast.
Somehow I'll sleep a little better knowing common sense prevailed during that historic misunderstanding. However, I'm still greatly disturbed over the dangerous crap that educated people are willing to believe today.

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