The War of the Worlds. Was the Panic Real or a Myth? On October 30th, 1938, Orson Welles and they Mercury Theatre Company, adapted for radio British writer H.G. Wells’ novel “The War of Worlds.”
Around nine o’clock in the evening, at the studio 1 of the Columbia Broadcasting System headquarters in New York, the 59 most famous minutes in radio history started. Nowadays, it would seem impossible to conceive such an uncanny phenomenon not only in radio, but in any other media.
At the beginning of the broadcast, it was clearly stated that it was a fiction tale, but many people disregarded the warning and fell prey to panic. The performances and the realism with which Orson Welles and his voice over troupe gave to this dramatization undoubtedly caused that this literary experiment filled the United States with bewilderment and fear.
How not to panic when listening that a meteorite had fallen in American ground, that an alien invasion had taken place in a rural New Jersey area? It is said that the place of the supposed impact was decided by letting a pencil fall over a New Jersey map; the place randomly chosen was Govers Mill.
Thanks to the work of several historians, it’s been recently discovered that the consequences were not as extreme as it has always been said. Yes, it’s true that the broadcast caused confusion among a group of people in the area of the invasion, and that the emergency services were collapsed, but many of the phone calls were just to ask if all of that was real.
What remains unquestionable, aside from the true reach of panic, is that it served to prove the ability of the new media to intervene in reality. And maybe, the most groundbreaking element of it was the way in which silence was played with.
The broadcast was abruptly interrupted to give way to nothingness, silence, which at that time was considered a mortal sin in radio -radio CANNOT be silent. That effect was startling. Non-verbal communication.
Instead of going on reading about what happened and how, better listen to it! Be surprised and admire the exceptional work by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre company.
Related article: New York, Movies and Voiceover.