Were You Just Hoodwinked? The Modern Orson Welles Effect

“Everything about me is a contradiction, and so is everything about everybody else. We are made out of oppositions; we live between two poles. There’s a philistine and an aesthete in all of us, and a murderer and a saint. You don’t reconcile the poles. You just recognize them.”

That quote from iconic actor, director and author, Orson Welles reminds us that humans are complex, and the key to discovering what makes them tick is the breakdown of those complexities. By this wise, who better to put that to the test than one that understood people so well.

On the evening of October 30th, 1938, a 23-year-old Orson began a broadcast at 8pm entitled “War Of The Worlds,” that changed America forever. That Saturday night, millions of listeners were tuned in as Welles’ program depicted an attack by invaders from Mars landing on a farm in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.

Due to the Great Depression, families were now much closer, regularly huddling around the radio as this was prime time, yet still maintaining concern about an uncertain future. With only a 27-piece orchestra and 10 actors, Welles sent the country in such a panic, that there were reports of suicide attempts and even heart attacks, as the nation flooded the emergency call systems. Even though Welles informed the audience at intervals that it was not an actual attack, much of the nation was convinced of its realism.

History.com records the aftermath this way: “The radio play was extremely realistic, with Welles employing sophisticated sound effects and his actors doing an excellent job portraying terrified announcers and other characters. An announcer reported that widespread panic had broken out in the vicinity of the landing sites, with thousands desperately trying to flee.

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The Federal Communications Commission investigated the unorthodox program but found no law was broken.

Networks did agree to be more cautious in their programming in the future. Welles’ broadcast was notorious for convincing many that an actual invasion was taking place. Performed as “breaking news” during the Mercury Theatre on the Air, it bore the unmistakable signature realism of an emergency with no commercial interruptions, giving the impression that actual news reports were taking place.

Legends still maintain that some of the radio audience may have been listening to The Chase and Sanborn Hour with Edgar Bergen and tuned in to “The War of the Worlds” during a musical interlude, thereby missing the clear introduction indicating that the show was a work of science fiction. Certain reports suggest that this happened
only in rare instances.

In the days following the broadcast, widespread outrage was expressed by the media. Another report stated that, “The program’s news-bulletin format was described as deceptive by some newspapers and public figures, leading to an outcry against the broadcasters and calls for regulation by the FCC. Welles apologized at a hastily called news conference the next morning, and no punitive action was taken. The broadcast and subsequent publicity brought the 23-year-old Welles to the attention of the general public and gave him the reputation of an innovative storyteller and “trickster”.

Yet, it was In a 1960 court deposition that Welles offered an explanation for his inspiration for War of the Worlds: “I had conceived the idea of doing a radio broadcast in such a manner that a crisis would actually seem to be happening,” he said, “and would be broadcast in such a dramatized form as to appear to be a real event taking place at that time, rather than a mere radio play.” In his well-known quote concerning contradictions, he acknowledged himself and the world he lived in. He was the embodiment of a contradiction- and so are we.

Even with modern technology, the internet and smart phones, Welles’ legendary broadcast sent a message.

If you package it right, make it look good and sound real enough- for one brief shining moment, you can fool anybody. Little did we know as a society that almost 80 years later under the same premise, America would fall for an even bigger hoax.

Stay tuned.

(Part 2 of this article will be published on Thursday, November 17th, 2022. Follow us to see more.)


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