Arts, Culture & Media

'War of the Worlds' turns 75. Could it happen again?

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Credit: WGBH

War of the Worlds

75 years ago, a Martian invasion in a small New Jersey town caused mass panic throughout America. We all know now that it wasn't real, of course.

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It was Orson Welles’ legendary radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. You may not know, though, that its impact continued to sow fear and havoc around the world for years.

The War of the Worlds made international news the day after it aired on CBS Radio in 1938. But those headlines didn’t prevent people from being fooled by copycat productions many years later.

In retrospect, it was an unbelievable story. Yet people across the US believed that monsters from Mars had crushed and burned nearly 7,000 people within minutes.

Writer John Gosling is an expert in all things War of the Worlds. He says during the Golden Age of Radio, Orson Welles captured a moment of vulnerability in the country, with the Great Depression still underway and the fear of Nazis growing.

“The basic story is scary enough,” Gosling said. “Martians are coming and they are going to destroy the earth and suck our blood and poison us — you know, it’s a scary concept, but you can localize it so well.” 

He says Welles created a formula that could be easily replicated, which is exactly what happened, again and again — in Chile, Brazil, Portugal.... Gosling called it lightning in a bottle. In his book, Waging the War of the Worlds, he examines the history of the original broadcast and its many takeoffs, the deadliest of which happened in Quito, Ecuador, on February 12, 1949.

The popular music of Gonzalo Benitez started the Quito broadcast. And then, just as in the original, the music was interrupted by someone rushing to the microphone with the news that Martians were invading, smothering neighboring cities with gas. Soon, other radio stations began repeating the story.

“Something really quite horrible then happened,” Gosling said. Panic ensued.

Priests were leading people in prayer on the streets. When the radio station realized what was happening, they issued on-air disclaimers, but that only made some people angry. About 300 people marched on the station, which was housed on the upper floor of the local newspaper. 

“They blocked all the exits. They hurled flaming torches into the basement, setting the presses on fire and all of the chemicals down below on fire. They prevented the police from intervening. So the building’s on fire, the exits are blocked. One of the actors sort-of broke character and pleaded on air for help from the authorities. But, by all accounts, the authorities weren’t there to help because the authorities — the police and the military — had left town to go and fight the Martians!” Gosling said. 

At least 6 people died in the fire. And the broadcast tape was lost.

There were other remakes of The War of the Worlds that caused minor panic, like the 1958 remake that aired in Portugal.

The Lisbon War of the Worlds aired on a Catholic radio station. When people started getting worried, the police called the station and ordered the broadcast stopped. But the team of actors thought the police were joking. Who would be so gullible to fall for this again? 

“What ended up happening was two military guys entered the station with guns ordering them to stop. They were literally stopped at gunpoint,” Gosling remembered. 

Portugal is a deeply religious country, and since the broadcast was coming from a Catholic radio station, Gosling said a tale of impending apocalypse wasn’t so farfetched.

But could it happen again? Gosling thinks if we aren’t careful, it could. 

In this new golden age of social media, he said, people often don’t know what to believe. 

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