Media, Panic and Reality

By Eren

For my blog post following my discussion animation on the War of the Worlds, I wanted to go deeper on the role that the media has in our conception of reality – and why Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast had the far-reaching impacts and lasting implications that it did.

In 1938, the world was living in a time of tension, where people were glued to their radios to receive entertainment, but also world news – especially with the rise of the Third Reich gaining power and territory in Europe, threatening global safety with the encroaching threat of war. The radio became a method of information technology in 1894 with Gugliemo Marconi developing his wireless telegraph messaging system to deliver fast and accurate communications across great distances. Over the next twenty years, this technology was developed to bring in the golden age of radio, during the late 1920s and 1930s. Because of the post-war economic boom that accompanied the Roaring twenties, more and more families were able to purchase radios, and enjoy listening to the available programming during leisure time – bringing way to diverse programming alongside news broadcasts. With channel programming such as the New York Philharmonic’s weekly concert broadcasts, Texaco’s Metropolitan Opera broadcasts and famous comedians including the Marx brothers, and Abbott and Costello providing their talents on air – the radio became a point of access for all to receive quality entertainment and news programming in the comfort of their own homes. However, news programming was a major staple of radio broadcast content, President FDR addressing the nation himself with his Fireside Chats from 1933 to 1944, and local and national news companies providing information on unfolding events in real time – a new concept due to technological innovation of the time.

Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast adaptation of H.G. Wells’ 1897 novella came at a time when the intensity of reality reflected something out of a fictional novel, and the heightened nature of people’s worry for the near future intensified the anxiety of listening to the news – something most of us can relate to having over the past two years with the unfolding of the Coronavirus pandemic, tensions during the 2020 election, and even now with the war in Ukraine and threats of nuclear attacks. While War of the Worlds was originally written during the turn of the 20th century and taking place in England – Orson Welles adapted the language and setting to better fit the 1930’s American audience, making the story even more contemporary and believable. Adding to the believability that began panic was the usage of the radio medium to tell this story – making the story into an unfolding event broadcasted over the air. While an enjoyable life-like dramatic scenario for listeners who heard the opening prologue stating that it was a production by the Mercury Theatre, people switching through channels who happened upon the reputable CBS channel hearing that people had been killed by an unidentified object in Grover’s Milll, New Jersey would be more inclined to not think that it was a dramatic performance. The life-like manner that the broadcast had with interruptions of breaking news and updates, musical interludes, broadcast static and “eyewitness accounts” incited fear in listeners, despite the announcements that it was a fictional production during, and halfway through the broadcast. Because of limited technology available, people who believed the broadcast weren’t able to fact-check what they were listening to in real-time, causing genuine reactions of fear and panic to an oncoming, extra-terrestrial threat.

With that, I was curious if there should be clearer lines drawn to distinguish real from fiction, especially in the time we’re in with “fake news”, deepfakes, and media platforms who both willingly and unknowingly allow fraudulent information sources to circulate more easily than ever before – causing perceptions of real and fake to be blurred. With misinformation running rampant and fake media resembling reality so much more now than ever, should reality-based horror be clearly distinguished from real life to provide more safety and assurances for viewers? Or do disclaimers prevent the art from having its’ full effect? Should some mediums be left just for reality, or can horror be implemented through any platform/medium?

With this piece and others we’ve covered in class including Unfriended, Pontypool, and Ringu all infusing horror with commonplace and interact-able technology/mediums we use in our daily lives, the lines are blurred between fiction and reality to make the fear induced by the scenarios all more realistic, and empathetic for audiences to relate to the characters in the scenarios. For Orson Welles who made this production to bring a sci-fi horror to a new audience the day before Halloween using the popular mass technology of the time, having his production being consumed as reality almost ended his career in its infancy, and continued to follow him around for the rest of his life. War of the Worlds crossed an unseen line to take horror reality into the homes of everyone with a radio, bringing the terror into everyday life. In times when reality is scary enough to be lived – is found footage horror and other practices of reality-horror too much for us (collectively) to handle?

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