The War that Didn’t Scare the World

On October 30th, 1938, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre Company put on a radio broadcast that is still talked about till this day. The performance was based on an adaption of The War of the Worlds book by H.G. Wells, a story depicting Earth under attack by a martian army. The broadcast started with Welles introducing the program, encompassed several “eye-witness” accounts of the attack varying from news reporters to scientist, to then be followed by an intermission. The program finished with a more theatre-esq conversation between two characters before concluding with remarks again by Welles.

Contrary to popular belief, the broadcast didn’t cause as much panic as it’s known for today. To begin with, most people that night were not tuned into Welles’ broadcast at all. Those that were, weren’t very scared by it. I found the reactions to this broadcast to be both somewhat surprising and not surprising at the same time.

On one hand, I wasn’t super surprised that the broadcast didn’t really scare anyone because it was a story so unbelievable. Something discussed in class was the constraint that time played on the performance. For something so large scale like depicting an alien invasion and attack on Earth, less than an hour with commercial breaks isn’t necessarily ideal. I think about the idea of immersion (which I discuss later), and the effect commercial and intermission breaks might have on it. When watching a movie, if there were to be an intermission, I find that it would most likely take me out of the experience which I might not be able to re-engage with after. While commercial breaks were necessary for a radio broadcast at the time, I do ponder the negative effects it might have had on the believability or immersion of the performance.

On the other hand, I was very surprised that there wasn’t much actual, non-authenticated commotion after the broadcast. One thing that somewhat surprised me that there might not have been more panic from the broadcast was the war context going on in the world at the time. Given that WWI wasn’t too long ago at the time of the broadcast, I figured that the post-war jitters would still be fresh in listeners’ minds and that the thought of another war would stir up some sort of negative emotions possibly including fear. Another thing that surprised me stemmed from me trying to think back to my reaction if I had been in the shoes of someone listening at that time. In my opinion, the acting, for the most part in the first half of the broadcast, seemed believable. I think the actors did a good job fully getting into their characters resulting in a good performance. This alone I feel is something that is necessary at least for me to be immersed in a medium.

Immersion, for me at least, typically requires something along the lines of good sound, acting, story and visuals depending on the medium. When watching a movie, while I know it’s fake, if these things are done well, I’ll get rapped up in consuming the media so much that I kind of zone out of my actually location ad focus in more on the content. As far as audio goes, I think because there’s not a requirement for visual, that it can be hard to feel immersed exemplified by how some people like audio books and others don’t. Despite personal preference, I think it is possible for anyone to get immersed in audio as a medium by itself as shown through music. While music isn’t the same as listening to a radio play or an audiobook, it is something I think universally immersive hence why I think Welles’ broadcast wasn’t a failure because of a lack of immersion due to its medium.

As far as my experience went, I think there were several constraints that led to the lack thereof my immersion. I think it first and foremost goes back to cultural customs during their respective time periods. Back in 1938, it wasn’t uncommon to gather around the radio for entertainment, much less for the news report. Despite my efforts to try to put myself in the shoes of a listener during the original broadcast, I think because radio is not commonly used not, I wasn’t able to do so successfully. Hearing a radio broadcast the news, while something I understood to be realistic at some point in time, was not realistic for me now and days hence why I think it took away from my immersion. Another reason, related to the medium of radio, was the fact that we were listening to a radio broadcast in a movie theatre. Not only was it not the right setting in general, i.e. not a living room where a radio might have been listened too in the 1930s, but that theatre in my head is for watching movies. The only time I’ve been to that theatre is to watch a movie; therefore in my head, it seemed incorrect to be doing anything but in the space. Lastly, another thing that took me out of the potential immersion was the intermission. As I mentioned before, while I understood that this was necessary at the time, it was something somewhat unusual to hear. While I do think of intermissions as a theatrical thing, as far as other mediums, I don’t really consider them. I think that this intermission in Welles’ performance did take me out of what little immersion I might have subconsciously been able to grab.

While I think the idea of the broadcast was interesting and understand some of the limitations, I still leave with some questions I have yet to answer. What might have been Welles’ intent with the broadcast? Was he trying to incite some sort of fear into his listeners? Why might intermission primarily work for theatrical works and not other mediums? Even with time constraints and given a hypothetical bigger audience, could Welles’ performance have created more frenzy that night and therefore after? Some of these questions I’m not sure how to answer, others I think discussion would potentially create an answer. All in all, Welles’ broadcast was a creative endeavor, and criticism or not, it did accomplish some sort of fame as it is still talked about to this day. Despite not being a war that scared the world, it was a war that the world will remember.

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