An invisible audience. A seven second delay. Waves that travel worldwide through the air, unseen. A spectrum that includes audible sound, sunlight and the rainbow. Radio is already pretty mysterious, but on October 30, 1938, Orson Welles and The Mercury Theatre on the Air made radio history with its live broadcast of The War of the Worlds.
According to the recent Radiolab episode focusing on the radio play, “The War of the Worlds is believed to have fooled over a million people when it originally aired, and it’s continued to fool people since–from Santiago, Chile to Buffalo, New York to a particularly disastrous evening in Quito, Ecuador.”
Equal parts brilliance and mischief, Welles’ and The Mercury Theatre’s adaptation of H.G. Wells‘ classic science fiction novel both entertained and wreaked havoc upon its audience. Some listeners, who believed the invasion to be real, responded with such fright that the event has inspired a study on the psychology of panic.
The performance’s unintended consequences have only made The War of the Worlds more popular, inspiring numerous adaptations and spin-offs. (But we’re not going to talk about the terrible 2005 film adaptation, okay?) Even a 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone called The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street seems strikingly similar to the Martian hysteria that followed the broadcast. In it, a power outage on a seemingly idyllic suburban street leads to suspicion and chaos (though Rod Serling, with the added influence of the McCarthy trials, takes the tale in a much darker direction).
A new addition to the The War of the Worlds canon is Eric Hobbs’ graphic novel The Broadcast, which tells a fictional story from the perspective of people in a Midwestern town who believe that the Martians have really landed.
So if you love The War of the Worlds, there are plenty of derivative titles to entertain you, and if you never heard the radio play, you’re in for a treat. Tune in, carefully.