Last night, the wife and I returned home from a hectic day of errand running and turned on the radio for a little background noise while unpacking our purchases. Lo and behold, we dialed in to one of the greatest radio programs of all time: the Orson Wells Mercury Theater production of "War of the Worlds."
Not sure when the last time any of you listened to this thing, but man, it’s pretty amazing. I kept trying to imagine what it must’ve been like back on Halloween 1938, when scattered reports of a Martian invasion crackled across many a mono speaker.
The tension is astounding. Wide-eyed incredulity slowly gives way to a crescendo of paranoia, as Earth’s meager forces fall to the encroaching alien invaders.
Many listeners tuned into the broadcast a little late, and missed the disclaimer at the beginning. The result was mass paranoia, exacerbated by an increasingly common piece of household technology: the telephone.
Some claim that Wells crafted the program on behalf of the US government, who wanted to assess public reaction to a mass-scale invasion. The "space alien" stuff was fabricated to create the conditions for analysis; they could later claim it was all just entertainment. Another theory posits that the broadcast was a cover-up for actual alien contact.
While the psy-op premise is interesting, I seriously doubt its legitimacy. Wells rarely anyone towed anyone’s line, so why would he cooperate with Uncle Sam? I personally think he was engaging in some preliminary envelope-pushing before taking on William Randolph Hearst with his masterpiece, Citizen Kane.
The influence of this 60-minute radio play was so profound that when Pearl Harbor was attacked, some greeted the official reports with skepticism. Call it "The Boy Who Cried Martian" syndrome.
I was so thrilled to hear "War of the Worlds" again that I absolutely had to own it. I found a copy on iTunes for $5.99, which I bought begrudgingly — shouldn’t this be in the public domain? I mean, I doubt my purchase benefits the Estate of Orson Wells.
So, in the spirit of semi-righteous piracy, I present to you a Halloween treat: