Sunday, 13 November 2011

Science Fiction

06:51:00 Posted by Lara Clayton , , , , 4 comments

by Christopher James Heyworth

I've been thinking and reading about how Orson Welles hoaxed millions with a radio broadcast on October 30th. 1938.

Listeners were told in a mock news broadcast that a cylindrical Martian spaceship had landed in Grover's Mill, New Jersey. The Martian ship began incinerating onlookers with an alien death ray, an event that was covered by the Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations, and that caused widespread alarm and mass hysteria.

For the sake of imitating reality, news of the attack interrupted a program of live dance music, the reports growing more frequent and ominous as time passed, until the New Jersey state militia had been wiped out, and three Martian tripod battle machines began ravaging the landscape.

Of course, the broadcast was a hoax, a cleverly crafted Hallowe'en prank composed of simulated on-the-spot news bulletins based on the H.G. Wells novel, The War of the Worlds.

Before the broadcast there had been an announcement that what would follow was a dramatic presentation by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air, but many listeners missed the introduction and panic ensued.

Residents in New Jersey fled the area convinced they could smell poison gas and see fiery flashes from the tripods in the distance.

It has been estimated that of the 6 million people who heard the original broadcast (the Twenties and Thirties were very much the Age of Radio), more than 1.5 million believed it to be true, and more than a million others were genuinely terrified - contemporary accounts tell of police stations swamped with calls.

Within a month there were more than 12,000 newspaper articles on the broadcast and its impact, and as far away as Germany, Adolf Hitler is said to have cited it as "evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy."

Many listeners sued the network for mental anguish, claims that virtually all failed, save one for a pair of size nine black shoes, by a man from Massachusetts who complained he'd had to spend what he'd saved for new shoes to escape the invading Martians. Welles insisted that that claim be reimbursed.

Welles and the Mercury Theatre were censured, but the broadcast secured Welles an instant, notorious fame.

In 1988, Grover's Mills, New Jersey, celebrated its hour of fame by installing a Martian Landing Site monument near Grover's Mill Pond, not far from the remains of a water tower shot to pieces by its frightened residents 50 years earlier.

So now you can answer the Science Fiction quiz question "What is the connection between New Jersey and size nine black shoes?"

We really do like to believe that there is Something Out There even if the thought of it scares us to death.

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4 comments:

Lindsay said...

I grew up with the musical version of War of the Worlds from the 70's, my dad used to have it on in the car on long journeys and I found it fascinating. Great post Christopher.

Ashley R Lister said...

Christopher,

Thanks for joining us here at the Blog.

Whenever I encounter someone who tells me that fiction has no influence over real life, I think of this incident, or the Bible, or the fact that most of us have been moved to an emotional response by some narrative or another.

Thanks for the sage words and extremely appropriate reminder for this week's topic.

Best wishes,

Ashley Lister

Christo said...

Thanks for your welcome, the pair of you.
Was War of the Worlds by The Moody Blues or ELO, Lindsay?
Either way it is terrific and both bands rate among my favourites with Mr. Blue Sky there at the top.
Like you, Ashley, over my lifetime I have watched so much Science Fiction start to become Science Fact.
The small communication devices (it is no longer accurate to call them just phones) which most of us carry around with us for most of the time are so similar to Star Trek gadgets, and motion sensors to open and close doors, as well as the hi-tech surgical gubbins in use daily are straight from so many TV series.
I'm working on a War Poems piece as a follow-up if that's okay. How far ahead has BDGPS planned topics, please?

Ashley R Lister said...

Chris,

I've checked the calendar and the guest blogger for this current week, writing on War Poetry, is John Siddique. We usually try and rotate guest bloggers so that we have a different voice each Sunday - providing a unique perspective on that week's theme - which is why we appreciated your contribution so much.

Ashley Lister