The Original ‘Fake News’: Orson Welles’ ‘War of the Worlds’ Turns 80
Amid audio storytelling's comeback and doubts about press, we look back at hoax.
It’s mentioned as every Halloween approaches: Before moving on to the medium of film and making his masterpiece Citizen Kane, Orson Welles created a radio broadcast that fooled many Americans into believing aliens were invading Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. It was an ingenious performance, whether you found it genuinely convincing or were just charmed by a creative team having the wit to decide that aliens would pick New Jersey to make contact. It happened so long ago—way back on October 30, 1938, before the World Wide Web, before cell phones, before the ubiquity of TV even—that for many decades it was easy to hear about it and think, “How simple people were then.” (What the heck was a radio play anyhow?)
Then on Election Day 2016 the Internet was abuzz with reports that World War III was days away and an FBI agent linked to Hillary Clinton’s email had killed his wife before shooting himself and one presidential candidate even tweeted there were voting machine problems “across entire country.” All of these things were untrue but widely shared. (The last of these came from Donald Trump’s Twitter account—he had observed a news item about one county with voting machine problems.) And, come to think of it, radio itself had entered a new golden age (albeit with a new name and distribution method: podcasting).
Which makes it a fine time to revisit what Orson Welles did with the H.G. Wells classic. Here’s how it happened, how it’s misunderstood, and why it is ominously prescient.
A Big Step for the Boy Wonder
Orson Welles was born on May 6, 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. His father was a wealthy inventor who created a carbide lamp for bicycles; his mother a concert pianist. But his parents separated and his mother and then father died. He was orphaned while a teen.
Welles did not necessarily have an easy adulthood either. He died basically broke on October 10, 1985. Virtually every film after Kane required an epic struggle to get made and even then they didn’t necessarily reach completion. An example: He began filming The Other Side of the Wind (starring John Huston) in 1970. He finally stopped filming it in 1977. Yet it was still unfinished at the time of his death and was only screened in 2018. It received generally positive reviews from critics: You can judge for yourself when Netflix starts streaming it on November 2.
With making his own movies such a struggle, Welles tended to rely on his voice to pay the bills. With the result he spent much of his time, for instance, plugging frozen peas. To his credit, he took the work seriously. Indeed, he sometimes took the work weirdly seriously, as the recording below shows. He is difficult and insulting and strangely passionate about getting the voiceover right: “Every July, peas grow there.” [Breaks character.] “Do you really mean that?”
Beyond this, Welles grew quite obese. Did people make fun of him? Well, he appears in the 1967 version of Casino Royale and the trailer describes him as the “heaviest heavy of SMERSH.” (Get it? Because he’s a bad guy—a heavy—and he’s fat.)
Welles himself could address his girth with good humor, quipping, “My doctor told me to stop having intimate dinners for four. Unless there are three other people.”
But between an often cruel childhood and the struggles of his later years, there was a magical stretch. We can actually pinpoint when it began and ended. From October 31, 1931 to March 16, 1942, Orson Welles led a uniquely charmed existence. Ironically, the golden period started on a Halloween when Welles received an opening night standing ovation for his performance in Jew Suss at the Gate Theatre in Dublin. Only 16, it was his first professional production. Indeed, the boy from the Midwest hadn’t even set off for Ireland looking for roles—he was essentially a tourist and stumbled into the opportunity.
While still in his teens, Welles made his Broadway debut as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet. He showed he was more than just a performer too. He directed an all-black cast in a version of Macbeth and then formed the Mercury Theatre with the director John Houseman. This led to a weekly radio program The Mercury Theatre on the Air on CBS. It would provide the platform for his interpretation (using an adaptation by Howard Koch) of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds when he was just 23.
But there were still more mediums to conquer. Welles soon signed a $225,000 contract with RKO to write, direct, and produce two films. He also received a percentage of the profits and had total creative control—it remains a remarkable deal for a filmmaker barely into his 20s. One who had only directed one full-length effort, a version of a stage farce called Too Much Johnson. Made with little if any budget, it went unreleased and was presumed lost until a print was discovered in 2008.
His second film (and first official effort) was Citizen Kane. This one was released. The New York Daily News gave it a rave on May 2, 1941, days before his 26th birthday: “The most talked about picture of the year, Orson Welles’ production of ‘Citizen Kane,’ finally had its New York premiere at the Palace theatre last night, where an eager first night audience enthusiastically applauded the young theatrical man’s latest achievement.” The specific praise was both flattering—“Only Charles Chaplin has equalled the Welles achievement on a major Hollywood production”—and borderline inane: “…he has done away with the long list of credits that clutter up the beginning of a film, and for this, he has earned our heartfelt gratitude.”
(The Daily News also noted that “legal advisers of William Randolph Hearst” had attended: “The latter evidently imagined that the central character of the picture, one Charles Foster Kane, bore an uncomfortably close resemblance of the great California publisher.”)
Citizen Kane was nominated for Best Picture and Welles earned individual nods for Best Actor, Best Director and Best Screenplay. It was this last category that brought Welles an Oscar, shared with Herman J. Mankiewicz. Welles had finished shooting his second movie, The Magnificent Ambersons, and even begun editing it before hurrying off to Brazil to film the Rio Carnival as part of the wartime “Good Neighbor” propaganda effort at the request of the U.S. government.
But while the Irish give, they also take away. Welles had begun his magnificent run in Dublin, but it screeched to a halt on St. Patrick’s Day 1942. The studio deemed a screening of The Magnificent Ambersons sufficiently disappointing, so they broke their deal with Welles and reedited it, greatly cutting the runtime. The film was still, like Kane, a financial failure. His next idea didn’t even get to fail. Welles had figured out how to incorporate his filming in Brazil into what he envisioned as his third film, titled It’s All True. This project was rejected by the studio and unfinished.
Welles would not be credited as a director on a feature film again until 1946’s The Stranger, starring Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young and Welles himself. He would never again manage to complete projects at such a breakneck pace. The ones he did finish were largely ignored by contemporaries. Though he received an Honorary Award in 1971, Welles would never again be nominated for an Oscar in any category.
Fairly or unfairly, Welles in the popular mind was forever linked to a film about Charles Foster Kane and a brilliant radio stunt.
A stunt that was downright mythic, to the point the legend began to overshadow the actual broadcast.
What ‘War of the Worlds’ Actually Made Happen
In 1938, radio was still a relatively new medium. Radio programming had only begun in 1920 with the KDKA station in Pittsburgh. Yet for making an immediate connection with an audience beyond a theater or an auditorium, it was the only game in town. The first regularly scheduled U.S. television broadcast didn’t happen until 1939, with the transmission of President Franklin Roosevelt’s World’s Fair inaugural address.
Radio had been around long enough to be established as a trusted source of information, yet was new enough that people didn’t grasp it could be utilized in unreliable ways.
So when the War of the Worlds broadcast came along, the American public never knew what hit them. No wonder the New York Times reported the next day: “A wave of mass hysteria seized thousands of radio listeners. At least a score of adults required treatment for shock and hysteria.”
In recent years, the impact of The War of the Worlds has been reexamined, with attempts to quantify the exact size of its audience and how it affected them. Radiolab reported a massive impact. They noted there were 12 million listeners and that “about 1 in every 12” thought it was true, meaning a million people bought in completely. This was a particularly impressive number considering the U.S. population was still under 130 million. (We have since reached 328 million and counting.)
Others felt both the audience and the frenzy were exaggerated. Massively exaggerated. Slate has argued the program had virtually no impact and offered data for their assertion: “The night the program aired, the C.E. Hooper ratings service telephoned 5,000 households for its national ratings survey. ‘To what program are you listening?’ the service asked respondents. Only 2 percent answered a radio ‘play’ or ‘the Orson Welles program,’ or something similar indicating CBS. None said a ‘news broadcast,’ according to a summary published in Broadcasting. In other words, 98 percent of those surveyed were listening to something else, or nothing at all, on Oct. 30, 1938. This miniscule rating is not surprising. Welles’ program was scheduled against one of the most popular national programs at the time—ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s Chase and Sanborn Hour, a comedy-variety show.” (Note: Yes, it is surreal that a ventriloquist proved so popular in a medium where no one could see him.)
Radiolab has since conceded they may have overstated things: “In this program, we referred twice to the fact that 12 million people heard the ‘The War of the Worlds’ broadcast when it was first aired in 1938. However, no one knows for sure how many people were listening.”
This leads to the question: If there is no data to confirm the scale of the hysteria (and there is information suggesting it was all an exaggeration), why were there all those reports of a panic?
Slate has an answer here too: “Blame America’s newspapers. Radio had siphoned off advertising revenue from print during the Depression, badly damaging the newspaper industry. So the papers seized the opportunity presented by Welles’ program to discredit radio as a source of news.”
Which was fine with Welles. After all, he wasn’t a newsman. He was a showman who just wanted to draw some listeners to his latest effort to ensure the popularity of his next project. As that photo of the journalists surrounding him indicates, he succeeded.
Actually Listening to ‘War of the Worlds’
We have entered an era when we are again willing to listen, not look. Wired credits the first podcast as Christopher Lydon’s Open Source in 2003. These were recorded at Harvard’s Berkman Center and called “audio blog posts.” Lydon served as the host and said the software developer David Winer told him: “What the world needs is an MP3 that can be syndicated.” Early efforts often focused on the New Hampshire presidential primaries.
Quickly, however, podcasting moved well beyond New England. If there’s a topic that strikes your fancy, you better believe someone’s podcasting about it. Apple states there are currently more than 525,000 active shows on iTunes. Hits like the true crime podcast Serial report over one million downloads of an episode in just a day.
How does Welles’ effort hold up in this era? To begin, it should be noted it’s easy to read about his production and conclude he was determined to fool his audience at all costs. This ignores the fact there are plenty of “clues” it was not an actual news report.
-The program begins with an introduction noting it is a version of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. First serialized in 1897 and published as a novel in 1898, this was a celebrated work by a famed author, whose other works include The Time Machine and The Island of Dr. Moreau. Indeed, the very title should have tipped off sci-fi fans everywhere.
-The broadcast includes a lengthy section where Welles discusses the aftermath of the invasion. Leading to the obvious question: If this were an actual news report about aliens attacking, why does he know how it turned out already?
-At the end of the show Welles speaks as himself and explicitly states that it is October 30 and this should be regarded as a Halloween prank, not as coverage of an alien attack. He describes it as his company’s version of “dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying ‘Boo!'”
Considering the entire program lasted under 60 minutes, it would require a pretty selective listen to be convinced of extraterrestrial assault.
That noted, sections are quite convincing. In particular, early on the program presents itself as merely being a broadcast of the “music of Ramon Raquello and his Orchestra” as they play in New York… only the songs keep getting interrupted by updates about the strange things being observed by observatories around the nation. While it would require a listener to tune in late enough to miss the intro and abandon the program quickly enough they didn’t get that final disclaimer, it’s easy to see how it could prove oddly persuasive.
Quite simply, both H.G. Wells and Orson Welles knew how to play on our anxieties and that is something humanity has yet to—and likely never will—outgrow.
Bob Woodward titled his book on the Trump administration Fear. Which is reasonable: Trump generates a great deal of anxiety in his opponents. Nobel Prize in Economics winner and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has tweeted he believes the Trump administration’s campaign against “voter fraud” will be used to deny Democrats control of the House, regardless of whether they win the vote: “Republicans will claim that the election was stolen, and deny the majority’s legitimacy.”
Then again, Trump is generally nervous about something or another himself. One recent concern is oddly reminiscent of Orson Welles. Trump offered this October 22 tweet: “Sadly, it looks like Mexico’s Police and Military are unable to stop the Caravan heading to the Southern Border of the United States. Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in. I have alerted Border Patrol and Military that this is a National Emergy [sic]. Must change laws!”
Leave aside the completely evidence-free assertion about “Middle Easterners.” The basic facts: The majority of these people are refugees fleeing Honduras. They travel on foot and include women and children. (U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused the “group of putting women and children in front of the caravan to use as shields as they make their way through.”) At the time of Trump’s tweet, they had only reached the southern border of Mexico. They still had over 1,000 miles to travel before they reach the southern tip of Texas. Walking 20 miles per day—an amount likely unsustainable without rest for all but the fittest members of the group—it would still take 50 days to reach the U.S. border.
Meaning—if we operate under the assumption they are a legitimate threat—the most powerful military on Earth will have nearly two months to prepare for their arrival. (And since they walk in a large group that draws heavy media coverage, they are remarkably easy to track.)
When he recorded The War of the Worlds, Orson Welles felt there was a real threat to America. But he believed it was in Europe, not outer space. Indeed, he even set a production of Julius Caesar in Fascist Italy. Yet Europe seemed very distant to most Americans and an alien attack (for some, at least) seemed genuinely worrying.
Likewise, America faces very real problems right now. To cite just one, up to 45 million of us regularly drink water from a potentially unsafe source. Yet outside Flint this isn’t a particular concern, while an attack by a faraway “caravan” has made the most powerful man on Earth positively anxiety ridden.
And both these responses make a surprising amount of sense when you reflect on how fear actually works and why the threat of invasion connects so deeply with our psyches.
Why We Worry
Dr. Kenneth J. Doka has published dozens of books on trauma and grief. I first connected with him while working on an article about why we react so strongly to atrocities that, statistically speaking, pose virtually zero risk to us. (Example: Someone living in the United States is 18 times more likely to be killed by a wild animal than a terrorist.) So why do these events traumatize us all the same? Doka explained it this way: “I think the issue is that, whenever there’s a traumatic event that we grieve, there’s sometimes the sense of what we once thought was safe is not safe, that the world is not benevolent.”
What’s more scarring to our sense of safety than hearing word of a possible invasion? It’s easy (if illogical) to be terrified by the possibility of attack, whether by illegal aliens or actual aliens. This is why Doka champions “realistic optimism.” By discussing and learning about your concerns, it’s possible to recognize when they’re exaggerated or downright misguided.
Or you can use the Internet to reinforce them. Quite simply, if you’re inclined to seek information that confirms your worst fears or greatest biases, you will find it online—and then some. And you can share it with all your friends. Which is why Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds might prove even more effective today. Below is a teaser for another one of Welles’ projects about “trickery.” Even decades after fooling many Americans—or not—he still loved a good con.
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