Sunday, January 10, 2010

Media hysteria and "War of the Worlds"

I watched the remake of HG Wells' "War of the Worlds" with Jake and Charlie the other night on BBC3. In places it was a bit scary for both of them, so we kept flicking over to some gardening programme. The story was written in 1898 and is about an attempted alien invasion of Earth.

40 years later War of the Worlds was famously turned into a radio programme by Orson Welles, and was broadcast in the USA on October 30 1938. The style was one of a musical concert being broadcast live, which was then interrupted by a series of emergency newsflashes, gradually revealing a violent Martian landing at Grovers Mill in New Jersey. Millions of unsuspecting listeners (from an audience estimated at six million people) believed it to be true. Here's an excerpt:

"...Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed... Wait a minute! Someone's crawling. Someone or... something. I can see peering out of that black hole two luminous disks... are they eyes? It might be a face. It might be... good heavens, something's wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now it's another one, and another one, and another one. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing's body. It's large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face, it... ladies and gentlemen, it's indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, it's so awful. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is kind of V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate...

A humped shape is rising out of the pit. I can make out a small beam of light against a mirror. What's that? There's a jet of flame springing from the mirror, and it leaps right at the advancing men. It strikes them head on! Good Lord, they're turning into flame! Now the whole field's caught fire. The woods... the barns... the gas tanks of automobiles... it's spreading everywhere. It's coming this way. About twenty yards to my right...

Then silence. A few minutes later, an announcer interrupts,

Ladies and gentlemen, I have just been handed a message that came in from Grovers Mill by telephone. Just one moment please. At least forty people, including six state troopers, lie dead in a field east of the village of Grovers Mill, their bodies burned and distorted beyond all possible recognition..."

The result was widespread panic, and some people are said to have been killed in the stampede to get away from New Jersey. You can listen to part of the original broadcast here:

And fake stories are nothing new. Here's an astounding CNN broadcast from YouTube, by this major US war correspondent, allegedly from Saudi Arabia in 1991 (there's a series of outtakes until 3:11 and then the newscast begins):

In closing, the brilliant 1997 movie Wag The Dog is about a fake war between the USA and Albania, created in a Hollywood studio and pumped into newsrooms worldwide, purely as a short-term manipulation of public opinion. If you haven't seen it, get it! Here's the trailer: