Today at the Rotten Library I learned . . .
. . . people in 1938 were stupid.
Today’s the 68th anniversary of the Mercury Theater’s War of the Worlds radio broadcast, the dramatization of the H.G. Wells novel that managed to convince hundreds of people on the east coast of the United States that New Jersey was being invaded by genocidal Martians. That Orson Welles was a genius, man.
It’s tempting to sneer at those panicked folks back in 1938, view them as ignorant and naïve compared to the more informed and sophisticated Americans of today – tempting until you realize that there are still relatively few informed and sophisticated people, and some of us are just as easily duped in 2006 as we were 68 years ago. In 1983 NBC aired Special Bulletin, a movie about nuclear terrorists threatening Charleston, SC, that was presented as though it were an actual news broadcast. Although it featured actors, did not unfold in real time, and was supposedly being broadcast on the fictional RBS television network, network affiliates received calls from alarmed viewers, especially in the Charleston area, many demanding to know why only one channel was covering this significant story.
CBS did the same thing in 1994 when they aired Without Warning, a film depicting meteors impacting the Earth which turn out to be coordinated attacks from extraterrestrials. Without Warning, like Special Bulletin, was presented as a newscast, and like Special Bulletin, there were people who tuned in just in time to miss the disclaimers which stated unequivocally “This isn’t real,” and lost their minds. A few affiliates in the Midwest and California smelled trouble and decided not to air the film at all. Without Warning was aired on October 30, the anniversary of Welles’s War of the Worlds radio show, but that was obviously lost on some people.