Saturday, October 30, 2010

It's Wells and Welles Day



Here we are.  Another holiday that I can't stand.  One might think with my fascination for all things weird and mysterious that Halloween would be among my favorite days of the year.  It was.  That is until I found what it's like to be on the other end of a holiday that basically serves to facilitate criminals.  Sorry.  That's the police volunteer in me, coming out all prepared to do a Rodney King on the first piece of shit I find who uses this weekend as an excuse to break the law or the child begging for candy in order to encourage the next generation of welfare.  It baffles me how a nation that is supposedly "founded on Christian values" revels in a pagan holiday.  Not that I care about that part mind you, I just find the dichotomy most amusing.  But I digress...

One thing I still do like is the day before Halloween.  That is when I listen to my CD of the broadcast that terrified America.  Or at least the Northeast part of it.  I'm talking about the Orson Welles radio play of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds.
There is so much about that broadcast that fascinates me.  For one it's nostalgia.  That era is one of my favorites in history, that time when America was on the eve of its biggest war.  There is also the sheer genius of the adaptation and performance of an already classic book.  There such innovation there, like the idea of telling the story through news broadcasts, the superb use of sound effects, and of course the powerful, booming voice of actor Orson Welles.  It all just comes together at a true height of excellence.  The word "artist" does not even begin to do Welles justice.  See Citizen Kane and you'll get what I mean.    

More than all of that, I like the case study it represents for those who do Fortean research.  When someone says "how could they [the government] possibly keep UFOs and aliens a secret?" I need only point to the Orson Welles broadcast of October 30th, 1938 to say "they would have to."  The news of alien invasion panicked citizenry all over the Eastern seaboard.  People shot rifles at water towers, believing them to be one of the attacking Martian machines.  Others sealed their windows with cement so that Martian poison gas could not get through.  Cars packed the roads of New Jersey looking to escape to anywhere.  Mother nearly murdered her children as a mercy killing rather than see the Martians brutalize them.  A breeder of greyhounds opened all his kennels and said "fend for yourselves, lads," and there are myriad other accounts of panic, chaos, and injury. 
Now ask yourself: if an alien spacecraft crashed in the U.S. just nine years after this broadcast and only two after the end of the biggest and bloodiest war in modern times, would you be quick to announce it to the population at large?  Of course not.  You would have to keep it a secret.   Such a course of action would be imperative and in the best interest of the nation.
But those were different times, right?  We are more savvy as a people now and less prone to media shepherding.  Perhaps not.  In 1968, radio station WKBW in Buffalo did their own modern update of the Welles broadcast, stating that a Martian cylinder had landed on the shore of Lake Erie.  Despite copious amounts of advertising for the dramatization, police switchboards lit up with panicked callers.  A man stumbled into a precinct, warning of the Martian invaders.  When the duty officer laughed it off, the frantic man urged that he turn on the radio.  When the police chief heard the broadcast, he ordered weapons be distributed to all staff.  The Canadian military went on alert. Come on, why the hell would Martians begin their invasion in Buffalo?  To wipe out The Bills?  They do a fine enough job of that themselves.
In 1996 when that lackluster but guilty pleasure Independence Day was about to be released in Spain, an ad agency ran TV spots for the film that included mock White House press conferences and scenes of New Yorkers running in terror while one of the enormous motherships hovered over the skyline of Manhattan.  Hundreds of people panicked and flooded the Spanish media outlets with calls...even though each commercial had the word "Advertisement" clearly superimposed at the bottom of the screen.

So what have we learned, Charlie Brown?  Not much it would seem, especially when you factor in the kinds of panic and rumor that occurred around 9/11.  We humans have only proven ourselves to be a panicky herd of sheep, prone to groupthink and unwise decisions.  No wonder things are kept secret from us.  
I guess I'll just keep listening to that 1938 broadcast of Martians landing in Grovers Mill, New Jersey, enjoying the craftsmanship of this theater of the mind.  I'll be thankful for the science fiction memes it brought us, such as the 1954 George Pal film version of War of the Worlds and an unjustly maligned TV series by the same name (subject of a future post.)  And as cautioned at the end of The Thing, I will "keep watching the skies."



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