How to start a war of the worlds?

By Tomasz Piotr Sidewicz

October. The clock on the wall struck 8 p.m. a long time ago, and it has just occurred to you this day is coming to an end. The familiar images of tomorrow morning are piercing your mind. At least once, the coming morning could be different from all other mornings. To divert your attention, you turn on the radio and expect the bopping music to lift your mood. You hear a young man’s voice. Is this a new radio news announcer? You missed the start of the news report, but the news he’s presenting is getting your attention. The radio broadcast and music are regularly interrupted by these news bulletins. You still don’t understand much of this yet, but the lively action indicates that there is some sort of panic nearby, involving thousands of people.

You see a neighbour running around the kitchen, packing his junk chaotically. You look in the window below, at the family with small children. The mother is picking up the laundry and nervously stuffing it in a suitcase. Does what you hear on the radio have anything to do with what you see across the way? You go out on the street with a cup of coffee. The street is empty. There’s almost no traffic. You see a few people with bundles and suitcases. They don’t look like visitors coming to see New York City. You can see they’re local people who run towards the station nervously. Strange, you think. You raise your eyes and take in the surrounding area. Somebody bumps into you, mumbling a forced apology. It is you who feel guilty about standing there like a tree and blocking the sidewalk. What’s going on? Why are people acting like something dangerous is about to happen on a Sunday night?

This could be the picture of the world seen by an inhabitant of New York City, who turned on the local CBS radio station around 8 p.m. on October 30, 1938. The program was actually a theatrical adaptation of War of the Worlds, a novel by H.G. Wells, written in 1898. The point is that the radio play, planned innocently enough, reportedly caused a panic among millions of people in the United States. Some listeners heard only a part of the broadcast. What they heard was enough. The damage was done. As tensions and anxiety mounted with the Second World War looming, everyday people confused the show with a real emergency broadcast.

Thousands of people rushed to share the “reports” with others. A mass hysteria of calls flooded CBS, newspapers, and the police, demanding to know if what they heard was true. People gripped with fear, and horror fled their homes in a mad panic. That was the effect of the War of the Worlds radio play by Orson Welles, 23, who could share his talents with many of the less talented from Hollywood.

Let’s go back to that memorable night of 1938. At 8:32 p.m., a phone rang at the CBS station. The broadcast had been going on for half an hour and was approaching its first break. White with fear, station manager Davidson Taylor ordered the broadcast be stopped immediately. During that broadcast, a fictional news reporter in the performance, played by actor Ray Collins, suffocated on-air from poisonous gas. The audience believed the story to be real, that a cylindrical object had fallen from outer space on a farm in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. Earlier, the station’s listeners heard that there were strange and unprecedented explosions on Mars. The so-called “live coverage” from Grover’s Mill talked of police officers and a crowd of curious onlookers surrounded the cylindrical object. The radio play, which was presented as a breaking news story, was gaining more and more attention. As the broadcast went on, Martians emerged from the cylinder and attacked the crowd and the policemen with heat rays. A panicked reporter at the scene described a Martian emerging from a large metal cylinder. “This thing comes out of the shadows like a grey snake,” he screamed into the microphone until his voice suddenly disappeared.

War of the Worlds was incredibly realistic for those days. Welles used the most sophisticated sound effects, and his actors did a great job of portraying terrified people. A series of increasingly alarming news reports describing the devastating alien invasion filled the ether. The “invasion” was taking place all over the world, and the futile efforts of the American military were creating more panic. The first part of the show ended with another live report from the roof of a Manhattan skyscraper, as giant Martian war machines spread clouds of poisonous smoke throughout New York City. The next “on-site” reporter described desperate New Yorkers fleeing as the noxious Martian smoke approached their homes. He coughed and suddenly went silent. The broadcast reached its first break.

In the golden age of radio, Sunday evening was “prime-time” listening, and millions of Americans had their radios on. That evening most of them listened to the star ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his sidekick puppet Charlie at the competing NBC station. At 8:12 p.m., after Bergen’s comedy came to an end, a little-known singer was then featured, at which time many listeners switched to CBS. Channel surfing is not a modern-day invention. And this was the pivotal moment when the mass panic erupted.

New Jersey again?

Why did Welles’ broadcast cause such an unprecedented reaction, which was marked by panic, and a stampede to escape the city? It is worth mentioning that the 1930s was not an easy time for Americans. Fear and anxiety were a natural part of everyday life. It was the Great Depression. Americans were still very much suffering after the stock market crisis of 1929. Crisis after crisis took its toll on an already stressed society: growing calamity in Europe leading to war; the 1938 New England Hurricane, killing some 800 people and losses in the billions; the Hindenburg airship disaster in New Jersey, which also got big radio airtime. A Martian invasion, though deemed quite ridiculous in today’s thinking, was not an impossibility for a typical American numbed to the bone at that time.

We should remember that the first half of the 20th century was marked by the rapid development of mass media. The newspaper industry, anxious about the growing popularity of radio as an information and advertising medium, saw opportunities in undermining the authority of its awakening rival. During the first three weeks after that CBS broadcast, research shows American newspapers published at least 12,500 articles on broadcasting and its impact on audiences. In their articles, they reported on suicide attempts, heart attacks and escapes from big cities. The New York Daily News printed a screaming front-page headline, “Fake Radio ‘War’ Stirs Terror Through U.S.,” with photographs of so-called victims, including a woman who heard about the black gas clouds in Times Square and ran from her apartment when she fell and broke her arm. Similar stories were printed from coast to coast, and caused a media frenzy. Even Adolf Hitler referred to Welles’ radio play in his speech in Munich on November 8, 1938.

We’re a far away from China

Fast-forward 80 years. On December 31, 2019, officials in Wuhan, China, announce the spread of some strange disease. A few days later, Chinese scientists identify a new virus that infected hundreds of people. The Chinese government assures that the situation is being monitored to prevent any further spread of this thing. Less than two weeks later, on January 11, the Chinese state media report the first death from the virus. It is a 61-year-old man who was a regular customer of a local wet market, which sells fresh meat, fish, and produce. All this takes place before the Chinese New Year celebrations, one of the country’s biggest holidays when hundreds of millions of people travel across China. On January 23, Wuhan, a city of over 11 million inhabitants, is cut off from the world.

The first video reports on Twitter show how the Chinese authorities are fighting the pandemic. Violence perpetrated against ordinary citizens can be seen. Entrances to blocks of flats are welded shut, and the medical services people in white suits and face masks carry away screaming and infected inhabitants. On January 30, the World Health Organization announces a global health crisis with the coronavirus. On the same day, Jaroslaw Pinkas of Główny Inspektorat Sanitarny, the chief medical agency in Poland, informs the public: “The virus is in China, and we are quite far from China”.

On February 11, the WHO proposes a name for the new disease that is caused by the coronavirus: COVID-19. Since April 16, a general obligation to wear face masks in public places in Poland was implemented. In 1938, the means of telecommunication did not differ significantly from today. The commonly used telephone or telegram allowed us to transmit information over long distances and without delay. Not everyone could freely use those devices like our present-day Twitter or Facebook, but these were no longer times when the information was outdated before it arrived. Orson Welles, who would go on to establish himself also as a screenwriter and director, was evidently able to handle words perfectly and evoke strong emotions in his audience. His radio show was in line with the emotions of American society, which for 11 years had been recovering from an economic crisis of unprecedented proportions.

Can Covid-19 be compared to the War of the Worlds, the radio play performed by Welles? I leave the reader with this question. I have the impression that the first technical break has just taken place to let us take a breath. We will move on to the second act in a moment. I wonder what the alleged director of COVID-19 is preparing for us? In Welles’ radio play, the Martians were finally defeated. Not by humans. By microbes.

Tomasz Piotr Sidewicz is a student at Społeczna Akademia Nauk.