Tuesday, October 21, 2003

The Greatest War that Never Was

Iím watching on the Sc-Fi Channel a show about Orson Wellís War of the Worldís broadcast on Halloween eve, 1938. Itís fascinating what Wells accomplished with that broadcast. He saw the power of the radio, how it held a fascination over the majority of the population. Weíve become so media savy and jaded by the continuous flood of information and disinformation on the tube that itís hard to conceive of how people could suspend their disbelief so thoroughly. But think about it. No one at the time had any reason to disbelieve what they heard on the radio. There was news and there was entertainment. Any idiot could tell the difference between the two because one was serious and the other lighthearted. Even the dramatic shows had artificiality to them, with the narration and sound effects. But what do you make of an entertainment program that apes the seriousness of a newscast? And if you missed the prologue that let you in on the joke, which most people did because they were listening to another, wildly popular show featuring Edger Bergen and Charlie Parker the puppet. Once they finished their first ten-minute bit, people switched channels (arguably the first recorded instance of channel surfing) and tuned into the mundane sounding music punctuated by genuine sounded newscasts. And never switched back to Edgar Bergen.

The rest of the story is the stuff of legend and arguably the greatest act of Performance Art, ever. What makes it so great is that for a brief moment in time, one man convinced millions to suspend their preconceived notions of reality.

The key was Wellsí remarkable use of sound effects, using controlled dead air. Silence. Mundane and familiar music. Reporter updates that only heightened the drama. Then the fateful announcement:

Invasion! Mars!

A Roosevelt impersonator only added to the gravitas of the illusion.

Aiding Wellís audio verite was the real live threat, in the form of Hitler, which was on everyoneís mind. People took to the fields and roads of Grover Mills, looking for Martians, finding only shadows lurking behind trees and the ominous and deadly water tower looming over the treetops. Sure, the shooter who put holes in the tower swore the next morning he thought it was a Martian rocket ship.

We might laugh now at those Bumpkins out in Grover Mills, shooting up water towers and heading for the proverbial hills but just remember how many people have since been fooled by TV shows like Candid Camera and Punkíd, or the insane rhetoric, more ludicrous than any hokey science fiction program that issues from the mouth of some serious Politician, his lips turned up in a grave sneer.

We can be fooled. And more easily than you think.


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