Reliable Knowledge

Reliable Knowledge

Reliable Knowledge

Reliable Knowledge

Excerpt

On the evening of October 30, 1938, over one million Americans were frightened by a radio broadcast which they took to be an on- the-spot description of the landing of an invading force from the planet Mars at the town of Grovers Mill, New Jersey. Many of these listeners packed up and left their homes, either to flee or to fight the invaders; others prayed or gave way to hysteria; while thousands of them flooded radio, newspaper, and police offices with frantic telephone calls.

The innocent cause of this "tidal wave of terror which swept the nation" was a Mercury Theater on the Air adaptation of H. G. Wells's fantastic War of the Worlds, conceived, produced, directed, and acted by Orson Welles from a script by Howard Koch. The original English locale of the novel had been changed to New Jersey; and a high degree of realism was attained in the early minutes of the performance by the skillful utilization of the news-bulletin technique. Yet, to an informed listener, the names used were obviously invented; and announcements were made at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the program that it was a dramatization of Wells's novel.

What was the matter with the million or more Americans who gave way to panic on this occasion? Why did they not "know any better" than to accept as fact what some four or five million of their fellow listeners were able to recognize as fiction? No sooner had the excitement subsided than dozens of explanations were offered by editorial writers, columnists, and commentators. The victims, they said, were neurotic, or congenitally stupid, or ultra-suggestible, or scared by Munich, or just extremely ignorant. Indeed, some of the theories advanced to account for the aberrant conduct of the terrified were almost as wide of sanity as the behavior itself. But there were a few exceptions: not every critic went wild with eagerness to . . .

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