The world is celebrating 75 years of war. The radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds” by the Mercury Theater headlined by Orson Welles (adapted from H.G. Wells’s novel, a confusing bit of wells) is celebrating its 75th anniversary.
I bring this up at my blog Memoirous because of a documentary that was on the other night on public TV (American Experience). A number of people later reported after hearing the radio drama that they actually smelled the sulfur in the air, people reported witnessing bright lights, seeing ash on the wind. Fear took hold of their imaginations and caused them to physically react to what they thought was an invasion from Mars.
This is how memories can get blurred. We can be totally positive of something, that it happened a certain way. Of course, we take into account it is from our perspective, but the event we claim ACTUALLY HAPPENED.
Only to be told later that it wasn’t in that sequence, or that we have conflated it with something else, or that it didn’t happen to us, but to a cousin or our best friend. Even the most significant event can get mixed up—maybe because of its significance (indeed, the more emotionally charged something is, the easier it is to get skewed)—in the stewpot of our memory.
I remember asking my parents if they remembered listening to this broadcast. October 30, 1938 they would have been about 12 or 11 years old. Perfect! Though it doesn’t seem to me that age had anything to do with the listener’s gullibility. In fact, Dad related that his mom had been very scared. He didn’t mention if she’d gotten into a car and was trying to drive frantically away from any perceived danger. I don’t think they even had a car back then. They were pretty poor during the Depression down near Lexington, KY. Pop, my granddad worked for Coca-Cola Bottling Co. at the time.
I’m intrigued by how fear plays into our imaginations. Just like today, the media is shaping our perceptions. Government shutdown, Obamacare, or any other of the current news-cycle overload. Not that these things aren’t real. They are/were, but they affect us at all different levels, or maybe not at all in our daily lives. But because of 24/7 news outlets, the Internet, etc we are fed massive doses of news and sometimes we can get sick of it and because of it. Thus, 75 years hence, how we remember what’s happening today will likely be shaped by how much we let it affect us and our mentality.
Some people are going to remember being afraid and wanting to jump into their car in order to get away.
Another element to the public television documentary about the War of the Worlds 75 years since the Mercury Theater radio play was that they had black and white footage of interviews about the broadcast—from ACTORS. It was staged to look real. Pretty much what Orson Welles had done. He put one over on the public. The documentary was meant to do practically the same thing. Make the documentary seem more “real” by using a Ken Burns-style format.
Were they trying to trick us? Was Orson Welles trying to hoodwink a nation?
Who knows—the end-result is what people take-away. How they feel, how it made them feel.
So much on TV these days is presented as reality when actually it is all scripted. Sorry if I’m bursting anyone’s “Biggest Loser”/ “The Bachelor” bubble. The network will never go back to 1938 and being surprised again.
Thus, Orson Welles production was perhaps not the first use of, but an early example of “reality” entertainment for an audience. And, because of how REAL they staged the drama, the more it resonated.
This is something to keep in mind when writing fiction, even fantasy. Putting your reader there, making it tangible, helping them to smell the sulfur will make for a better read.