Immediately after Orson Welles’ legendary 1953 War of the Worlds simulated live newscast, which was up against a much more popular variety show “Chase and Sanborn Hour,” newspaper headlines spoke of a panic. However, there’s not a lot of evidence that a panic even occurred according to a University of Maine professor. One reporter for the New York Times remembers riding in the streets of Manhattan to the office while the play was winding down, and seeing no one in the streets. This is odd because the Martians in the play were in New Jersey, and if there was any sort of panic going on, it would certainly manifest in some way in NYC. In fact, the town of Grover’s Mill, NJ, where the invasion was taking place in the play, seems to have slept through the mayhem undisturbed. Even if the panic was exaggerated, probably more so over the years, it got some major attention for Orson Welles, and landed him opportunities in Hollywood. We would have never had Citizen Kane if it weren’t for his unique War of the Worlds experiment.
A copycat play 11 years later in Quito, Ecuador caused much more tangible trouble than what was reported in the U.S. There are several reasons why this play was so much more dangerous: 1. The station used was the most popular one in the city, as opposed to Welles’ channel, which had very low ratings. To make sure more people were listening, they embedded the play in a performance by popular singers Luis Alberto ‘Potolo’ Valencia and Gonzalo Benítez. 2. There was no disclaimer at the beginning of the program. Welles’ play did have a disclaimer, though reportedly most of the people who heard the broadcast tuned in five minutes later while channel flipping. One story is that the “Chase and Sanborn Hour” had an unpopular singer on that night, inspiring more people to change the channel and land in the middle of what sounded like a legitimate news broadcast. 4. Instead of using fake, yet convincing experts like the Welles’ play, actors convincingly impersonated real government officials.
One similarity between the two hoaxes is that both people had real “invader” threats in their minds that made them more susceptible to believe someone was invading, even if it wasn’t aliens. For the U.S., it was the Germans; for Ecuador, it was Peru.
The Quito, Ecuador version caused an immediate reaction in the city. People began rushing the streets, many of them fleeing to churches to seek atonement before death. A priest reportedly performed a giant mass outside for the terrified crowds.
Once they realized how quickly things had escalated in the streets, the program halted and they admitted that it was all fake. When people realized what had happened, their terror turned to blind rage and they rushed the building that held the radio station (it also held the newspaper,) and burned it to the ground. At least six people died in the commotion as the newspaper and radio staff scrambled to escape. Some were trapped in the upper floors and jumped from windows.
The Army called out tanks to roam through the streets emitting tear gas to disperse the angry crowds, but any emergency services were dispatched to nearby town Cotocallao, where the Martians had landed in the play, so help for injured victims was slow.
The radio play’s director Leonardo Páez was able to exonerate himself from charges brought against him, mostly because of a very clear contract he signed with the radio station about the play. A myth goes that Páez disappeared and was last seen at the top of the building, but his daughter maintains that he was able to work in radio, quietly, for years after the debacle. He later moved to Venezuela, where he continued to work in the media. He also wrote a book about his War of the Worlds experience called Los Que Siembran el Viento (Those That Seed the Wind.)
These stories serve as cautionary tales about trusting the media. We’re wired to accept authority, probably because that’s the most efficient way to prioritize information, but it’s far too easy for those who have gained our trust in these mediums to manipulate us. Often it’s done in relatively harmless ways, like our news broadcasts teasing us about which juice may be slowly killing us. Once they’ve whetted our fears, we are suddenly held in rapt attention. We anxiously sit through the commercials, and all the other reports waiting for the juice reveal. The death reveal. Then we learn that apple juice may have trace amounts of arsenic, but don’t worry, it’s within acceptable levels according to the FDA. That information, especially the last bit, is soothing enough to dampen that first nerve of panic they stirred up in the first place, but it’s still unsettling.
Not knowing very much at all about the arsenic situation of apple juice, we’re left with the needling worry of why the FDA allows ANY amount of arsenic in our juices. That leaves us with a buzzing, generalized fear about all the small, insignificant dangers lurking around every square inch of our existence. But it’s not something we can avoid entirely. We can stop drinking apple juice, we can move to a place with less air pollution, we can eat only organic kale grown in soil tested for all toxins and pollutants, but there is so much about our lives, our environments, the true financial state of our country, all the suffering and unrest of the entire world, that we can’t control. It’s a staggering feat to try to account for every threat.