It’s Halloween and time to be scared. Most years I pull out the classic DVD’s, John Carpenter’s Halloween with Jamie Lee Curtis being terrorized by Michael Myers. Or the scariest movie of all time, The Exorcist, by William Friedkin. Everyone has their own scariest movie, and The Exorcist did it for me, even after having read the book the previous year.
I’ve noticed that the really scary movies are about serial killers or supernatural forces. Whether the threat is supernatural or a deranged psychotic, once in awhile some horrific and alien creature can push that primal fear button. In those stories, bargaining or appeals to logic or mercy just don’t work. When they are after you, they are relentless. Jaws was a classic example of that theme. It won’t help to plead with the shark, you’re just meat.
One theme that’s common to so many frightening scenarios is the idea that a person’s normal, stable life can be suddenly interrupted by some malevolent force, and you’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time. In a heartbeat, your world is turned upside down. What was safe is now dangerous, maybe even a battlefield.
Movies would seem to have an edge when it comes to generating moments of terror for pure entertainment. History suggests otherwise. For creating terror on a massive scale, especially at Halloween, radio holds the record for terrifying the most people in a single night. In 1938, thousands of people had the scariest Halloween ever
Orson Wells was the talent behind the Mercury Theater on the Air and it’s Halloween Radio Play. Presented on October 30, 1938, it was an adaptation of H.G. Wells “War of the Worlds.” The Play ran for an hour, without commercial breaks. Wells announced the play at the top of the hour, but many listeners missed the first few minutes, and to those latecomers, the play sounded like breaking news. Thousands of radio listeners believed that Earth was being attacked by aliens.
PBS presents a documentary about the creation of War of the Worlds, as well as its aftermath, every year just before Halloween. It’s a great story about how the idea was developed, written and performed.
While there is some debate about how many people were in a state of panic during the broadcast, it’s clear that the response was enormous. Many people complained that the news bulletin format was cruel and deceptive. The public’s predominant emotional response was outrage.
Investigations and more stories followed in succeeding weeks. Orson Wells, who already enjoyed some critical acclaim on the east coast, became a national celebrity. Within a year he was in Hollywood making movies. One of his first movies was Citizen Kane, regarded by many film scholars as being one of the best movies of all time. The man definitely had talent.
So enjoy both the PBS show and the original radio broadcast this Halloween, and wonder if could happen again.