Orson Welles “Apologizes” for Sparking Martian Invasion Panic (1938)

The story of how 23-year-old theatre prodigy Orson Welles frightened American radio audiences with his realistic dramatization of The War of the Worlds has long since passed into folklore, but how did Welles himself feel about that story?

Although media historians have questioned the actual extent and degree of “mass panic” that may have taken place – arguing that much of it may have been exaggerated by newspaper editors eager to score points against the rival medium of radio – it is certain that the broadcast alarmed a significant number of people.

Some listeners, their anxieties already heightened by daily news reports concerning the march of German soldiers through Europe, may have misheard the word “Martian” as “Nazi” and thereby became convinced that the US was under attack by the Axis powers. Others simply tuned in part-way through the broadcast, missing the announcement that it was a work of fiction. There were also unfortunate co-incidences, such as a total power black-out in the town of Concrete, Washington, which interrupted the local broadcast at a crucial moment and left listeners literally in the dark and imagining the worst.

The immediate aftermath included a genuine invasion of CBS’ Madison Avenue radio studio by scowling police officers, who confiscated scripts and sternly interviewed Welles but could not figure out whether any laws had actually been broken. There were also dire threats of censure or even legal action from the FCC.

The day after the War of the Worlds broadcast, Welles himself held a press conference, which is shown below. On the face of it, he was the picture of earnest contrition as he gravely fielded questions from newspaper and radio journalists:

The subsequent scandal (and intense media exposure) did no harm at all to Welles’ career, and within a few short years he had transitioned to Hollywood and directed his cinematic masterpiece, Citizen Kane.

By 1955, with his Martians receding into popular memory, Welles allowed himself some considerable, if understated, relish in relating several amusing and colorful anecdotes about the invasion panic. He also offered the “confession” that his adaptation of War of the Worlds was not quite as innocent as he had previously claimed:

And in a 1975 interview with Tom Snyder, Welles further admitted, with regards to his 1938 press conference appearance:

There are pictures of me made about three hours after the broadcast looking as much as I could like an early Christian saint. As if I didn’t know what I was doing … but I’m afraid it was about as hypocritical as anyone could possibly get!

Note – an earlier version of the above article originally appeared on the Past Tense blog. It is re-used here by permission.

EMERGO! The Re-Emergence of a Classic Fright-Film Gimmick (1958)

In the schlocky world of ’50s/’60s horror film marketing, William Castle was the undisputed king, and the “Emergo” effect was possibly his greatest promotional gimmick.

Castle was a producer and director with a live theater background and a reputation for being able to crank out competent, crowd-pleasing B-movies on time and under budget. He also possessed a showman’s shrewd understanding of what it took to fill cinemas in an age when television was slowly overtaking the movie-going experience.

In 1958 he had the idea for a live-action special effect he called “Emergo”, and so he produced a movie to justify that effect, telling the screenwriter that he didn’t care what the story was about as long as it featured a skeleton emerging from a vat of acid.

The resulting film was titled House On Haunted Hill and starred Vincent Price as an eccentric millionaire who invites guests to stay in his haunted mansion. In true proto-Scooby Doo style, it is eventually revealed that the millionaire was faking the haunt in self-defense against a murder plot. None of that mattered very much to Castle’s first matinee audiences, who were on the edge of their seats waiting to experience Emergo.

At the crucial moment, as the apparently ghostly skeleton appeared on-screen, a glowing plastic skeleton would emerge from behind the screen and “float” out over the cinema audience via a system of wires and pulleys. Meanwhile, Vincent Price’s on-screen character was seen manipulating a gadget that appeared to be controlling the flying specter, maneuvering it until it returned to its lair.

The novelty of Emergo caught the public imagination and, as word slowly spread from town to town, local kids would compete to see who could be the first to hit the flying skeleton with thrown popcorn. The important thing to Castle, of course, was that they had paid to get in.

Castle’s later promotional gimmicks included “Percepto” (electric buzzers installed in cinema seats, for The Tingler) and the “Punishment Poll” (in which audiences were purportedly able to “vote” for the punishment of the on-screen villain Mr. Sardonicus). They also inspired the underrated movie Matinee (1993), which starred John Goodman as the very Castlesque “Lawrence Woolsey”.

In recent years, some small cinemas have begun staging William Castle homages (especially around Halloween), offering modern audiences the same tongue-in-cheek thrills that were his stock-in-trade sixty years ago. Of course, no modern screening of House on Haunted Hill is complete without its own take on Emergo:

Note – an earlier version of the above article originally appeared on the Past Tense blog.It is re-used here by permission.

Amazing Insight? Derren Brown Demonstrates the Barnum/Forer Effect

British mentalist and skeptic Derren Brown astounds three groups of young people in Spain, England and the USA by divining incredibly accurate personality profiles of each of them, seemingly based on nothing more than his examination of a drawn outline of their hands, their dates and times of birth and a small personal object.

In fact, Mr. Brown is offering an object lesson in the Barnum effect, also known as the Forer effect. If you can’t spare the eight minutes and eighteen seconds it takes to watch the video – though it’s strongly recommended – you can test the effect for yourself in about one minute by deciding how many of the following statements apply to you:

You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you.
Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside.
At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.
You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations.
You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.
You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.
Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.
Security is one of your major goals in life.

If that list of statements was supplied by someone presenting themselves as a seer, with all due showmanship and business of palm reading, peering into a crystal ball or calculating numerological correspondences, might you assume that they had a supernatural insight into your personality?