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Panic Party on Halloween Eve

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The War of the Worlds -- or at least the Orson Welles and Howard Koch version of it -- has taken on nearly mythical proportions in our collective idea of history. Armchair historians have likely heard the story multiple times: Radio play dramatizes an alien invasion by making it sound like a news broadcast. Listeners misunderstand and lose their minds, running through the streets, taking cover in cellars and generally misunderstanding that the entire story was fiction. But dig a bit deeper and a different story emerges.

“There is a history of it being a really big deal, but it turns out it wasn’t a really big deal. It was folklore that turned into history, rather than actual fact,” says Dan Shockley the Indiana Historical Society’s director of interpretation and theater. “The original production was said to cause mass hysteria throughout the country with people screaming and running through the streets, but the truth is very few people heard it the night it played in 1938 and the real panic started the next day.”

Orson Welles was most famous for his classic Citizen Kane, but he got his start in radio. - COURTESY OF CBS
  • Courtesy of CBS
  • Orson Welles was most famous for his classic Citizen Kane, but he got his start in radio.

The War of the Worlds was written by H. G. Wells in 1898. Forty years later, Orson Welles and Howard Koch transformed the novel into a radio play, updating the setting from Victorian England to Depression-era New England. The story, about beings from outer space invading Earth, is certainly dramatic. But it also fed into a greater drama of cultural and corporate transformation -- the classic story of one media industry superseding another.

After the radio show aired, newspapers promoted the idea that it was irresponsible for the radio to do such a thing, supposedly calling the production “real news.” Historians suggest that those print journalists were actually upset with the radio because it was the new hit thing, and it was gobbling up advertising revenue from the newspapers.

Thousands of people were duped by the dramatic narration of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds told over the radio. - COURTESY OF BOSTON GLOBE
  • Courtesy of Boston Globe
  • Thousands of people were duped by the dramatic narration of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds told over the radio.

Coinciding with the holiday night of fright, this Thursday the Indiana History Center will stage the radio play as part of its Indiana Experience exhibit, You Are There. In this exhibit, the Indiana History Center uses photographs from its collection and builds them “three dimensionally.” Then the images get projected onto a fog screen in which you can literally step through to theoretically “go back in time.” The War of the Worlds radio play came about roughly the same year as the current exhibit.

After the reading of The War of the Worlds, there will be a little “just for fun” Halloween event. The Arthur Murray Dance Studio of Zionsville will teach part of the famous zombie dance from Michael Jackson's Thriller video. Halloween treats and light refreshments will be served throughout the evening and costumes are encouraged.

The event requires tickets ($3 or free for IHS members). Seating is limited. Register online.

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