What the 1938 War of the Worlds Hoax Can Teach Indie Horror Directors

Can directors of contemporary indie horror films really learn anything from a 1938 radio broadcast? Depends on the broadcast, of course, but when it comes to the infamous Mercury Theater production of War of the Worlds, the answer is very much yes.

Forget what you learned from Alanis Morissette on the issue; directors and writers can also learn about the true meaning of irony from fact that the producers at CBS around Halloween of 1938 were nervous about their star Orson Welles had in mind for his radio adaptation of the classic science fiction novel by H.G. Wells. The suits at CBS felt that the teleplay was rather too dull and boring to capture the interest of listeners who could quite easily turn the channel to hear to something far more entertaining.

Many young indie directors interested in pursuing the horror genre as a way to scare the jebus out of audiences may be quite surprised to learn that Orson Welles quite literally caused panic to spill into the streets not only without showing anything (it was a radio show, remember), but also without using a single moment of audio that would be the equivalent of the explicit scenes of horror that dominates films in this genre today. Do you know how Orson Welles conducted his radio show that has come to be seen, perhaps inaccurately, as the single greatest entertainment hoax in history?

For perhaps the only time in history, the suits at CBS were right to be concerned. The script of the War of the Worlds broadcast is silly and ridiculous and, yes, boring. Heck, even listening to original radio broadcast of War of the Worlds is boring. And yet, it managed to scare the crap out of thousands of people, perhaps millions.

How did Orson Welles pull off this incredible hoax with such a pedestrian script? There are some who say the greatest hoax in history, if it can even be called that, came about precisely because it was so pedestrian. What the man who would go on to be universally recognized as one of the greatest film directors that has or ever will live proved that October night in 1938 was that the scariest thing in the world is your own imagination.

What the suits at CBS called boring, Orson Welles would probably have described as authentic. There was an authenticity to the War of the Worlds broadcast that made it so much scarier to the people of its time than these god-awful torture movies that masquerade as horror today. The direction that horror has taken since its early days is to the extreme, and therein lies the reason why horror films of the past twenty years–American horror films at least–have generally become more boring than terrifying. The direction that horror needs to take to become the dominant cinematic genre it once was needs to be in the opposite direction and that turn can only start with indie filmmakers playing outside the rules of the uncreative accountants running the Hollywood studios. Instead of making the unreal the norm, indie horror film directors should make the norm unreal.

The hoax known as the War of the Worlds broadcast overseen by Orson Welles in 1938 reveals this better than anything. What could be more normal during a radio broadcast in 1938 than an orchestra playing, commercial breaks, and a reporter rushing to Grover’s Mill to cover breaking news as it happens? At no time during the entire broadcast does unreality seem to intrude on the carefully constructed normality.

Absolutely nothing is scarier than thinking that something horrifying is real. Even if that something is not all that horrifying. How many times have you seen someone literally scream in terror over the sudden appearance of a harmless spider on their shoulder? Contrast that with how many times the goriest and most disgusting scene in a horror movie fails to elicit so much as a single gasp in a movie theater filled with people?

It all seemed real, from the music to the commercials to the actual broadcast of the Martians arriving. Today’s horror movie fans are way too sophisticated to buy all that gore and blood and guts as anything even close to being real. And yet, catch them at the right time, and they will–if only for a few seconds–believe that a 25 cent plastic spider on a piece of string is absolutely real.

That is the lesson that indie directors of horror film need to take from the War of the Worlds hoax of 1938.

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