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  • Cecilia Ledezma

Ecuador's War of the Worlds: The Myth That Was

On Halloween’s Eve, 1938, a chill ran through American houses tuned in to CBS Radio. It all started with that scamp Orson Welles, presently remembered for writing, starring, and directing the fivefold winner of the British Film Institute’s poll on the greatest film of all time, Citizen Kane. On that fateful night, he broadcasted a horror radio play as part of his series The Mercury Theatre on Air. The performance, now known as the “War of the Worlds” broadcast, was an adaptation of the H. G. Wells novel by the same name. The book details the discovery of a cylindrical UFO from which arises the Martian invasion of London, an attack that eventually overtakes the whole world. Being an American production, Welles opted to localize the story by changing the set-pieces to more familiar locations, swapping London with New Jersey. The adaptation was not a traditional broadcast: instead of announcing the title at the top of the hour, playing theme music, and ignoring the presence of the microphones, the show was played “straight.” It was stylized to not sound like players acting out a script but a newscast with various reporters documenting the attack. For the first half of the performance, the audience heard as dance music (so, a radio’s typical output) was repeatedly interrupted by emergency news alerts reporting developments in the extraterrestrial case.


The next day, accounts of the public’s reaction were printed in newspapers nationwide. The New York Times ran a front-page story on a “wave of mass hysteria” that resulted in the police getting swamped with calls [1]. Being at mock crisis’s origin, the newspaper reported on a block in Newark, NJ whose inhabitants fled with towels over their face to protect the “gas raid from Mars” [2]. The New York Daily’s headline, covering two third of the front page, loudly declared “FAKE RADIO ‘WAR’ STIRS TERROR” [3]. Farther away, Indiana’s Providence Journal cited people running to churches, college boys fainting and women weeping hysterically [4].


Recently, these claims have been widely disputed. Firstly, there is a clear trend of sensationalism used in the wording describing the broadcast. Moreover, a national survey coincidentally conducted the night of the broadcast found only 2% of its respondents reported listening to radio plays or Orson Welles’s program regularly, so such widespread attention was unlikely [5]. Secondly, and more damningly, at the time, newspapers and radio were competing over who became the lead source of information. It is theorized that the reason the story was reported so widely was an attempt to discredit radio as a viable or trustworthy source of current events, citing the theorized panic as evidence.


Reaching this part of the article, dear reader, I am sure you wonder what is left to be uncovered: this hoax’s mythical panic did not occur as reported. There is not much busting left to do, I’m afraid: the truth of the matter is, there was no mass outcry, no widespread panic, no terrorizing destruction that followed a radio play adaptation of “War of the Worlds” … At least not in the United States.


The place is Quito, Ecuador. It is now February 1949, over a decade later, and radio host Raúl Lopez, writer Eduardo Alcaráz and reporter Leonardo Páez have concocted a plan to recreate Welles’s infamous radio play [6]. Their adaptation of the adaptation would similarly need to be localized and then translated into Spanish. On the night of the broadcast, the dulcet tones of Dúo Benitez y Valencia’s ‘Para Mí Tu Recierdo’ were abruptly interrupted by Lopez's fervent announcement of the Martian landing [7]. Unlike Welles, though, the intensity of the situation was amped up from the very first report: Lopez announced the Martians had landed in Cotocollao, a sector in the outskirts of Quito [8]. Even worse still, the perpetrators were on the approach. Comparing this to Welles’s slow burn, the Ecuadoran version turned up the ante incredibly fast.


Not afraid to double down, they hired impersonators of prominent governmental figures to speak in their stead. Most notably, the actor impersonating the Minister of Defense declared that the military was ready to fight for the country’s safety, protecting them from the mysterious alien cloud overhead [9]. At the time, Ecuador had tense political relations with Peru, a neighboring country. It is theorized that terror at the broadcast became stronger after this as those who doubted the extraterrestrial claims probably believed that the attack was the genuine beginning to a serious conflict. Moreover, the story was run by a trusted news source; in fact, both Radio Quito and El Comercio, a premier Ecuadorian newspaper, operated out of the same building. In their second act, when Páez was “killed” while investigating the landing on Cotocollao, his gruesome death was documented through a series of blood-curdling screams [10]. As a beloved and respected journalist, Páez’s involvement seems to have cemented not only the credibility but the threat of the event. Learning his involvement had such an effect, the writers (like Welles before them) were urged to report the fictitious nature of the play on air.


When we read myths about the audience’s reaction to the 1938 broadcast, the agitation is born out of fear and confusion. In Quito, however, there was a different response: violence. The Equatorian public’s hysteria at the crisis transformed into fear at the deception. Radio Quito’s station (in the center of the city, three blocks away from the palace of governance) was set on fire by critics of the play. A radio host remained at the microphone, pleading for the public, with whom the radio has historically had such close relationships, to help save them. The two musicians for the play, Raúl Molestina and Prefecto Alvarado, had different strategies: the latter by staying put until the firemen came and the former by jumping out of the fourth floor’s window. Neither survived: Molestina was burnt to death and Alvarado sustained fatal injuries from jumping. Páez was able to jump to a nearby school building, but both his girlfriend and nephew were not able to escape and also passed. There are two other building employee fatalities [11].


Radio Quito ceased operations for the two years that followed. Páez fled Quito until his lawyer recommended he make an appearance at his hearing. Although absolved, Páez was harshly criticized for his artistically imprudent actions in referencing Welles’s work [12]. Due to the incident, he struggled to find work, relying on free-lancing for almost a decade. It was only then when, after winning an award for a theatrical script, he was able to relocate (with his family) to Venezuela in an attempt to distance himself from the event.


In a way, this is the real tale of two busted myths: that of a truth that never occurred, and that of a fiction that actually happened. Next time you consider Welles’s broadcast and the lie of its hysteria, you will know about Quito’s retelling and the truth of its tragedy.


Notes

[1] The New York Times, “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact,” Newspaper Article, 1938


[2] Ibid.


[3] New York Daily News, “FAKE RADIO ‘WAR’ STIRS TERROR,” Newspaper Article, 1938


[4] The Arizona Daily Star, “Hysteria Sweeps Nation When Radio Reports Mythical War,” Newspaper Article, 1938


[5] Jefferson Pooley & Michael J. Scolow, “The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic,” Web Article, 2013


[6] Juan Manuel Flórez Arias, “'Extraterrestres en Ecuador': la noticia por radio que causó tragedia,” Web Article 2020


[7] Susana Freire García, “El autoexilio de Leonardo Páez,” Newspaper Article, 2016


[8] Juan Manuel Flórez Arias, “'Extraterrestres en Ecuador': la noticia por radio que causó tragedia,” Web Article, 2020


[9] Susana Freire García, “El autoexilio de Leonardo Páez,” Newspaper Article, 2016.


[10] Ibid.


[11] Juan Manuel Flórez Arias, “'Extraterrestres en Ecuador': la noticia por radio que causó tragedia,” Web Article 2020


[12] Susana Freire García, “El autoexilio de Leonardo Páez,” Newspaper Article, 2016


References

Jefferson Pooley & Michael J. Scolow, “The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic,” Web Article, 2013


Juan Manuel Flórez Arias, “'Extraterrestres en Ecuador': la noticia por radio que causó tragedia,” Web Article, 2020


New York Daily News, “FAKE RADIO ‘WAR’ STIRS TERROR,” Newspaper Article 1938


Susana Freire García, “El autoexilio de Leonardo Páez,” Newspaper Article, 2016


The Arizona Daily Star, “Hysteria Sweeps Nation When Radio Reports Mythical War,” Newspaper Article, 1938


The New York Times, “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact,” Newspaper Article, 1938

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