Thursday, October 31, 2013

Believe It Or Not: The Credibility of Horror

 “Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.”

From H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1898)

Yesterday was the anniversary of the broadcast of Orson Welles’ infamous radio adaptation of War of the Worlds.  In the fall of 1938, the day before Halloween, CBS radio interrupted its regular programming with a ‘special news bulletin’.  In the spirit of trick or treat, reports came in from a Chicago astronomer and a journalist at the scene of one of the Martian landings—near Trenton, New Jersey!  There were audio special effects (people screaming) and dramatic radio silence.  Trust in the veracity of the broadcast was supported by the source of the information—“Intercontinental Radio News”. 

There had been a disclaimer at the beginning of the broadcast, but listeners that tuned in late to the show did not hear it.  Thousands of people were upset by what they took to be accurate reporting, and scores required treatment for shock and hysteria.  (The event is commemorated in two articles in The New York Times last weekend; PBS also aired a documentary this week.)  The story of the broadcast and its impact on a credulous public is considered by some to be a cautionary tale of the power of media:  thousands were more or less instantly persuaded that earth had been invaded by Martians with death rays, and that the world as we knew it had ended.

The horror and significance of this media Halloween prank are still with us.  Steven Schlozman’s article in the The New York Times Magazine (“The Harvard Doctor Who Accidentally Unleashed a Zombie Invasion”, 10/27/13) reminisces about a similar event that occurred just two years ago.  Schlozman, who is both a physician and a fiction writer, was being interviewed on a popular overnight radio talk show called “Coast to Coast AM”, (

Coast to Coast AM specializes in reports, discussion and debate of such topics as conspiracy theories, extraterrestrials, cryptozoology, and supernatural phenomena.  Recently featured items include “Annabelle:  The True Story of A Demonic Doll”, “I Was Healed by a Ghost...and There’s a Photo to Prove It”, and perhaps most concerning, “Nuclear Missile Sites & UFOs—Sgt. Klancnik Speaks on the Record.”

Schlozman was interviewed between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m.—just think for a moment about who might likely be listening at that time of day.  He and his interviewer were discussing Schlozman’s novel The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks From the Apocalypse, and like Orson Welles 75 years before, played it straight, as if the fiction were reliable fact.  Credibility was enhanced by reference to recently discovered documents, (a favorite device of H.P. Lovecraft), and the coining of a scientific acronym:  A.N.S.D., or “Ataxic Neurodegenerative Satiety Deficiency” syndrome.

In an earlier post there was discussion of how the trappings of scientific objectivity can make pronouncements seem more authoritative and commanding, (see “Isn’t Horror Better Than Science Fiction?” September 2013).  It should also be noted that technical or otherwise unfamiliar multisyllabic words can be used effectively to inspire trust or fear.  For the naïve or recently literate, what is difficult or incomprehensible to read or listen to is probably true.

Sure enough, Dr. Schlozman was soon contacted by anxious listeners wanting his recommendations for anti-A.N.S.D. medications and optimal security measures in zombified neighborhoods.  One listener suggested that his broadcast violated the Hippocratic Oath, and some of his peers were critical as well.   

Schlozman notes that listeners’ skepticism was not activated by the fact that the discussion of a zombie apocalypse was occurring on a late night radio show known for outrageous, minimally substantiated news reports, or that said discussion was punctuated by advertisements for lawn fertilizers and automobile insurance.  More ominously, his coining of a fictional disease causing zombification led to the creation of internet web sites devoted to the dissemination of additional information about the condition.

This seems a special application of Samual Taylor Coleridge’s great insight about literature.  The creators of such media events as OrsonWelles’ radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds or Schlozman’s interview on Coast to Coast AM directed their efforts in such a way as to “transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” 

However, this ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ did not lead to greater appreciation and enjoyment of a creative work so much as confusion of fiction with fact.  Where else are we likely to see this ‘willing suspension of disbelief’?

Schlozman goes on to describe aspects of the internet that can enhance and accelerate social hysteria.  The gerrymandering of our media habits creates conditions where information consumers will self-select sites that confirm their fears, suspicions and understandings of the world.  Often the more unsubstantiated a claim may be, the more likely it will be believed, at least by those prepared to accept it as fact.  The radio audience for The War of the Worlds heard that broadcast on the eve of World War II, and so had already undergone psychological and emotional priming to believe in the possibility of a catastrophic war. 

Unlike radio broadcasts circa 1938, the internet allows instantaneous dissemination of information that most likely will not be complete, accurate or balanced.  Television in America has been balkanized into several cable networks, each with their own world view and competitive need to achieve higher viewership ratings.  Currently, there are numerous emotional issues that aggravate and divide us: health care reform, immigration, involvement in the Middle East, the education of our children, tolerance for differences among people, and others.  

One can imagine a ‘perfect storm’ of media inventiveness, combined with  narrow, self-selected information sources, confirmation of our worst fears and beliefs about ‘the other’—and instantaneous, unreflective transmission of fiction masquerading as fact.  Fiction in Halloween costume, as it were.  What believable horrors await us in the future?

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