The SECOND War of the Worlds Panic

Panic in the street! Running and stumbling. Fear. Crazed looks. Paranoia running rampant. Radio signals sending messages of doom. H.G. Wells. Martians. Scream. Run for your life. Panic. Hoax.

1938? Orson Welles? No. Try Ecuador in 1949 and try a War of the Worlds panic broadcast that makes the Grover’s Mill fantasia of the great Orson Welles look like a Sunday school reading of The Lorax, the most banned Dr. Seuss book of all time. What Orson Welles wrought in 1938 with his infamous radio broadcast of Howard Koch’s dramatization of H.G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds was akin to what Glenn Beck accomplishes nightly with his insane ramblings of delusion. A few thousand easily duped Americans bought into their own paranoid fantasies (about Hitler and the threat of a second world war in Welles’ time and about Obama and the threat of free health care in Beck’s time) and ran into the streets. It’s a famous story that inspired a TV movie titled The Night That Panicked America. (And, as is so often the case, this great TV movie has yet to be released on DVD, but you can get The Captain and Tennille in Hawaii on DVD, so there’s that.) What usually gets lost in the story is that nobody died. It was a remarkably flaccid panic. Especially compared to the second War of the Worlds hoax that took place in Ecuador.

Riots. Flames. Burning buildings. Run for your life. Death.

The year was 1949. Rather than wait for the Halloween season as Orson Welles had done, some enterprising radio folk in Quito decided to test the limits of the capacity of Ecuadorans to resist the temptation to embrace their own paranoia on the 12th of February. It took two men to be the Orson Welles of Quito and that is not a fat Orson jokes by any means. Leonardo Paez and Eduardo Alcaras were familiar with the War of the Worlds broadcast of over a decade to the previous as well as the fear it engendered, especially along the East Coast. Whether Senors Paez and Alcaras were just delusional themselves or whether they just possessed a very fearsome sense of humor is an aspect of this story that I cannot comment on with specificity, but something possessed them to write their own version of the story based on the concept of the breaking news template established by Koch and Welles.

As with the more famous War of the Worlds broadcast, listeners were enjoying music when an announcer suddenly interrupted with a story about Martians landing outside Quito. Here is where Paez and Alcaras managed the fairly improbable task of one-upping Orson. What many people conveniently forget about the original War of the Worlds panic is that the show began with an introduction that flatly stated what followed was a Mercury Theater production of H.G. Wells’ War of the World. The Quito panic started with no warning; just the sudden interruption of the musical program. Nobody knew what was going on except for Paez and Alcaras and the actors.

Fear. Panic. Stupidity.

If the Orson Welles broadcast and panic could be painted in terms of a violent movie, it would be Psycho. By comparison, the Ecuadoran War of the Worlds panic broadcast was Pulp Fiction. What seemed to be an overreaction by easily duped Americans pales in comparison to the authentic overreaction that took place in Quito on the night of February 12, 1949. This can be blamed partly on the general Cold War paranoid that developed worldwide in the wake of World War II and the genocidal detonation of two atomic bombs over Japan. It can also be partly blamed on the decision by the producers to engage actors who sounded exactly like the Mayor of Quito who was heard heartily endorsing the concept of taking to the streets to defend the city against these godless hordes from another world. There was also the very real fear among Ecuadorans that Peru might be the real invaders. Whatever people thought and whatever was the blame, what happened next could certainly have been predicted to an extent. Or perhaps not.

Madness ensued. People took to the streets. Priests threw open the doors of churches. Fear engulfed the city as residents fell under the spell of giving into fears. It is almost certain that men like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh have studied the Quito panic quite closely because there are certainly parallels between what happened that night in 1949 and what has taken place across American since January 20, 2001. Fortunately, those in charge of spreading the lie that endorsed the fear to an adrenaline-rush level chose to take some measure of responsibility for their actions. The same cannot be said for today’s practitioners of this dark art.

The radio station rushed to make clear that everything had been a show. A fiction. A fable. A fabulous funny freakout. A lesson can be learned from what happened next. Nay, this lesson should be learned. It must be learned. The War of the Worlds fake-out that takes place nightly on Fox News and daily on news radio is not as different from the Quito panic as those who propagate such dangerous discourse think. Crowds running into the street propped up on the adrenaline rush of fear must eventually take their paranoia out on somebody…on something. And who did the residents of Quito take out their aggression on that night?

Fox News pundits take note: it was on the messenger. The War of the Worlds turned into a war on the radio station that had pulled the wool over their eyes. Lesson to be learned, part deux: nobody likes to realize they have been made to look a fool. Another lesson much needed by those working at Fox. Quito residents did what those on the East Coast in 1938 did not do. Perhaps would not have done. They attacked those who revealed their paranoia as baseless. They rioted with newspapers soaked with gasoline. Orson Welles made a joke of things the next day, famous appearing haggard and worn. The folks who perpetrated the War of the Worlds hoax in Quito quite literally were forced to run for their lives by escaping out the back door. The building from which this insight into the psychology of fear had been conducted burned to the ground, forcing some employees to leap for their very lives.

By the time it was all over at least 20 people had died and dozens had been injured. What did Orson Welles get for provoking a little pre-Pearl Harbor fear? He got the chance to go to Hollywood, make Citizen Kane, and marry Rita Hayworth. Paez and Alcaras were a little less lucky. Alcaras was arrested almost immediately. In the grandest tradition of honor among thieves, he quickly decided to cooperate with the police and pull an Elia Kazan on Paez. Alcaras insisted that it was Paez who pulled all the strings on turning the broadcast into a total hoax.

In the wake of Alcaras’ stories, Paez became the boogeyman extraordinaire of this story. It was said that he had planned all along to create a panic. It was said that he even locked the doors to the door to the radio station. He reveled in the panic and fear, it was said. He was the last to make his way down as the fires consumed the radio station and then, like Keyser Soze, poof: he disappeared.

The other story is that Paez merely went underground for a few months so that the heat could die down. He then reappeared and showed up in court with the contract that proved the radio station had known everything that had been planned and he was not the sole owner of responsibility for all that gone wrong.

If Alcaras and Paez sound like men with who you are familiar, rest assured that is not just coincidence. What goes around comes around they say. Everything that is old becomes new again, they say. History repeats, they say

History repeats.