You're probably familiar with the War of the Worlds. It started off as a novel by H.G. Wells, it's most recent adaptation is the action movie with Tom Cruise. Now, if you've watched it, you remember that it's a typical Hollywood blockbuster, with no aspirations to seem anything else. You know, some movies pose themselves as somewhat documentary — with the shaky cam, fist person shots, et cetera. And some, most famously The Blair Witch Project, claim to be composed of real footage. Still though, even this movie does it a tongue-in-cheek fashion, not attempting to actually fool anyone into believing it's actually real. But let's get back to the War of The Worlds.
The novel was written in 1898, but the tendency to adapt literary works to other media is not new. One of the most notable adaptations was the episode of the radio drama series The Mercury Theatre on the Air, performed October 30, 1938. The episode was directed and narrated by none other than Orson Welles, and was probably one of earliest examples of entertainment content posing as a documentary.
We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own. We know now that as human beings busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.
Creepy, yes — but soon the audience is immersed into what seems to be an unraveling crisis. The drama reaches its climax when Welles, playing Professor Pierson, proclaims:
As I set down these notes on p aper, I'm obsessed by the thought that I may be the last living man on earth. I have been hiding in this empty house near Grovers Mill — a small island of daylight cut off by the black smoke from the rest of the world. All that happened before the arrival of these monstrous creatures in the world now seems part of another life… a life that has no continuity with the present, furtive existence of the lonely derelict who pencils these words on the back of some astronomical notes bearing the signature of Richard Pierson.
The episode itself is interesting in many ways, and I suggest you listen to the full hour-long version if you have the time. For brevity's sake, the structure of the show, making it seem as if it's interrupted by crisis reports from emergency services, and the narration by the actors, scared a lot of people. Despite the episode ending in Wells admitting that it was just a show, panic spread during the broadcast. It's understandable — not everyone listens to programs from start to finish, and on the eve of World War II tensions were high. Thousands of articles described the panic and mass hysteria caused by the show.
However, it is strongly suggested the panic was less widespread than newspapers had indicated at the time. American University media historian W. Joseph Campbell wrote in 2003 that "[T]he panic and mass hysteria so readily associated with 'The War of the Worlds' did not occur on anything approaching a nationwide dimension", suggesting that the extent of the panic was exaggerated by the media.
Interestingly, in 1968 a Buffalo radio station WKBW aired a modernized version of the show with similar results. Several people were convinced Earth was under attack — this included small-town police officers, a local newspaper and even the Canadian military, who reportedly dispatched troops to patrol a nearby bridge.