The Influence of the Media

War of the worlds (1953)

In War of the Worlds, George Pal adapted H. G. Wells's novel of alien invasion and transformed it into a cinema classic. The film follows the struggle of two scientists (Gene Barry and Ann Robinson) as they attempt to help Earth survive a devastating attack by Martians. The suspense is intensified by their own narrow escapes, and the reality for motion picture audiences lay in seeing the major cities of

Orson Wells acting out his famous "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast. (ARCHIVE PHOTOS, INC.)
Orson Wells acting out his famous "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast. (
Earth lying strewn about in heaps of rubble. Although the horror of seemingly unstoppable aliens was a frightening theme, the film won an Academy Award for its special effects. While Earth is saved by the motion picture's end, the devastation rendered by the extraterrestrial invaders left unforgettable images in the minds of the audience.

While the film version of Wells's novel is highly regarded by science-fiction and cinema buffs and was successful upon its release, the impact it had on mass consciousness cannot be compared to the effect of the radio broadcast of War of the Worlds on the day before Halloween in 1938. At that time, CBS's "Mercury Theatre" presented Orson Welles and a talented cast simulating a live news broadcast of an invasion of Earth by mechanized Martian war machines. Because the account of unstoppable alien beings landing in the New Jersey farmlands was depicted so realistically—and because many listeners tuned in after the Mercury Theatre production was already in progress—the greater part of the nation was in panic over the invaders from Mars.

Invading aliens continued to be a popular theme in a number of motion pictures throughout the 1950s. Invaders from Mars (1953) remains in many moviegoers' memory as the single most frightening film of their childhood. Perhaps what made the film so terrifying to young people was the premise that one's parents, teachers, and friends could be taken over by alien life forms and work toward a nationwide conspiracy. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) developed the theme of aliens possessing family and friends to a high degree of paranoia. While in Invaders from Mars the extraterrestrials attached themselves to their victims' body, in Invasion of the Body Snatchers they brought strange pods with them from their world which grew into likenesses of those humans whom they replaced.

Critics analyzing the lasting effects of these two films often point out that they were released during the paranoia of the Communist hysteria provoked by Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908–1957) and the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the 1950s. Other social historians argue that the UFO craze began when the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union hung like a black cloud over the world and many people were desperate to believe that some force from the skies could appear and deliver Earth from nuclear annihilation. Still other scholars suggest that it may have been the U.S. government itself that began the rumors of flying saucers in order to divert public attention from the development of its own secret weapons. Perhaps such a prevailing atmosphere of national distrust contributed to the horror of films about UFO invaders, but the unsettling concept of aliens slowly taking over Earth through the possession of human bodies became firmly implanted in the psyches of millions of men and women who now looked even more suspiciously at the skies above them.

Such television series as The Twilight Zone (1959–64) and The Outer Limits(1963–65) occasionally featured episodes concerning alien invaders, but My Favorite Martian (1963–66) portrayed extraterrestrial visitors as friendly and funny—especially if one over-looked the antenna that sometimes sprouted from the top of the Martian's (Ray Walston) head. It was a series aptly named The Invaders (1967–69), starring Roy Thinnes, that focused on the paranoid concept that evil aliens might be living undetected among humans and conspiring to conquer them. Thinnes was David Vincent, an architect, who happened to be the only human witness of a UFO landing. No one believed his account, so once he discovered that the extraterrestrials had arrived with the sole intent of taking over the planet, it became his mission to stop them, alerting and enlisting whomever he could to assist him. Vincent's task became all the more difficult because whenever he managed to kill one of the invaders, their physical body disintegrated, leaving no evidence to convince the authorities that aliens were walking and plotting among them. When the series ended in 1969, Vincent had not been able to stem the tide of alien invasion, and the stories of extraterrestrials posing as humans had received more substantiation from a television series that many insisted was telling the truth disguised as a fictional presentation.

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