This is a Test: War of the Worlds

Orson Welles directs the broadcast of War of the Worlds on Oct. 30, 1938. Note the live orchestra; and in the tradition of radio, the actors are standing, which increases their performance energy level.

Dear Friend and Reader:

For his weekly program on Halloween eve of 1938, a young Orson Welles tried something new. For some months, his Mercury Theater on the Air had run on Columbia Broadcasting System (the CBS Radio Network) with a small listenership. On the evening of Oct. 30, they decided to try doing a science fiction program.

George Orson Welles in 1938, a few months before War of the Worlds. He was 21 years old. Photo by portrait master Carl Van Vetchen.

They had acquired the rights to a short novel written by the British sci-fi author H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds. (Wells and Welles were both of English descent, both had George in their name, but they were not related.) That story, about an invasion from Mars, had been published 40 years earlier, in 1898. It was an old and well-known work at the time, read by many children and recreated in comic books.

Welles, however, thought the story made a boring script, so his writers updated it into a series of spot-news reports about an invasion from Mars that cut into a seemingly ordinary dance music program. This was a new technique at the time, the earliest version of the “breaking news” stripe at the bottom of the CNN screen: interrupting regular programming for something more important.

At the beginning of the program an announcer said clearly that the show would be a dramatization of the novel. Then at about 40 minutes, an announcer again said it was a dramatization, and then finally at the end Welles said it was a Halloween prank. But that did not matter; the genie was out of the bottle.

Most people know the history: some listeners panicked, thinking it was an actual invasion from Mars and war with Martian robots. Others thought some other kind of air invasion had happened, having missed the bits about Mars. It’s true that a good few people fell for the dramatization and freaked out. I heard a personal story about someone whose relative was in labor in a Manhattan hospital that night, and was abandoned by the maternity nurses who decided to save themselves and left the ward.

It’s true that many hundreds of phone calls came into the CBS switchboard, and hundreds of people called their local police stations all over the country. One guy in the Midwest was called desperate by a New York Times article the next day because he drove 15 miles to check in with the nearest police station; he must not have had an iPhone.

From The New York Times coverage of War of the Worlds, Oct. 31, 1938.

Then the newspapers ran with the story, greatly exaggerating how many people fell for the hoax. I’ve read that some 1,200 newspaper articles about the broadcast were published in the following weeks, nearly all of them focused on the supposed panic.

Introducing the Echo Chamber

What resulted was the first ‘classic case’ for media study, and what may have been the first example of the media echo chamber. Something started as a book, then became a radio broadcast. People took to the telephones in an attempt to verify whether it was real. Then the newspapers ran with the story, making it their own, and turning it into something entirely new.

By my reckoning, this was the first event of its kind, and provides lots to consider in terms of how we reckon reality against what we experience in the media. For example, the drama was not real; the panic was not as widespread as legend had it; but the panic was given substance when it was reported in print format.

Demonstrating that “the medium is the message”, this event had a different message depending on where it was published. Nobody paniced when the novel came out. They saved that up for the radio drama.

What we have is as much a study in the environment as it is a study in the event. The environment consists of radio itself, and of the state of mind of the listeners. World War II was unfolding in Europe as Hitler conquered countries one by one, so people were accustomed to hearing reports of a (real) war.

And the device of the news interruption of regular programming was happening so often that one contemporary commenter said the interruptions were getting interrupted. That’s exactly what happened the night of War of the Worlds.

We’ve been doing lots of media studies the past two years at Planet Waves as I’ve tried to get a handle on what this internet thing is all about. I’ve done some of this with the help of astrology. I thought it would be fun to check out what was happening in the planets at the time of the War of the Worlds broadcast. There has been some excellent commentary written over the years; I’ll either weave it into the article or add it to the end as links for further reading.

First, a Stunning Progression in the Chart of Orson Welles

Recently I introduced the technique of the progressed horoscope when reading the charts of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. If you want a more detailed description of the technique, I suggest the article about Trump’s chart. To sum up, progression is a method of casting astrology that moves the natal chart ahead one day per year. If you’re in your 42nd year of life, your current progressed chart is for sometime during your 42nd day of life. The astrological events of your first days on Earth parallel their corresponding years. It’s a strange phenomenon, but that’s astrology for you. It also sounds like the mathematical phenomenon of fractals.

Rising area of War of the Worlds chart. Note that 1 Cancer 30 is rising, next to the horizontal line. Early Cancer means contact with the Aries Point.

A fractal is a sample of a mathematical pattern that contains the whole pattern. Discovered by science in the 1980s, my take is that the progressed horoscope is the actual discovery and practical application of fractals.

Progressions represent points of inner development that can come with corresponding events and developments in life. Most astrologers use them as a predictive tool.

On the night that War of the Worlds was broadcast, Orson Welles was having an interesting progression: Mercury was conjunct his Pluto.

This happened just once in his life. Pluto was new at the time, having shown up in 1930, with many plutonian events coinciding with its discovery: mass media, the rise of fascism, another world war and fascination with sex, death and psychology. Pluto was the first astrological point openly associated with ‘the millions’. Mercury conjunct Pluto is shorthand for intense. Pluto gives that Mercury some serious impact, and profound, instinctual insight. The conjunction was located at the degree 1+ Cancer.

When the program began at 8 pm on Sunday, Oct. 30, 1938, that was the very degree rising. The rising degree of any chart is like the chart’s unique thumbprint. The rising degree moves fast, ticking by about one degree every four minutes.

Progressed chart for Welles has Mercury (in green) and Pluto (in red) in the same degree as was rising for the show. Saturn is also right there (in yellow). In early Cancer, these planets are aspecting the Aries Point.

It’s dependent upon location on Earth and time of day, and if you cast a chart for in the same place for every Sunday night at 8 pm, the rising degree will be different.

This was the one night that that one degree aligned with a rare conjunction by progression in Welles’s chart, about as likely as winning Lotto, or hitting jackpots on three slot machines simultaneously. And that’s approximately what happened.

The Aries Point is Everywhere

I’ve mentioned the Aries Point quite a few times — that’s the zone in the chart where the collective realm intersects with the individual realm. It’s described the Talking Heads line, “when the world crashes into my living room,” or by the Redstocking radical feminist collective — “the personal is political.” This is an extraordinarily important idea to keep in mind in these days in which we live: there is no private life that is not shaped or even determined by some much larger public life. We are part of the collective and it is part of us.

The Aries Point is the first degree or three of Aries; and by extension, the opposite degrees of Libra, and the first degrees of Cancer and Capricorn; in other words, the cardinal points. When the cardinal points are active, the portal from the individual into the collective is wide open. Also, the middle degrees of the fixed signs (the midpoints of the cardinal points) also give a dependable Aries Point effect.

All these planets are involved with the Aries Point, or the early degrees of the cardinal signs. Uranus (in blue) and Mercury (in green) count because they are near the midpoint of Taurus/Scorpio. There’s also about to be a lunar eclipse right there. It’s difficult to put so many major elements into aspect with the Aries Point. This is an extremely unlikely chart — and it lined up with Welles’s chart that night.

Straight away, with 1+ Cancer rising, the Aries Point is in the game. With Welles’s 1+ Mercury and Pluto, that raises things by an order of magnitude. The Aries Point comes in different flavors depending on the sign involved. In Cancer, we get the feeling of home — all those people cuddled around their radios. Chiron in Cancer is rising in this chart, at 9+ Cancer (which adds emphasis: this is gonna be strange, so let’s get on with the show).

Opposite Cancer rising we have Vesta in the first degree of Capricorn. I’m not sure how to read this; it’s an interesting manifestation of Vesta, though it’s fair to add “at home by the fire” to the mix.

Then, stretching from 3+ Aries to 3+ Libra is an opposition of Mars and Eris. The opposition is exact to one arc minute, meaning 1/60th of a degree. This is so close that it’s impossible to plan. Mars and Eris are acting as one entity, focusing the Aries Point with the precision of a laser. This is in turn amplified by contact with the ascendant, and the other Aries Point planets, including Welles’s Mercury-Pluto conjunction. If you’re getting lost, just follow the numbers — things with similar numbers are in aspect to one another. Chiron and Saturn are brought in by a ‘proximity effect’ of being close to Aries Point planets.

In many previous articles, I’ve described the current Uranus-Eris conjunction as being associated with broadcast media and with the internet. You may recall that in 1927 and 1928 Uranus and Eris were conjunct on the Aries Point, coinciding with the advent of commercial radio, the patenting of the transistor and the early experiments with television.

The Mars-Eris opposition in this chart affirms that Eris is the patron saint of mass media — and its resulting tendency to chaos. Mars-Eris says turmoil like nothing else. Both are deities associated with combat and conflict; Mars is overt, and Eris is covert. Mars describes the “war” piece, and Eris describes the subversive effect that the show was about to have.

What makes something mass media is that the information is delivered simultaneously. This counts for the family watching, and all the other people watching. The instant and realtime quality of the communication is what makes it seem real; we experience it together.

Just to add a little extra Aries Point, there was about to be a lunar eclipse right in mid-Scorpio. That alone would spark up the Aries Point effect. And opposite that eclipse was Uranus in mid-Taurus. This chart looks like some astrologer designed it, but it’s just not possible to do that. (And, notably, Eris was not discovered, Chiron was not discovered and I would be surprised if 10 astrologers on the planet were using Pluto in 1938).

In other words, the only way to get this chart is synchronicity. Indeed this whole setup is the perfect definition of synchronicity: ridiculously meaningful, highly unlikely random coincidence. Of course, you don’t see this unless you’re paying attention. Like all beauty, it’s in the eye of the beholder. There would be no astrology, but for astrologers.

A Realtime Media Psychology Experiment

It’s well known that the reaction to War of the Worlds was overblown by the newspapers, partly in their need to discredit the relatively new institution of radio. More likely, it would seem that the newspapers were envious of the instantaneous mobilizing and persuasive power of radio, something that they would never have.

I ran this past philosopher and media theorist Eric McLuhan, son and collaborator with Marshall McLuhan. “Don’t confuse mass audience with large audience,” he said. “A mass audience is a function of speed, not numbers. It can be an audience of two million, or two thousand, or two hundred, or twenty. The distinguishing requirement is simultaneity.”

Cover of the novel The War of the Worlds, proving the medium is the message. Publish a novel and nobody panics. Put it on the radio and suddenly Martians are really landing in New Jersey.

The impact of War of the Worlds involved that simultaneity. That’s what made it so real to people. Radio beats the tribal drum. Everyone listening hears the same thing at the same time. People gathered around the thing, enhancing the tribal experience. This was then picked up and embellished by the newspapers, which dragged the story out for many weeks, weaving it into a legend that became history.

Anyone in any position of power, or with an agenda of influencing the public, took notice: politicians and other government officials, media companies, entertainers.

Much of the effect of War of the Worlds drew on the power contained in the background: people’s pre-existing fears of invasion and of ‘the other’; the impact of repeated news interruptions (including the most famous one, the Hindenburg disaster about 18 months earlier); and psychic disorientation due to the presence of a new communication medium.

One thing to remember about new technology is that it’s destabilizing. Society rearranges itself around developments like radio, and often this becomes obvious through events like War of the Worlds. But the changes in consciousness and the structure of society happened long before — it was electricity itself that made radio possible, and the earlier development of the telegraph that made communication instantaneous, collapsing space and time. Talk about disorienting.

“Our actual broadcasting time, from the first mention of the meteorites to the fall of New York City, was less than forty minutes,” wrote John Houseman, an actor and producer who collaborated with Welles. “During that time, men travelled long distances, large bodies of troops were mobilized, cabinet meetings were held, savage battles fought on land and in the air. And millions of people accepted it — emotionally if not logically.”

Orson Welles (age 21!), center, crowded by reporters after the broadcast. There are even two lady reporters in the room. Fancy that!

In a 2011 article called “Media Effects in Context,” published in Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Brian O’Neill made this comment (I’ve removed internal citations for ease of reading):

“While the scale of the panic is known to have been exaggerated, Cantril [the author of a 1940 book analyzing War of the Worlds] was interested in exploring the variability of listeners’ experiences, factors that may have inhibited critical ability for some, and the contradictory accounts, pointing towards how the same information heard by individual listeners was processed in very different ways. Cantril’s claim was that neither educational level, nor the circumstances in which the broadcast was heard, were sufficient to explain the susceptibility to suggestion or the different ‘standards of judgment’ displayed by individuals. Rather, he argued that a combination of psychological personality traits — self-confidence, fatalism, or deep religious belief — predisposed individuals to uncritically believe what they were hearing.”

We may think we’re more sophisticated today, but so are the media magicians. When something like a 9/11 happens, who exactly looks at it and questions whether it’s real? (I’ve covered that particular question in this article from 2002).


Planet Waves Monthly Horoscope for Nov. 2016, #1123 | By Eric Francis

Aries (March 20-April 19) — Fighting chaos is like trying to smooth out the surface of water with a canoe paddle. You may be facing some challenging situations at work, though it won’t take much for you to turn them into opportunities. The first thing to do is take a different approach to any turbulence or conflict, which would begin by stepping back and observing. You may not be noticing how your influence in the situation is stirring up your environment. The best way to figure that out is to step back, observe and listen. The thing to study is relationships. Notice where people’s loyalty is invested, without judging it or saying anything about it. This is a matter of facts, not of opinion. The only way to get anything done — whether it’s a project of some kind, or your own professional advancement — is to work with others. And that is entirely based on who is loyal to whom, and why. What I suggest you remember about this thing called ‘work’ is that for most people, it’s merely the one means they know of to the end called eating. For a few other people, work is a creative endeavor that gives meaning to their lives. For a few others, it’s a political game or power trip. Know where you stand, and know who you’re dealing with at any time.

Taurus (April 19-May 20) — Consider sincerely the challenges your partners are facing. This isn’t some special treatment you would be offering; rather, it’s the essence of companionship and collaboration. Your own astrology has been compelling you to mature and take on more responsibility; not just for your personal life, but also for the world around you. You might feel like you’re being asked to give something up. You will no more miss whatever you think that is than you miss your childhood toys. As you expand your attention to the details of the world around you, you’ll close the distance between yourself and the people you care about. Indeed, you may make vast discoveries about how much you care. You’ll also feel a greater sense of satisfaction in knowing that you’re integral to creating a better, saner world for everyone. In many ways, doing this is a matter of perspective. You’ve experienced looking at something on the horizon and thinking it’s one thing, and as you get closer, discovering that it’s something else. This works with all facets of life: the closer you get, the more detail you will see, and the more you’ll understand your appropriate role. At the same time, shift your perspective other ways: look from above; consider how things change from a distance; consider how others perceive them. Factor this all into your own perception.

Gemini (May 20-June 21) — Gemini is said to be one of the more mental signs, but now there’s no avoiding an emotional situation that’s been vying for your attention for some time. Once you devote yourself to understanding and healing, you will discover a world of possibilities, by which I mean support from others and an opportunity to grow and create. One item to address is your sexuality, from the standpoint of healing. This can be challenging because few people have any concept of sexual healing until they’ve experienced it, and few healers or thought-leaders bring up the topic. You still tend to think of sex as something that must exist inside a social construct like marriage or commitment. Sex came first. The human body and its feelings came before anyone’s notion of right or wrong imposed over basic biology. One element of healing is living by your own personal code of ethics, one that realistically reflects who you are and what you feel. That’s predicated on knowing what you feel and seeking to discover the truth of who you are. This is opposite from trying to fit yourself into what someone else thinks you’re supposed to be. Just embracing that one idea will help you feel better and set yourself free. You might try this as your mantra for a few weeks: “I am not my parents. I am myself.”

Cancer (June 21-July 22) — Better things are calling you — creative, amorous, erotic, adventurous. All you need to do is respond. This is usually easier said than done, because the demands of life and, moreover, the habitual patterns of life rarely support those aspects of being. Indeed, they seem designed to prevent them. If there is a key to unfolding your potential, it’s allowing yourself to feel and to be your secret self. By this I mean the self that you rarely speak of or reveal. Both true creativity and actual involvement and investment in your life require this one thing: the risk of revealing who you are; first to yourself, then in the process to the people around you. It’s true that authentic art and focused relating both take discipline. Yet before there can be discipline you must allow the flow of your personal truth to open up. There must be some risk involved in everything you express and everyone you relate to. Safe and predictable situations will not foster your growth. The opposite of safety is not danger; rather, you might say that the measure of authenticity is the sensation of risking something when you express yourself. You want the situations with uncertain outcomes. You want the people who challenge you to rise to the occasion of your own existence.

Leo (July 22-Aug. 23) — Belief is fragile. Most beliefs do not stand up to verification. Yet the starting point to getting real is discovering your assumptions and, one by one, popping them like balloons. That’s the big courageous thing involved in growth. Some forms of spiritual training and study give you a pin to do the popping; others give you more hot air to inflate more balloons. You could save yourself time by questioning every assumption you have, and by counting everything you think you know as such. This is not as harsh as it sounds. It’s more like opening up the windows on a cool autumn afternoon, and being grateful that you need neither heat nor air conditioning. Being ‘disillusioned’ is thought of as a bad thing; you might think of it as being shorn of your illusions. The more disillusioned you are, the more open you’ll be to that seemingly elusive thing known as reality. That’s the thing you want. The first benefit will be simplicity. What is so is more elegant and more pragmatic than what you hope is true, or are pretending is true. Yes, this takes commitment, but after a short time the energy that comes back to you will provide ample power for the whole project. It’s like cleaning closets. Once you clean one, going for the rest feels good and ends up being great fun.

Virgo (Aug. 23-Sep. 22) — By all rights, being born under Mercury’s most potent sign would make it easy for you to get to the essence of what you want to say. Yet often it’s more difficult than that. Your ideas get mixed up with your emotions, and therefore lost in the sauce. That, however, is the simpler equation to solve. The more complex one is the influence that other people have on you. It’s easy for you to get lost in their notions of what’s supposedly true for you, or what’s true in general. The first thing to do is to notice this influence. It’s not so easy and it takes willingness and perceptiveness. Lately your relationships seem to come with a kind of haze that can fog over your relationship with yourself. It’s possible to address this in a peaceful and productive way. The thing required is a commitment to being clear with yourself. You cannot escape having feelings, nor do you want to; though it will help if you observe your feelings and notice how they change. You will benefit from a balance of reasoning process, intuition and instinct. Check in with all three. Notice when you’re feeling fear. Notice when you want something, or someone, and you’re not admitting that fact. Here’s a clue: when you feel like you might be betraying someone, you’re most likely to be honoring your own will.

Libra (Sep. 22-Oct. 23) — You must do something about any lingering inferiority complex that you have, or the present one that’s driving you nuts. First, let’s get one thing out of the way: the world is designed to make us all feel inferior and inadequate. All the advertising and politics and catty, competitive social interactions that seem inescapable: all are designed to erode your confidence in yourself, which then can become a permanent judgment. There are alternatives to inferiority. One is finding people you sincerely look up to, who serve as models. You assign them a ‘superior’ role and then aspire to their greatness. We live in tough times because we silently expect everyone who seems good and decent to be revealed as a fraud. Be careful about that thought form, and take a balanced view of people you hold as exemplars. Another is recognizing that we all have equal potential, and what we get out of life is a matter of what we invest. Let’s put it this way: there are some aspiring guitarists who hear Derek Trucks play and feel inferior and disheartened. Others hear him play and think, “I want to play that well. I know it’ll take practice.” Which of these do you choose? One last bit: take everyone as your teacher. The wise, the nutty, the young, the old, the dogs, the cats and the bunnies.

Scorpio (Oct. 23-Nov. 22) — It’s time to make contact with your drive for social justice. This is a real value that you hold, and it can transcend many other distractions. You believe in the truth, and deep in your heart you want the truth to prevail. You believe in the right thing, and you want the right thing to happen. Taking action on this in small, tangible ways would be more helpful to you and the world than, say, texting money to a charity. Take any opportunity to make the right thing happen. Look around you anywhere and you will see people who need help, who need someone to stand up for them, who need any small advantage. Many times a day you’re in a position to offer that. Make it your business. One benefit of doing this is that it siphons energy from the jealous, competitive and needy side of human nature. You are drawing power from some of the most toxic personality traits and social conditioning and reinvesting it in making yourself a positive force in your environment. Another advantage is that by positioning yourself to be only helpful, you will discover how abundant you are. Notably, much of that abundance is in the form of ideas. Let them lead to action, which will lead to more ideas. Let that ripple out into the world and count it as progress for humanity.

Sagittarius (Nov. 22-Dec. 22) — We all have limited time to accomplish what we came here to accomplish — and we don’t know how much time we have. Making peace with those facts is the first step toward bona fide maturity. The presence of Saturn in your birth sign will be reminding you of this in some way every day. Sometimes this might manifest as a sense of limitation; others times as a sense of urgency. I suggest you take it as an entirely practical matter. You are being invited to take charge of your life, which in the first instance means your time. That’s your single most important resource, and you must treat it that way. By fully embracing the finite nature of time (at least as it exists in our consciousness) you will expand your potential into something wider and vaster than you thought was possible. You’re likely to become aware that there is something far greater than time or this one lifetime, though what you have is now, and your sense of your mission. The more seriously you engage with your mission, purpose or however you think of it, the more wisely you will use your time. The more you recognize time as finite, the more strength you can draw upon to act on your most deeply held values without delay.

Capricorn (Dec. 22-Jan. 20) — You’re starting to make contact with your own desire. By that I mean you’re removing the obstacles between what you want and admitting what you want. You might think this is too simple to be effective, but all the complexity — the wrangling over appropriateness and guilt and your fear of personal anarchy if you let go of your precious self-control, even just a little — is all a distraction. Sooner or later, you will admit to what you want, which is another way of saying admit to who you are. Then what, exactly, is the fuss? I would remind you that you no longer have to prove that you’re a good girl or good boy. You no longer have to impress your parents or your teachers. Who you are is in fact none of their business, no matter what they may have convinced you. This extends to partners, friends and people in your community whom you think you have to impress as morally upright. Even if you dispense with all of this mental meshugas, there’s one last point to consider: your need to feel safe. Under your current astrology, clinging to security is the last thing that will give you a sense of confidence. Dancing with the possibilities, with your own potential, and the current chaos of the world will, however, do wonders for you.

Aquarius (Jan. 20-Feb. 19) — Every decision you make stems from what you think you are. When you make contact with who you truly are, you will feel your own grandeur and the beauty of your life. When you feel small, or weak, or inferior, you can be sure you’ve lost contact with who you really are. When you feel that your life has meaning, and like your presence offers strength and encouragement to the world around you, you can be sure you’re in contact with who you are. One theme of your chart is expanding your vision for your life. This story is being told by Jupiter moving through your house of your ‘higher self’. At the same time, Saturn is compelling you to take the opposite approach, and narrow your focus to a specific role. The two processes are not at odds. In fact, this month they join forces, with a rare meeting of Saturn and Jupiter. This will help you prioritize, which is exactly what you need to do. It’s a fact that the possibilities are endless. It’s a fact that you can only embrace and express some of them. It’s also a fact that you need some better possibilities, and those exist if you will see them for what they are. As the month progresses, some key facts will come into focus, and you will be well positioned to take advantage of rare circumstances. Pay attention.

Pisces (Feb. 19-March 20) — You may have noticed that you have more traction than usual: you’re getting things done. You have respect and self-respect. Now it’s time to expand your mission. The past few years of Chiron in your sign (actually, back to 2010) have been a time of profound introspection, dealing with your insecurities and taking care of your healing agenda. The majority of that work is behind you. You have a better sense of who you are than at any time in the past (and you knew pretty well as a kid). I suggest you count those gains for what they are, and embrace the confidence that is available to you. A greater sense of purpose is calling you, though it’s vital that you take this on more than the generic level. Reflect carefully and get clear about what you want to accomplish. Then, without hesitating, move forward and let nothing stop you. The conditions of your chart are supporting you many different ways. The more you step up to the challenge, the more support you will feel and be able to take on board. In a world that is running out of control and that in many ways seems utterly insane, it’s easy to miss the fact that you have actual worthwhile ideas, and the ability to carry them out. Remind yourself every day.

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