How the BBC, Orson Welles, ancient Egyptian scribes and alternate reality game designers all follow the same 3900 year old tradition
On the 31st of October in 1992, the BBC broadcast a 90 minute show called Ghostwatch. Ghostwatch appeared to be a typical Halloween documentary examining a supposedly haunted North London council house. The show was broadcast live and hosted by Michael Parkinson, a well-known BBC presenter, in a studio complete with guest experts and phone-in panels.
The first half of the show was slow and featured all of the normal characteristics of live documentaries – a BBC crew was sent in to have a look around the ‘haunted’ house and conduct interviews with the family living there. One of the crew at the house, Craig Charles, even played a joke on the crew at the beginning of the show by pretending to be a ghost in a closet. However, as the show went on, truly peculiar events started happening; a wet patch appeared in the middle of the carpet, children began to channel a ghost, the BBC presenter Sarah Greene was trapped in a cellar with the sound of howling cats, and finally the broadcast from the house went dead. Switching back to the studio, a hurricane kicked up, the lights went out and Michael Parkinson began to recite nursery rhymes in the voice of the ghost.
The fallout from the show was vast and immediate with several newspapers condemning the show for terrifying the country’s viewers, reflecting the thousands of letters and phone calls made to the BBC. Despite the fact that the show was aired post-watershed (after 9pm) and Michael Parkinson repeatedly warned parents to send their children to bed, much of the controversy centred around the effect the show had on children. Stephen Volk, the writer of Ghostwatch, claimed that “kids actually ‘got it’ more than adults… it seemed that the kids understood the language, and the ‘gag’ largely, but it was adults who were unbelievably upset by it.”
When Ghostwatch aired, I was ten years old. I can unequivocally say that I was seriously scared by it. While I knew afterwards that the show wasn’t ‘true’, I hadn’t been forewarned and the fictional reality it had constructed was so believable that I was jumpy for the next few weeks. Everything within Ghostwatch was deliberately written and directed to seem as real as possible. Its format was modelled largely on that of Crimewatch, a long-running and distinguished live documentary that enlisted viewers’ help to solve high profile crimes, and the presence of Michael Parkinson and other well-known BBC presenters further enhanced the illusion. It would be wrong to claim that everyone who watched the show was scared or thought it was real – in fact, reaction to the show was spread over a wide spectrum, with many viewers praising it – but regardless of their leanings, all viewers held strong opinions about Ghostwatch.
Even though TV was hardly a new medium in 1992 and viewers were used to hearing lies through it, Ghostwatch managed to accomplish for the British public on a smaller scale what The War of the Worlds accomplished for the American public: create a widespread, collective panic in under 90 minutes. The reason I began with Ghostwatch instead of the famous Orson Welles production is because I had the dubious pleasure of actually watching it when it aired. In contrast, Welles’ production of The War of the Worlds first aired in 1938, almost seventy years ago – long before most of our times.
The War of the Worlds was broadcast on October 30th by CBS’ Mercury Theatre On The Air. The radio play was a mere fifty minutes long, yet it managed to create an even more realistic illusion than Ghostwatch did, despite the fact that it was prefaced and interspersed with four disclaimers stating that it was fictional. How was this possible? At the time, listeners were given to trusting what they heard on the radio, especially when it was part of a news broadcast. They were accustomed to hearing breaking news despatches from Europe about the latest war scares, and Welles mimicked the format and tone of these despatches perfectly, by initially breaking into normal musical programming and then following the ‘news’ up with interviews with astronomers and increasingly detailed and disturbing reports of the alien invader that had landed in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.
In addition to impeccable production and writing, the Mercury Theatre and Orson Welles were the beneficiaries of extraordinarily good timing on a number of levels. Radio programmes in the 30s tended to run a little over their alloted time, meaning that programmes that had started at 7pm hadn’t quite finished when The War of the Worlds began at 8pm, meaning that anyone switching over would have missed the first disclaimer. More fortuitously, the highly popular Chase and Sanborn Hour, featuring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy, also began at 8pm. After its opening act, it is thought that many listeners switched over to the Mercury Theatre, conveniently missing the disclaimer and arriving in the middle of a fake news broadcast.
On a broader level, radio was still a relatively novel medium in 1938; the very first regular radio broadcasts took place in 1920 and the first British radio station only went on air two years later. At the beginning of America’s ‘golden age’ of radio in 1930, radios were in roughly 40% of US homes. By 1938, more than half of all US homes had radios. Thus, Welles was able to take advantage of the wide penetration of a medium to which people were still very much naive. That said, even when adaptations were broadcast in Chile in 1944 and Ecuador in 1949, similar (if not larger) panics ensued, suggesting that its timing played a far smaller role than is widely thought.
It would be unfair to call either The War of the Worlds or Ghostwatch hoaxes. They weren’t created with the intention to mislead; rather, they were created as short, exceptionally convincing and immersive forms of entertainment. In order to construct a believable reality, they adopted the camouflage and traditions of familiar and trustworthy programmes on radio and TV – news broadcasts and live documentaries – and made the medium of those programmes the message. In both cases, interviews, overlapping and awkward dialogue, transmission problems and dead air were all employed to intensify the reality.
In today’s world, where we are presented with a torrent of entertainment and information through a multitude of easily accessible media, it would be tempting to say that not only are people too sophisticated to fall for shows like The War of the Worlds and Ghostwatch again, but also that they are essentially impossible to repeat now since people would cross-check these extraordinary stories with other media. Neither position is the case.
People do not ‘believe’ in shows like Ghostwatch because they are somehow always more naive in the past; they believe because they are naive to the way in which the medium of a trusted information source can be mimicked to convey a fictional reality. Certainly few would believe The War of the Worlds if it was broadcast on radio today because we are all now aware of how easy it is to fake broadcasts, but we are always still naive to relatively new forms of media.
New media brings new challenges as well as new opportunities for these types of shows. If Ghostwatch was broadcast again today, it would be trivial to jump on the internet afterwards and discover that the show was a fake. However, if the BBC altered its own online news and information websites to corroborate the show, it would no doubt still convince many. Indeed, the internet has proved its own power by propagating a whole new family of hoaxes from Nigerian scam emails to urban myths about Bill Gates giving away free money. Just like any other medium, the internet can be used to deliberately create an ‘constructed reality’ – a story that presents itself as being real.
Many of the same barriers faced by Welles and the BBC still exist on the internet in different forms. On the radio and TV, trusted broadcasters with a captive audience such as the BBC can get away with announcing constructed reality shows as if they were normal, and with using familiar faces as presenters. On the internet, there is no captive audience and it would be necessary to create entirely new sites to be used in the constructed reality, or enlist the help of existing sites. On the one hand, this is more difficult because more work is involved in attracting a large audience, but on the other hand, it is inherently cheaper to make a convincing website than it is to make a convincing TV show. Yet in order to create a reality as powerful as The War of the Worlds, far more money would have to be spent setting up entire networks of fake sites and individuals just to counter the audience checking other online sources.
The tactics mentioned above are exactly those used in the construction of internet alternate reality games (ARGs) such as The Beast or I Love Bees, whose main aim is to tell a story, generally over the internet but also through other media, that immerses the audience and makes them believe it is real. Seen in the context of constructed reality productions such as The War of the Worlds, it is clear that ARGs are not a new idea – they are simply the newest instance of an idea almost as old as storytelling itself – of storytellers constructing fictional realities, by deliberately mimicking the trusted information sources of media in order to create more realistic and affecting stories.
In 1924, author James Hogg wrote The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner using a now well-known framing device to lend the book a deeper sense of realism, by “taking the familiar form of a first-person narrative from a manuscript or printed original discovered by an editor, and embedded in [the editor's] own account of its finding and significance.” The book unnerved Hogg’s contemporaries, who did not know what to make of it, a situation startlingly similar to that of other constructed realities created later, no doubt due to the way in which Hogg presented the story. More recent novels such as Possession, The Name of the Rose and The Princess Bride employ similar framing devices to increase the immersion of their readers. One of my friends believed that Florin was real after reading The Princess Bride!
Going back further still to approximately 1875 BC, the most popular ancient Egyptian story ever (measured by number of extant copies), The Tale of Sinuhe, is written in the format of a true autobiography of the type found on stelae and uses precise dates, all presumably to increase the readers’ belief in the story’s reality. Parts of the story are also presented as copies of real letters, written between the King and the protagonist.
It is clear that storytellers throughout history have repeatedly and independently discovered that increasing the audience’s belief in a story can provide a more affecting and engaging experience. All of these artificers of fictional realities have used the same strategies: ancient Egyptian stories used fake letters; Welles used a fake news broadcast; the BBC used a fake live documentary; and ARGs use a network of fake news and personal websites.
Every development of a new form of media has improved on previous forms in some way, with ever more colours, sounds and information being presented to us in more places, increasing the potential believability of constructed realities. It was never thought necessary to place disclaimers at the beginnings of books like The Princess Bride because the authors knew it would destroy the fragile illusion, and in any case, the potential for a dangerous mishap was low (mostly due to a low audience). With radio and TV, audiences are far larger and constructed realities are more elaborate and believable, hence the increased risk perceived by production companies and the presence of disclaimers.
Furthermore, radio and TV are broadcast in real time and convey real time information, enhancing their believability. Books, computer games and movies such as Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, while believable, are qualitatively less ‘real’ because they describe events that occurred in the past; also, movies and games tend to be explicitly entertainment, not documentaries. Hence any live medium has the advantage of being more immediate and providing a mass collective experience, which appears to help credibility. Live media imbues stories with a sense of engagement and participation in following events as they happen.
The current state of media is not only one that is deep, rich and interactive, but also co-ordinated across different channels such as TV, radio, print and the internet, and thus totally pervasive. This is the space in which alternate reality games have grown in their attempt to create constructed realities that are not limited to a single medium.
The exact reason why ARGs have been heralded as a new form of entertainment stems directly from the fact that the cost of producing content on the internet is considerably lower than that for other media. The comparative high cost of radio and TV productions has meant that funding has come from risk-averse bodies; in the case of Ghostwatch, the BBC desperately wanted (and failed) to put a disclaimer at the start of the show, which would have destroyed its entire effect. Consequently, there have been very few such constructed reality productions.
In contrast, the low cost of producing internet content means that entire games can be produced by individuals unconcerned by the risk and not interested in profit, resulting in the proliferation of ARGs and their subsequent popularity and labelling as a new genre of games and a new form of entertainment. Two shows is not enough for a trend, but dozens of ARGs in the space of three years are (interestingly, books have been largely ignored in the rush to declare a revolutionary new medium because they do not cause the same kinds of mass effects – and because they are old).
To date, ARGs are nowhere near comparable to The War of the Worlds in terms of believability and inciting mass panic (or any other effect) because most involve stories that are plainly fictional (often science fiction or fantasy), or because they are poorly written and executed. Yet it is only a matter of time before someone intentionally creates an constructed reality in which the audience is not simply playing along with the story (e.g., I Love Bees, or any popular TV soap opera) but actually participating and truly believing in it.
Creating such an encompassing constructed reality is not any more irresponsible than the creation of The War of the Worlds or Ghostwatch. They were first and foremost made to be entertainment, not hoaxes, and they were not intentionally made to incite panic. Indeed, the panic generated by those shows has been exaggerated by the media – The War of the Worlds did cause panic, but in only 20% of its audience. The same proportion is probably true of Ghostwatch. Constructed realities can do far more than scare people; on a more basic level, books such as The Princess Bride or The Name of the Rose have shown that their framing devices can heighten realism and increase the readers’ enjoyment.
Alternate reality games are not a novel concept; to believe that would be to ignore the past. Instead, they are part of a long lineage of constructed realities that have graced every type of media in history and the logical next step of constructed realities, with the greatest potential ever to immerse and involve participants in a believable story.
With the lessons learned from the last 3900 years and more, we can create more memorable and affecting forms of entertainment and education using the techniques of constructed realities with the latest technologies. If Orson Welles – one of the greatest ever reality artificers – were alive today, he would be creating an alternate reality game.
I would like to thank Margaret Maitland for invaluable assistance in the research, editing and proofreading of this article.
A full list of sources is available by clicking on the Links and References link at the bottom of the page (unless you are already on the single page view of this article, in which case you can simply scroll down past the Notes to see them).
 There is some debate on the size of the panic caused by the broadcast. Hadley Cantril, the leading researcher of The War of the Worlds and its effects, estimated that between one to two million people panicked following the broadcast. Evidence of the panic includes the switchboard of the New York Times receiving 875 calls on the night of the broadcast, and over 800 people calling the Brooklyn police headquarters on the same night.
Did this panic mean ‘merely’ being very afraid, or did it translate into hysterical mass flight? I have to admit that I haven’t researched this area as much as I would have liked, and anything more substantial than anecdotal evidence of panic in the streets is frustratingly difficult to come by. However, notwithstanding the media’s tendency to exaggerate such events, newspapers such as the New York Times mentioned dozens of instances of people fleeing, e.g.,
Thirty men and women rushed into the West 123d Street police station and twelve into the West 135th Street station saying they had their household goods packed and were all ready to leave Harlem if the police would tell them where to go to be “evacuated.” One man insisted he had heard “the President’s voice” over the radio advising all citizens to leave the cities. (from the NYT, Oct 31, 1938).
While later studies have criticised Cantril for inaccurate extrapolations of numbers from a small sample of interviews, whether or not hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands people fled into the streets, it is undeniable that the broadcast terrified a substantial fraction of its 6 million listeners.
 This explanation is probably overrated, although it does make for a good story. The segment after the opening act of the Chase and Sanborn Hour was music by Nelson Eddy. In Hadley Cantril’s 1940 Princenton University study “The Invasion From Mars”, he argues that Nelson Eddy was what caused the ‘dial twisting’ that made people switch over to the Mercury Theater. However, Elizabeth McLeod claims that a careful examination of the survey and statistics used by Cantril makes for a less convincing picture (original link, local copy – 3/4 down the page).
In brief, Cantril sent out 846 survey cards to listeners of The War of the Worlds. Only 18% of responders indicated they had heard part of the C&S Hour and 62% of those indicated that they had switched over during Nelson Eddy’s act. This is not an awfully large percentage and of course ignores the vast number of listeners who stayed tuned to the entirety of the C&S Hour; the Hooper Rating for the Mercury Theater at the time was 3.6 million, compared to 35 million for the C&S. Cantril claims that 6 million people listened to The War of the Worlds that night – much higher than average, to be sure, but 18% of 6 million is 1.08 million, a mere 3% of the C&S Hour’s audience!
If the statistics are correct, then then the simple fact remains that 82% of the listeners to The War of the Worlds didn’t hear any part of the Chase and Sanborn Hour – they may have been listening to other shows and tuned in after the disclaimer, but to lay the blame on Nelson Eddy is attributing rather more importance to him than he deserves. A small but intriguing fact.
 The 1944 broadcast in Santiago, Chile, caused the governor of one province to briefly mobilise army units to repel the invading Martians. During another broadcast in 1949 in Quito, Ecuador, tens of thousands of people fled into the streets. When it was finally understood that the radio play was fictional, a mob set fire to the radio station concerned, resulting in the deaths of fifteen people. The Ecuador broadcast was even more realistic than Welles’ as it used actors to impersonate a number of well-known local politicians and journalists, perhaps explaining the heightened effects.
A key feature of Ghostwatch and The War of the Worlds is their length. Both were less than 90 minutes long and could be consumed in a single unbroken sitting. Creating a similarly brief ARG would be impossible due to the limitations of the internet and other media; broadcast media can take advantage of a large captive audience accustomed to sitting still for hours, whereas the same is not the case for ‘lean forward’ and ‘push’ media such as the internet.
Instead, an ARG would require a far longer lead-in period, during which time the various fake sites and individuals are introduced and background information laid down. It would probably have to be slower paced as well, to build trust and credibility, with a fast and dramatic ending that captivated players (preventing them from taking a breath and cross-checking with other sources). But basically, I don’t know – no-one has tried anything like this before and it would take a lot of thought to time properly.
I am not convinced that an ARG deliberately created to be believable could directly generate money; it would have to involve advertising or promote another product. Both routes are potentially dangerous in terms of reducing the believability of the ARG. I find it more likely that these types of ARGs would be non-profit, freeing them of the myriad troublesome constraints of commercial productions and opening them up to the possibility of being vehicles for education as well as entertainment.
 ARGs can be perfectly entertaining without being totally believable, as recent productions have shown. Many ARG creators are prepared to accept that certain aspects of their game will require some suspension of disbelief so that they can be set in fantastical worlds. However, unlike any other previous form of entertainment, ARGs place an incredible amount of importance on making themselves as believable as possible wherever they can.
 Numerous computer games have used framing devices to create constructed realities. Unfortunately, since it is so obvious to players that they are playing a computer game that they have bought along with thousands of others, framing devices are invariably limited to ‘you have hacked into an outside computer system, now uncover a conspiracy’, such as that seen in Uplink. This can make for an interesting and immersive story, but not one that players can truly believe in.
Massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) such as Everquest or World of Warcraft are largely in the same situation. While they do have the advantage of being live, they are also obviously entertainment products and are set in explicitly fictional fantasy or science fiction worlds. Any MMOG that attempted to create a credible constructed reality would end up looking more an ARG than a typical MMOG.
On movies: If Stephen Spielberg wanted to create the sense of fear and panic that The War of the Worlds radio broadcast made, he should have made it as an alternate reality game, not as a movie. Sadly, the opportunity has now been missed.
 The most effective constructed reality production would be made over a number of media, including TV, radio, newspapers, magazine and the internet. Despite the apparent low cost of entry for internet-centric ARGs, well-produced cross-media constructed realities will cost far more than any previous shows in order to maintain the depth and involvement that modern audiences expect. Taking full advantage of the responsiveness of the internet and other interactive media will require serious money.
Due to the cost it will no doubt be first attempted by companies such as the BBC or AOL/Time Warner, and no doubt be done poorly due to fear of taking risks. This can be seen with the BBC’s Jamie Kane game (April 2005) which goes some of the way of employing different media but has numerous faults.
Electronic Arts’ ill-fated Majestic ARG (2001) also employed a number of different media and had the interesting framing device of the developer of the game being destroyed by a conspiracy. However, anyone who believed that the story was real would have swiftly been brought back to reality by the rigidly episodic nature of the game, and the fact that it required a subscription (not that EA were intentionally trying to create a believable constructed reality anyway; they just wanted to make money).
 ARGs obviously have a number of qualitative differences to previous constructed realities, most notably that they hold the potential for interaction. However, this potential has yet to be fully realised and they are still fundamentally about creating constructed realities in order to convey a better story.
Related to this is the potential for branching or non-linear storylines in ARGs that change according to player actions, a feature not possible in previous constructed realities. Whether or not truly non-linear storylines are desirable or even feasible is still to be shown. Though it is widely believed that major ARGs such The Beast or I Love Bees had non-linear storylines, proper study of the games shows that while they were responsive to players, they were still chiefly pre-scripted, with any responses preserving the overall arc of the story and not requiring any serious changes in pre-written content.
Sean Stewart, the writer for both ARGs, believes that allowing players to have any substantial control over the plot would not only result in a worse story than a planned one, but also it would be essentially impossible in terms of work involved and actual execution (in conversation, 2005). What The Beast and I Love Bees did instead was to create the illusion of non-linear storylines by apparently changing the story according to a specifically chosen player action; of course, any changes were pre-planned or relatively minor.
Some smaller ARGs have had more directly interactive non-linear storylines, but they have had far smaller audiences in the hundreds or thousands instead of millions, far less content and far less engaging or believable stories. There is no one ‘true way’ to create an ARG and some will have more interaction than others, but I believe that the heart of an ARG is to create an immersive, believable fictional reality, and that any interaction is solely to serve that goal, not the goal in itself.
BBC Ghostwatch website, with an informative interview with the writer, Stephen Volk.
British Film Institute Ghostwatch DVD site (available to buy as region 2).
The War of The Worlds
Most statistics and figures for The War of the Worlds are from sources referencing Hadley Cantril’s 1940 Princeton University study “The Invasion from Mars”.
The Skeptical Inquirer: The Martian Panic Sixty Years Later. A very detailed article on the effects and panic caused by the original Welles broadcast and later adaptations in Chile and Ecuador (local copy).
Critique Magazine: Orson Welles, The New Deal, and The Mercury Theatre on the Air. A broader look at Orson Welles and The War of the Worlds (local copy).
Miscellaneous War of The Worlds information. Some very interesting gems in here including excerpts of news articles from the New York Times and other media in the days and weeks following the broadcast (local copy).
Heyer, Paul (2003). America Under Attack 1: The War of the Worlds, Orson Welles, and ‘Media Sense’. Canadian Journal of Communication (28:2). An excellent paper examining exactly how and why The War of the Worlds was so effective in creating panic (local copy).
Other general sources