The Panicking Audiences of Early Film and Radio

The next seminar session will focus on a very particular media fantasy: the story of the “train effect”, according to which the first audiences of Lumière brothers’ cinematograph were so shocked by the spectacle of film to take it for real, panicking before the image of a train coming in their direction. As Martin Loiperdinger documented in this week’s required reading, however, this anecdote was not based on a real event: it is, instead, a pure fantasy, an act of imagination.

Why did this fake anecdote have such a powerful influence in the way we understand the cinematic medium, as the persistence of this story in contemporary film history and press reports demonstrate? In the seminar, we will discuss how the fantasy of the train effect was connected to representations of film as a powerful manipulative machine, which was able to deceive human spectators, to make them exchange an illusion for reality.

To see how this fantasy of deceptive machines was not limited to film, but also had a role in the perception of other media technologies, we will then turn the story of another “panicking audience”: the reaction to Orson Welles’ radio drama “The War of the Worlds,” which in 1938 stimulated a wave of panic in American listeners who believed this was a report about a true invasion of the Martians. Although such reactions are, unlike the anecdote of the train effect, historically documented, the relevance of this anecdote in the history of radio suggests that it is connected to fears and fantasies about the manipulative power of broadcasting.

Let’s conclude with an important practical note: on Monday, before addressing this topic, we will take some time to discuss the organization of the presentation sessions. You will be able to talk to other students, exchange email and contacts, and plan group presentation. Please come with some idea about which kind of presentation you would like to do and a topic you would like to address.


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