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'Original fear': University of Calgary marks 85 years of Wells (and Welles)

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Staff inside the University of Calgary archives are prepping a new exhibit that'll look at the works of H.G. Wells and the author's ongoing cultural impact. 

The library's Special Collections is currently home to two groups of Wells memorabilia: everything from books, to original letters, to first-run publications. 

"(Wells) is considered one of the fathers of science fiction," librarian Annie Murray said. "So this will have mass appeal beyond just literary fans." 

The exhibit is being organized at a very apropos time, as Monday marks the 85-year anniversary of a notorious radio play adaptation of Wells' 1898 novel, War of the Worlds.

The CBS Radio event was put on by legendary director Orson Welles on October 30 and presented as an actual newscast about an alien invasion. 

Its ensuing "widespread public chaos" is now infamous, though maybe somewhat misrepresented. 

"In discussing radio and its cultural impact, we do often talk about the War of the Worlds broadcast," U of C Critical Media Studies professor Annie Rudd said. "(At the time), radio was still a medium whose possibilities were being explored, and it was a source of concern around what its propaganda potential could be and what it might encourage people to do."

"That was used to incite fear amongst the public," Murray said. "But it was partially due to (newspaper) embellishment."

Some of that proof is featured in one of the school's collections. 

The front page of the Calgary Daily Herald on Halloween 1938, the day after broadcast, suggests nationwide outrage. 

Murray laughed as she referred to it as the beginning of fake news. 

"Media historians who have researched this topic have found relatively little evidence of mass panic," Rudd added. "But can think about it as an episode that tells us something about the value of fear, either way."

Murray believes the Welles event says a lot about the author Wells and his writing. 

"Wells could tap into some terrors we have, some paranoia, and could look at developments in society and say 'maybe this is a bit troubling,'" she said. 

Organization of the exhibit -- likely titled H.G. Wells: A Scientific Romance -- is ongoing. It will run this April at the university's Nickle Galleries.

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