This month, it’s time to dim the lights and gather around the wireless for a midnight broadcast, as we look back on an age when some of the scariest stories ever written went out over the radio waves. When a whole nation was enthralled and appalled by Old Time Radio Horror.
Old Time Radio, also known as the Golden Age of Radio, refers to a period of American broadcasting history that runs from the very early 1930s to the late 1950s. During this time hundreds of popular radio dramas were broadcast across the country. These shows ranged from comedies to crime thrillers, from super hero adventures to the first ever soap operas. The shows had tremendous productions standards, attracted top Hollywood talent and regularly drew audiences of millions. Many are fondly remembered to this day.
Among the most fondly remembered of the Old Time Radio shows are the horror anthologies. It’s not hard to see why either, as a medium, radio drama lends itself almost perfectly to horror, combining the best of horror fiction with the best of horror films. It taps into that primal instinct to tell scary stories around a late night campfire, that goes back to the very beginning of our civilization. Many of the shows would be broadcast around midnight and the shows’ hosts would often invite listeners to turn out the lights to enhance the listening experience.
The biggest advantage Old Time Radio has over other mediums, is its ability to use the audience’s imagination. Using sound effects, dialogue and narration, the radio drama places the listener right in the heart of the action by inviting them to picture everything for themselves. This also gives it a special effects budget larger than any Hollywood blockbuster. Although ‘leaving things to the audiences imagination’ in modern parlance often means shying away from any graphic depictions of violence, this was far from the case with Old Time Radio Horror. It could often show remarkable restraint, but it could also depict scenarios so gruesome they would put most episodes of The Walking Dead to shame. What’s more, because none of these excesses were ever shown, the shows could get away with all kinds of things at a time when cinema couldn’t show a single drop of blood. Some of these shows really did scare the daylights out of grown adults and they have lost little of their power to shock.
The first OTR horror show was The Witches Tale, the brain child of writer-director Alonzo Deen Cole, who convinced the WOR station to launch a supernatural show, in 1931, to compete with the other music shows that broadcast in the midnight slot. The Witches Tale was an immediate sensation and soon had the highest late night ratings. Each week the old witch Nancy, who was “a hundred and 17 years old”, introduced listeners to a different tale of terror, in the company of her wise old black cat, Salem. Cole often played the lead character in each tale and his wife Marie O’Flynn took the female lead. The tales are sometimes a little melodramatic for todays audiences, but the best of what survives stands up to the best Universal horror films of the period.
Old Nancy was originally played by 79 year old Adelaide Fitz-Allen, but sadly the actress passed away after the first season. Adelaide was then replaced by the thirteen year old child actor Miriam Wolfe. Wolfe astonished Cole at her audition with her ability to sound like far more of an ancient crone than the mature actresses who tried out for the role. Wolfe played the part of Nancy for the rest of the show’s eight year run. Nancy was the eventual inspiration for EC Comic’s famous character The Old Witch, who hosted the comic Haunt of Fear from 1951 to 1954.
Sadly, of the 332 episodes of The Witches Tale, that were broadcast, only 13 have survived. They are worth checking out though, mainly for the important place they hold in the history of radio horror, and are all available online.
The success of The Witches Tale soon inspired other horror shows. Chief among them is the infamous Lights Out which was even more influential on EC Comics, not to mention many later ground breaking TV Shows from Outer Limits to Tales from the Crypt. It was created in 1934 by Wyllis Cooper who handed the show over to Arch Obler in 1936. Obler went on to write and direct some of the most memorable, gruesome and truly terrifying radio episodes that were broadcast in the thirties and forties. Episodes like ‘Chicken Heart’, ‘Cat Wife’, ‘The Dark’, ‘Murder Castle’ and ‘Valse Trieste’ had a huge impact on audiences of the day and went on to influence everyone from Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling to comedian Bill Cosby. In 1947 Cooper took back over the series and wrote scripts for it until 1949. Lights Out eventually became a live television show and then a syndicated show from 1949 to 1952, Obler wasn’t involved in this series but Cooper wrote a few scripts for it.
After leaving Lights Out, Cooper went on to create the equally brilliant Quiet Please which featured Ernest Chappell in a different role every week. The show ran until the middle of 1949 and broadcast 106 episodes in the end. It didn’t have anywhere near the influence that Lights Out did in its day, but it has gone on to be recognised as a classic of the genre by both fans and scholars of Old Time Radio. Episodes like ‘Tanglefoot’, ‘The Third Man’s Story’ and especially ‘The Thing On The Fourble Board’ remain genuinely chilling to this day.
There has long been a grey area between horror and the farther reaches of crime fiction and this was never more the case than with Old Time Radio. Shows like Inner Sanctum ran crime stories with a horror edge that often spilled over into seemingly supernatural occurrences. The supernatural elements were always explained away at the end of the show though, usually as hoaxes perpetrated by some criminal for a nefarious end, no doubt influencing later shows like Scooby Do. The Inner Sanctum’s host, Raymond, created the template for just about every punning horror host that came afterwards, from EC’s The Crypt Keeper to DC’s Cain and Abel and from late night TV’s Ghoulardi to Elvira, Mistress of the dark.
Suspense was a big budget mystery show that broadcast a mix of crime and horror stories from 1942 to 1962. Suspense didn’t explain away the supernatural though, it reveled in it, broadcasting adaptations of everyone from M.R. James to Lovecraft and Poe, not to mention original scripts of occasional genius by writers like Lucille Fletcher such as The Hitchhiker and Sorry, Wrong Number, which are undisputed classics of the field. Also worthy of mention is Escape, which ran a similar mix of crime and horror, from 1947 to 1954, including such out and out classics of pure terror as ‘Evening Primrose’ (adapted from the story by John Collier) and ‘Three Skeleton Key’.
Many of the biggest names in Hollywood horror made frequent appearances on Old Time Radio shows. Boris Karloff did some of his best work for Lights Out and Inner Sanctum, Vincent Price did fabulous work for Escape and even had his own show on BBC Radio in the 1970s called The Price of Fear which proved to be one of the highlights of his distinguished career. Peter Lorre was never more intense, nor more unnerving, than in the weekly leading roles he took in Mystery in the Air his short lived, but much loved, radio horror vehicle.
By the late 1950s, television had eclipsed radio as the pre-eminent medium of mass entertainment and, by the early 1960s, old time radio shows were mostly replaced by DJs and talk radio. However, radio horror hung on in there, long after the westerns and the police procedurals had disappeared from the airwaves. Shows like The Black Mass which ran from 1963 to 1967 and the South African radio show Beyond Midnight, kept the flame burning. While BBC Radio also made certain the flame was never extinguished, with shows like Fear On Four and Haunted.
In spite of many commentators declaring radio horror stone dead in the 1970s, one show pulled the rotting stake from its heart and managed to reanimate its corpse for an impressive nine years from 1974 to 1982. That show was CBS Radio Mystery Theater which became a huge hit with older audiences who still remembered the old shows and teenage audiences who were caught up in the 1950s nostalgia boom of the time.
Finally the torch was passed on to Nightfall which was aired on the Canadian CBC Radio Network between July 1980 and June 1983. At it’s best Nightfall could provoke and disturb its audiences far more effectively than any of the more extreme ‘video nasties’ of the period. Shows like ‘The Repossession’ and ‘The Blood Countess’ shocked and appalled their audiences with their ferociously visceral storylines, bringing in record numbers of accolades and complaints alike.
Today the cause of radio horror has been taken up by podcasts like Tales From Beyond the Pale, The NoSleep Podcast, Pseudopod: The Sound of Horror, We’re Alive: A Story of Survival and the all time classic Welcome to Nightvale. With the superior acting, sound effects and scriptwriting of these various podcasts, it’s very possible that we’re undergoing a new renaissance in audio horror. It’s also undeniable that all of these new shows owe a huge debt to Old Time Radio Horror.
If you’ve never listened to any OTR Horror before, hopefully I’ve whetted your appetite. With this in mind, I’ve included five examples of, what I consider, some of the scariest stories ever broadcast. If you have listened to OTR Horror before, then maybe you’d like to check them out and let me know some of your favourite episodes in the comments below.
So, draw the curtains, turn out the lights, plug in your favourite headphones (or speakers) and let these five episodes transport you to a time when radio had the power to terrify a whole nation. You’ll be glad you did.
Trust your Uncle Jasp on this, you know it makes sense.
Written by the sublime Arch Obler this episode of Lights Out sees two city girls kidnapped by a backwoods maniac and forced to vie for his favours, because he intends to marry one of them and kill the other…
THE THING ON THE FOURBLE BOARD
Wyllis Cooper’s classic episode of Quiet Please is probably the single scariest story you’ll ever hear about an oil derrick, do not pass this up.
Starring Vincent Price this episode of Escape tells the story of three men trapped in a remote lighthouse under siege from an army of rats. Guaranteed to have you reaching for the warfarin.
Adapted by Ray Bradbury from his short story of the same name, this episode is the ultimate in stories about scary children. Broadcast originally on Escape it so disturbed the listeners that they had a record number of complaints. This didn’t stop Suspense from bringing it back to the air though in this terrifying version.
Another show that brought a record number of complaints when it was broadcast on 26th of September 1980 as part of the now legendary Canadian radio series Nightfall. This is the twisted tale of Robert Stroud, a man haunted by the spirit of his dead conjoined twin, who wants only one thing from him … his still beating heart.
These are a handful of my favourites, I’d love to hear yours.