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An Alternate History of Horror VII: Lights Out

By Ryan Fleming

This series has so far looked at the development of the horror genre largely in its literary and cinematic form. This does not mean that it was a direct leap from the written word to the silver screen, there was a mid-point between the horror novel and the horror film. As described in our most recent article on the Hollywood horror films of the 1930s and 1940s, it was discussed how those successful film versions of Dracula and Frankenstein were in fact direct adaptations from the stage play adaptations by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston than the original novels by Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley.

The same mid-point can be seen between the horror short story and their television adaptations. Those pulp magazine stories of the 1930s were seeing adaptations into other media in very quick order from their original publication. The format of those would go on to influence the format and presentation of the television adaptations of the same stories in later decades. This media format would also feature plenty of original tales of terror and give opportunities to younger writers that would move on to become famous in film and television in their own right. That media was radio and in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s it was the most readily available popular entertainment to the masses.

Radio dramas, or audio dramas, are a unique medium that relies so much on the listener’s imagination. Since it is very rare that anything shown visually will ever be as terrifying as what someone’s imagination can come up with in the right circumstances, this made radio an enticing format for horror fiction. There was a glut of radio anthology series during the Golden Age of Radio in the United States. The decline in radio overall with the rise of television, not just in the US but elsewhere in the world, saw these similarly decline and fade from public consciousness. New media types in the 21st century offered a way for such storytelling to be revived, but still a far cry away from their heyday.

During the Great Depression, radios offered millions the opportunity to enjoy comedy, drama, music, and other forms of entertainment in their own homes for free. Such was its reach that from 1933 to 1944 President Franklin D. Roosevelt would use the medium to reach out directly to the electorate via his ‘fireside chats’. Horror fiction was not left out of the popular entertainment medium, with each of the four major networks having their own series of tales. As with the pulp magazines of the era, the definition of what was horror or fantasy or thriller or science fiction were not well-defined, so these series would often venture beyond the boundaries we might impose today.

The first horror radio drama was The Witch’s Tale, from the Mutual Broadcasting System, which debuted in 1931 and ran until 1938. Though this did feature some literary adaptations (including Frankenstein in 1935), most of the episodes were original tales. Its lasting contribution to horror fiction may be the idea of the horror host. Each episode was hosted by Old Nancy, the titular witch, voiced by Adelaide Fitz-Allen and by either Miriam Wolfe or Martha Wentworth following Fitz-Allen’s 1935 death. Later horror radio series would replicate the host concept. Old Nancy would also be a direct influence on EC Comics’s Old Witch, host of The Haunt of Fear and stablemate of the Crypt-Keeper (of Tales from the Crypt) and the Vault-Keeper (of The Vault of Horror). Horror hosts would also play a part in keeping the Universal monster films alive from 1957 onward when that studio sold a package of them as Shock! to television networks across the US and encouraged the use of hosts. Original television horror or science fiction anthologies would also replicate the format, with Alfred Hitchcock, Boris Karloff and Rod Serling serving as host of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller and The Twilight Zone, respectively.

Another influential horror program of the 1930s was Lights Out, first broadcast in 1934 by NBC. It was created by Wyllis Cooper, and unlike The Witch’s Tale it delivered explicit gore over the airwaves. This was done firmly tongue-in-cheek, but it was still too much when the program went national, and the explicit nature was toned down. The reins of the program were passed to Arch Oboler in 1936 and Lights Out went on to further success, even managing to lure Boris Karloff from Hollywood for a quintet of episodes. Under Oboler it continued to have a tongue-in-cheek attitude, but would vary with more straight storytelling, often adopting antifascist themes. Unfortunately, like other series of the 1930s many of the original recordings of episodes are lost. The scripts would however be re-recorded during revivals in the 1940s, or in Cooper’s 1947-1949 successor series Quiet, Please. In between his two-radio series, Cooper scripted Son of Frankenstein for Universal, in the process creating the misshapen assistant to the doctor, Ygor. The scripts were being used at least as late as the 1960s, when a stereo album from Oboler re-recorded his script “The Dark” about a mysterious fog that turns people inside out, complete with vivid, chilling sound effects. It’s the version from this album, Drop Dead!, that likely inspired the titular characters on The Simpsons turning inside out and doing a Broadway number in 1994, sixty years after Lights Out had first aired.

Photo of Orson Welles meeting with reporters in an effort to explain that no one connected with the War of the Worlds radio broadcast had any idea the show would cause panic.

Perhaps the most famous single radio drama of the 1930s, or ever, in any genre, was the 1938 adaptation of H. G. Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds by Orson Welles. It aired as the Halloween episode of The Mercury Theatre on the Air, which had already dabbled in horror before with an adaptation of Dracula starring Welles as the Count. It is famous, and infamous, for convincing some listeners that a Martian invasion had actually happened due to the first part of the broadcast masquerading as a news report of the initial landing. This was overblown by the media and outrage was manufactured to where Welles issued an apology at a news conference the next day. On the other hand, it probably made his career.

Welles would also star in a 1942 episode of Suspense, like Mercury aired by CBS, as a young man driving cross-country haunted by a mysterious hitch-hiker. That script, “The Hitch-Hiker” by Lucille Fletcher, would later be adapted for television almost two decades later for The Twilight Zone by Rod Serling, with the Welles role changed to a young woman played by Inger Stevens. Fletcher would also contribute “Sorry, Wrong Number” to Suspense, in 1943, starring Agnes Moorhead as a bedridden woman who overhears a murder plot over a crossed telephone line. It would be re-recorded seven times, always with Moorhead, with the last coming in 1960, two years before Suspense itself wrapped its 20-year run. In addition to original scripts, Suspense would feature adaptations from authors such as H. P. Lovecraft, with its pilot episode actually being directed by Alfred Hitchcock as a radio remake of his 1927 film The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog. It also had a sister series, Escape (1947-1954) which focused more on adventure than thrillers but often staged the same scripts. A notable episode of Escape, John Collier’s “Evening Primrose”, would become more famous when it was adapted for television as a musical in 1967 by Steven Sondheim.

With the rise of television in the United States following the Second World War, several of these radio anthologies saw television adaptations during the 1940s and early 1950s. Lights Out being one such example that saw its audience plummet when I Love Lucy began airing opposite it, that sitcom ironically being directed by German-born horror film director Karl Freund. In general, as television grew more popular the fortunes of radio declined. At their height a horror radio anthology could actually inspire a series of motion pictures, as shown by Universal’s six adaptations of ABC’s Inner Sanctum Mystery from 1943 to 1945 starring Lon Chaney. Aside from the march of technology, changing tastes also saw a shift from the supernatural and thrillers towards science fiction, with NBC airing a science fiction focused series under the name Dimension X and then X Minus One for most of the 1950s. Those series were far more focused on literary adaptations than original scripts, and the decade provided plenty of material for it. It was the last of the great fantasy, horror, and science fiction radio anthologies in the United States.

Despite revivals like CBS Radio Mystery Theater (1974-1982), by the 1960s television had totally and utterly eclipsed radio as far as most forms of entertainment went. Rod Serling, one of television’s early wunderkinds who had cut his teeth on radio drama, claimed that radio drama “dug its own grave” and “willingly settled for second best.” The cards may have been stacked against radio from the start, however, those familiar with US network television might notice some similarities between the three letter acronyms of the radio stations mentioned with television networks still in operation today. Of the four major US radio networks of the Golden Era, three of them also went on to become major television networks. Only Mutual, the only one of the four where the individual stations owned the network under a co-operative agreement rather than the other way around, did not make the transition. Radio however must have been good practice for television, since there were four US television networks during the 1950s and the only one that did not survive the decade, the DuMont Television Network, was the only one that did not start out as a radio network.

The relationship between television and radio networks is not unique to the United States. Like the American networks, the British Broadcasting Corporation was already well-established as a radio network before its first forays into television. In fact, the BBC was the only radio network due to its royal charter. The United Kingdom actually had independent television before it had independent radio. ITV launched in 1955, whereas the first (legal) independent radio station (University Radio York) only began broadcasting in 1969. It followed the ‘pirate’ radio stations of the 1960s that broadcast popular music the BBC would not play from offshore ships or abandoned sea forts in international waters. Oddly, despite the occasional moral panic that has flared up about horror content in the UK since at least the 1930s, the BBC would broadcast their own horror anthologies from the 1940s.

Appointment with Fear debuted on the BBC Home Service in 1943 and would run on that service and then the Light Programme until 1955. Episodes throughout its nine series run were largely written by author John Dickson Carr as a mix between original scripts and adaptations of authors like Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Following the tradition of Old Nancy, Appointment with Fear featured a horror host: the Man in Black, voiced by Valentine Dyall. The series was popular enough to see a film adaptation in 1950 under the name The Man in Black. Dyall reprised his role on screen, whilst top-billing went to a young Sid James in a non-comedic role. The film adaptation was by Hammer Film Productions, though this predates their proper foray into horror by a number of years. If the film had been more successful, it is possible further adaptations would have followed, and Hammer’s horror output would not only have started earlier but also have had a far more modern, thriller bent than their pseud-Victorian, supernatural oeuvre. One series of the radio program would actually be broadcast as The Man in Black in 1949, which John Kier Cross taking script duties and with all the stories being adaptations from authors including M. R. James and Bram Stoker. Dyall again played the title character.

Following the end of Appointment with Fear, horror content on the BBC went dormant. This was despite Hammer producing a plethora of UK horror films from the 1950s-70s, along with a few other companies like Amicus and Tigon. The BBC did not shy away from horror content on television, either, attempting short-lived horror anthologies under the name of Late Night Horror (1968), Dead of Night (1972), and Supernatural (1977), as well as their annual A Ghost Story for Christmas strand. Though the first of those was cancelled following viewer complaints, perhaps an early unsung victory for Mary Whitehouse’s National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association. One horror effort from BBC radio following the 1950s was The Price of Fear, which broadcast in three series between 1973 and 1983 and featured Hollywood horror star Vincent Price narrating, and sometimes starring as himself, in adaptations of literary horror. Price also appeared in a number of standalone horror serials for the BBC during the 1970s: Night of the Wolf was broadcast in 1975 and was originally intended to star James Stewart and Aliens in the Mind dabbled into science fiction, pairing Price with fellow horror star Peter Cushing. Night of the Wolf was written by Victor Pemberton, and Aliens in the Mind by Robert Holmes, both of whom had served as script editor for the television programme Doctor Who. Doctor Who, although ostensibly science fiction, often touched directly upon horror themes in the 1960s and especially the 1970s, much to the chagrin of Whitehouse and her ilk. Pemberton had also written Doctor Who and the Pescatons, an experimental audio drama released to LP in 1976 and starring the series leads Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen. The experiment did not bear much fruit at the time, but audio and Doctor Who would reunite in later decades.

Appointment with Fear was revived in 1976 for a single series, with Dyall returning to the role of the Man in Black. Two years later he would appear on-screen in Doctor Who as the Black Guardian, perhaps casting inspired by his famous radio role. Fear on Four aired five series between 1988 and 1992 and was another revival of Appointment with Fear but following Dyall’s death in 1985 the role of the Man in Black was played by Edward de Souza. Its most recent revival featured Mark Gatiss filling the role, broadcast simply as The Man in Black, and aired four series between 2009 and 2011. Doctor Who entered a long hiatus from 1989 and would not return to television until 2005. During that interregnum, one of the ways fans kept the programme alive was through audio drama. Soundtracks of 1960s episodes were issued by the BBC and since many of these episodes were wiped by the BBC in the 1970s this was the only medium through which fans could experience the stories. Two new adventures returning Jon Pertwee to the role for the first time since 1983 were broadcast in 1993, The Paradise of Death, and 1996, The Ghosts of N-Space. Pertwee’s death in 1996 precluded further entries. From 1999, Big Finish Productions have been producing original audio dramas for Doctor Who under licence from the BBC. In addition, they produced horror content such as an adaptation of Dracula and spin-off media for the US horror soap opera Dark Shadows, but the Doctor Who range remains its flagship. Their success, along with the success of the 2001 BBCi webcast audio drama Death Comes to Time, were instrumental in proving continued interest in the programme that led to its 2005 revival.

Though horror radio never enjoyed the popularity in the UK that it did in the US, the country was not entirely bereft of its own horror tales over the airwaves. The BBC were able to attract a Hollywood star such as Vincent Price to narrate horror tales and act in horror serials. Their Appointment with Fear series featuring the Man in Black was popular enough to warrant a film adaptation and multiple revivals as recent as the 2010s. And though perhaps more science fiction than horror, Doctor Who was still able to scare generations of children into scurrying behind the couch and has been kept alive in audio format when it was removed from television.

Audio can serve as an interesting outlet for fiction that presents not only unique challenges but also unique opportunities. Decades before anyone would even dare to think about adapting The Lord of the Rings in film the BBC would air a condensed radio dramatisation across 1955-56. Being the BBC of course, they didn’t keep any copies. These opportunities go doubly so for horror, where the vision of a piece might outpace its budget and suffer accordingly. This is because the cost of producing audio drama is a fraction of what is needed for live-action film or television. This has contributed to a revival of sorts in audio horror fiction during the 21st century.

Audio drama passing by largely under the radar since television took off has allowed a degree of experimentation with the format that might not have been seen if its popularity had been maintained. One such example of experimentation is the 1984 adaptation of Stephen King’s 1980 novella The Mist. Originally released as an LP record, it was picked up for wider distribution in audio cassette and CD formats. This was from the ZBS Foundation, an audio drama group whose works had been heard on National Public Radio (NPR) in the United States. Their dramatisation of The Mist was notable for being presented in ‘3-D sound’. Their new audio technique involved recording on binaural microphones, which looked something like an mannequin’s head. The microphone was worn over the actor’s head and was recorded through recording devices located in the microphone’s ‘ears’. When listened to in headphones in stereo, it gave the impression of being in the room with the characters. What sort of drama is better suited to such an experience than a horror tale where you can’t always see what’s lurking behind the mist? The lead role in the audio drama was played by William Sadler, who would feature in a supporting role in the 2007 film adaptation from Frank Darabont.

As the ZBS Foundation was able to do in the 1970s and 1980s, the boom in podcasts during the 2010s gave many smaller groups and even individuals the opportunity to create dramatic content but now they could distribute to a potentially global audience. One of the earlier prominent horror audio drama podcasts was We’re Alive, A Story of Survival. It first debuted on iTunes in 2009, a zombie horror apocalypse survival tale, which was the style at the time. Creator Kc Wayland had originally pitched the Los Angeles set tale to television, but when no broadcaster proved receptive it was instead turned into an independent audio production and ran for over 150 episodes from 2009 to 2014. Amongst the most prominent horror themed fiction podcasts is Welcome to Night Vale, which is presented as an in-universe radio show for the titular southwestern United States town. It has been running continuously since 2012 and has released more than 200 episodes. It has even branched out into a family of podcasts, now even beyond fiction, under the company name Night Vale Presents. These include the further horror podcast such as Alice Isn’t Dead (2016-2018) and the more science fiction leaning Within the Wires (2016 to present).

Much like any idea, as soon as those with little money to spend had made a success of the idea those with an inexhaustible supply of capital turned up to take a big share of the market. Prominent actors have taken part in modern audio dramas, or scripted podcasts as the preferred term seems to be, because things have to be new and never old ideas brought back. One example is Homecoming from Gimlet Media, a psychological thriller starring Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac and David Schwimmer that aired 2016-17 and has since been adapted into a television series by Amazon Prime in 2018. Such was the appeal of audio drama by the late 2010s that pop culture juggernaut Marvel Comics dipped their toe into it for the first time since the 1970s with Wolverine: The Long Night. This touched upon themes that would likely never have been approved for their live-action comic adaptations, seeing Richard Armitage portraying the title character, here dealing with serial killings and a cult in Alaska. This was successful enough to warrant a sequel in 2019 as Wolverine: The Lost Trail, there were even teases of a Marvel Podcast Universe though only half-jokingly in 2017.

It can be argued that radio/audio drama, though sometimes not referred to by that name, is enjoying mainstream popularity it has not seen since perhaps the 1950s. However, mainstream today is not what mainstream was during the US Golden Era of radio. The atomisation of culture however does offer opportunities for new avenues where people can enjoy the content they want, including horror fiction. To consume, but also to create, since that same atomisation means in theory that an independent production can be listed on a service alongside something from a massive media company. Maybe more ideas would present themselves if creators didn’t have to pretend that the format just appeared out of the ether one day in the 2000s.

Horror fiction in audio format has seen peaks and troughs of popularity since the 1930s. Its fortunes often being tied to the medium where it can be enjoyed. The rise in television and associated decline in radio in the United States saw the horror anthologies die off, though they would find a new format in television. The rise in webcasting, podcasting, and streaming services in the 21st century has brought renewed interest in the format from small groups of independent creators to massive media conglomerates. Without that massive gulf in interest from roughly the 1960s to 2010s perhaps more innovations such as binaural recording and listening might have been popularised, something that would make horror audio all the more immersive.

Horror fiction on television in the United States owes a lot to the anthology programmes broadcast on radio in the preceding decades. Many writers that commonly wrote in the genres made the transition from radio to television and brought the storytelling techniques with them, which in turn had come in part from their literary forebearers on the pages of pulp magazines. This goes beyond horror of course, as with the pulp magazines writing in horror did not box you in so that it was difficult to write science fiction. That would prove advantageous to any writer working during the 1950s, when the border between the genres began to harden.

Scientific discoveries that led to the end of the Second World War ushered in a new era of politics, economics, technology, and popular culture. This can be reflected in the shift in horror content across the 1950s. Out were the ancient demons, homunculi and monsters from Europe; in were the giant monsters and invaders from outer space or created by humanity’s newest dangerous toys. Next time we shall take a look at the films of that era, focusing mainly on two countries that were on different ends of the only use of nuclear weapons in war.


Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP


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