One of the things I appreciate most about my computer is the ability to listen to old-time radio shows that would otherwise be very difficult to find nowadays.
“In my day”, she creaked, all her joints being crickety and old, “we still listened to radio shows for entertainment.”
I listened to The Green Hornet, and The Shadow; Gunsmoke and Bat Masterson (his theme song still runs through my mind from time to time). In fact, I listened to anything I could, because I loved stories, and I was an avid reader, but radio stories were unique, in that they allowed me to close my eyes and imagine the scene as though it were happening in front of me.
However, my favorites were mysteries. Stories about the weird, the witchy, the unknown, and the uncanny, were my preferred fare of an evening. I am pleased to tell you that many (but not all) of these stories still exist; my favorite, The Witching Hour, has mostly been lost to the ravages of time. Below, I’ve included the links to some of the best sources available online for murder mysteries and scary stories, performed in the inimitable style only the drama of the 1930s and ’40s American radio serial could create.
I mean, seriously, listen to the following tracks from Murder at Midnight, Tales of Terror and Retribution, and you’ll be surprised at how creepy they are!
When the announcer intones, in a voice of doom “Midnight, the witching hour, when our fears are strongest,” you’re reminded of how frightening being alone in the dark, listening to the immediacy of the voices weaving their dark tales, can be.
Overly dramatic though these stories might sound to our more sophisticated ears, they’re still a lot of (creepy) fun.
There was Suspense, billed as “radio’s outstanding theatre of thrills,” its radio dramas compounded of
mystery and suspicion and dangerous adventure. In this series are tales calculated to intrigue you, to stir your nerves, to offer you a precarious situation and then withhold the solution… until the last possible moment.
Much of the tradition of scaring the wits out of you and creeping you out belongs to the time when we used to tell ghost stories around the fireplace, flames flickering against the darkness. But there is another tradition the horror radio show is reminiscent of, and that is the type of story told at the Grand Guignol in Paris; macabre and bloody stories which seem to have been resurrected most recently in gory slasher movies.
In 1934, the anthology series Lights Out debuted and exploited many of radio’s unique qualities to massive success. The program was penned by Wyllis Cooper and aired at midnight. Cooper employed stream of conscious monologues, multiple first-person narrators and internal monologues which were at odds with the characters’ spoken dialog.
It’s most often remembered, however, for its gruesome and explicit sound effects which attempted to suggest joints being ripped from sockets, skin being eviscerated, heads being decapitated and other depictions of violence that would still be pushing the envelope, even on modern cable television programs.
Lights Out … was characterized by grisly stories spiked with dark, tongue-in-cheek humor, a sort of radio Grand Guignol. A character might be buried or eaten or skinned alive, vaporized in a ladle of white-hot steel, absorbed by a giant slurping amoeba, have his arm torn off by a robot, or forced to endure torture, beating or decapitation—always with the appropriate blood-curdling acting and sound effects.
Radio had the advantage for the listener, it seems to me, to be able to imagine the gory details without having to actually witness them. But it’s entirely possible that it’s much scarier to have an image lingering in your mind, long after the lights have been put out, and you’re alone with your thoughts…
Here is a selection of some of the best shows still available from the days of gore:
- Old-Time Radio Fans Sign Off (npr.org)
- Old Time Radio (wallablog.wordpress.com)
- Close Your Ears! (slate.com)
- Lean & Hungry Theater to Perform and Record Radio Drama Version of The Winter’s Tale, December 4 and 5 (prweb.com)