The Scare on the Air

| October 15, 2020

By Tim Weldon
University of St. Francis
Professor of Philosophy

 

JOLIET, Ill. — “The fun of the shudder,” novelist Edith Wharton called it. For listeners of the radio horror dramas of yesteryear, no further explanation of the quote is necessary. From the 1930s through the 1950s, Sunday to Monday and twilight to midnight, audiences circled the golden orb of the wireless for the thrill of the chill.

Both remain.

Because of old-time radio shows like those on “When Radio Was,” “USA Classic Radio Theater,” the Chicago area’s weekly “Those Were the Days” or Toronto’s Monday through Friday “Theatre of the Mind,” audiences today are familiar with the scare on the air: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men…” began Frank Readick, Jr. at his sinister best in The Shadow (1931-54). “Welcome” we are bid by Joseph Kearns’ “The Man in Black” on Suspense (1940-62)  “radio’s outstanding theater of thrills”; and no cackle stirred us to shiver more than the centenarian “Old Nancy” on The Witch’s Tale (1931-1938). Here, darkness was a must: “Turn out the lights, turn them off,” ordered the creepy recluse in the opening of The Hermit’s Cave (1937-44), the same command was given on the inimitable program Lights Out (1934-47). Eerie voices announced the loom of doom in Dark Fantasy (1941-42) and The Sealed Book (1945). The list of horror programs goes on — making the genre one of the most memorable on radio.

Horror was meant for radio. It was on the radio that horror excelled as a genre, where the imagination and the medium, voice and story, made their match. Ambiance alone reminds us that horror episodes begin in the gloaming, where the imagination functions at its productive peak. The conjuring mind prefers shadows. In the dark, sound means as much as sight as what we hear influences so much of what we think. Indeed, for radio, the scare is in the sound.

The sound effects of the on-air dramas were crucial to storytelling success. Though many of these effects were manually produced (at least in the early days), but how they delivered: the screams we felt in the marrow of our bones, the-leap-from-our-seat knocks on the door. And if it wasn’t a knock, it was a creak: the noisy door being the signature sound effect of The Inner Sanctum (1941-52) opening…ever…so…slowly: “Good evening, friends,” was our summons from  “Raymond” the host.

So popular was the prop of the creaking door — so identifiable was it with the supernatural — that it would be used again two decades hence by the also popular CBS Radio Mystery Theater (1974-82). (In actuality, the famous door of The Inner Sanctum was an oil-deprived chair).

The ingenuity of the sound person with their ability to manipulate the ordinary was a thing of wonder. Author and radio historian Jack French wrote that:

Other manual sounds common in radio were: run a finger nail along the edge of a pocket comb (crickets), shake a two-foot length inner tube, cut inch-wide strips (wet dog shaking himself), pull a large can or bucket from (a) tub of water (body falling into water), snap open an umbrella (sudden ignition of fire), twist knob of combination padlock (Geiger counter or dial of a safe), and drop a handful of tiny pieces of sheet metal on board (breaking glass). (see footnote 1)

Examples abound but arguably the most effective use of a sound effect in a single episode can be heard in the frightful broadcast “The Dark” (1937) from Lights Out (but no spoilers here!).

Along with the old-time radio genre of comedy, horror dramas had their signature characters, or signature voices. Where would the spooky radio of old be without the voice of a twenty-two year-old Orson Welles as Lamont Cranston in The Shadow or his stellar 1938 performances in The Mercury Theater’s “The War of the Worlds” and “Dracula” and then in Suspense’s “The Hitchhiker” (1942). Radio voice Agnes Moorehead was incomparable as Margo Lane, Cranston’s love interest in The Shadow, and better still in the episode which alone could’ve earned her place in the Radio Hall of Fame: Suspense’s “Sorry, Wrong Number” (1943). Vincent Price, of screen horror fame, possessed an equally ominous presence on the radio with such hair-raising episodes as Suspense’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1957) and the even scarier “Three Skeleton Key” (1958). Perhaps the most identifiable – and creepiest — radio horror voice belonged to Peter Lorre, with his many roles including Inner Sanctum’s “The Black Seagull” (1943) and “The Lodger” in Mystery in the Air (1947).

If the sound effects and the voices kept us on the edge of our seats, the opening themes of old-time radio horror led — or lured — us to sit and listen. From the howling of the wind and wolves in The Hermit’s Cave to the rumbling of a whistling train coming through your living room in The Mysterious Traveler (1943-52), producers of mystery and horror displayed their creative genius in choosing program themes. Two of the most memorable are also among the most haunting. The Shadow’s use of Camille Saint-Saens’s composition, “Omphale’s Spinning Wheel” for its theme is only rivaled by the frenzied rush of The Witch’s Tale’s “Orgy of Spirits” by Alexander Ilyinsky.

In the end, radio horror’s longevity and loyal listenership is owing to the quality of writing. The camp and sound effects needed the well-crafted script. Old-time radio saw such talent as Arch Obler, Willis Cooper, Scott Bishop, Robert Arthur, Jr. and David Kogan. For them, great radio meant aiming for the 30 minutes or less where the incredible seems credible, the bizarre convincing, all for the sake of solid entertainment. Joining the aforementioned episodes, such shows as “Ghost Hunt” (1949), “The House on Cypress Canyon” (1946), and “On a Country Road” (1950) from Suspense and Lights Out’s “Poltergeist” (1942) and “It Happened” (1938) along with “The Devil Doctor”(1934) and “The Hairy Monster” (1934) from The Witch’s Tales represent some of the best of radio writing, horror or otherwise.

Surely, the questions and debates will continue: which was the scariest show, the most frightening episode? To answer, we’ve only to listen and again — even with Arch Obler’s ironic dare in mind: Lights Out brings you stories of the supernatural and supernormal, dramatizing the fantasies and mysteries of the unknown. We tell you this frankly so if you wish to avoid the excitement and tension of these imaginative plays, we urge you calmly but sincerely to turn off your radio…now.

Listeners of old-time radio can’t. There’s just too much fun to be had!

(1) Jack French. “Sound Effects.” 1997. www.old-time.com/sfx.html

Tim Weldon teaches philosophy at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Illinois. He can be emailed at: TWeldon@stfrancis.edu.    

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