I attended Bates College, a small liberal arts school located in Stephen King, Maine.1 (I swear I saw Pennywise walking Cujo on campus once. Even if not, King’s Maine novels were pretty spot-on in describing where I lived for those years.) Freshman year, I lived in a dorm room in the basement of Page Hall. Our room was four cinderblock walls with two windows that went from the ceiling down about eight inches. In fall, we got pretty good sunlight for most of the day; however, after the first snowfall covered them, my roommate and I lived in a lightless bunker. That is where, with a collection of tapes of old radio shows and a light switch, I learned the true meaning of horror. Let me back up a little and explain.
Long before there were podcasts, there were old time radio shows. I collected them. It began with an Orson Welles obsession. In 1987 I became a Welles fanboy. I read a few of his biographies in high school as I was a theatre kid with delusions of grandeur. (Repetitive, I know.) I might have been dreaming big, but Welles was amazing. The Mercury Theatre was fascinating – their productions were light years ahead of what anyone else was doing – his famous “Voodoo” Macbeth, Julius Caesar: Death of a Dictator, Cradle Will Rock, Doctor Faustus, all of which led the company to Hollywood and Citizen Kane. But in between Broadway and Kane was the Mercury Theatre on the Air. They had their own radio show, most famous, of course, for the War of the Worlds broadcast for Halloween, 1938.
That broadcast has become a legend in its own right, and deservedly so. Go and listen to it. Welles knew that folks would listen to the first five minutes of a show on another network before turning to the Mercury Theatre on the Air to see what they were doing. So, Welles announced very quickly that the Mercury Theatre on the Air was doing H.G. Wells’ (no relation) classic tale of alien invasion and then did not mention it again for the rest of the show. Instead, he went meta. The adaptation framed the story as a radio broadcast being interrupted by strange things happening in New Jersey. Folks who tuned in late first heard a brief program of ballroom music from the studios in New York before news of the strange events began interrupting. No indication was given after that first one that one was listening to an adaptation of a sci-fi novel. People panicked, assuming the broadcast was real, and why wouldn’t they? It was framed as a perfect recreation of an evening of radio being interrupted by important announcements. At the time, it must have been utterly unnerving. Welles did with radio what he had done previously with theatre and would do again with film – approach the medium in a whole new manner that transformed the medium, even with the simplest of stories. (Don’t believe me? Go and watch Citizen Kane again – how often before that film did sets have ceilings? He changed the way space was conceptualized on film, not to mention how we understand storytelling.)
So, I bought The War of the Worlds on cassette and listened to it repeatedly in my dorm room in Stephen King, Maine, until I understood how it worked on every level.2 That led me to other Orson Welles’ radio shows. I listened to the Mercury Theatre on the Air’s catalogue. I listened to him as The Shadow (again, laughing at the irony of a radio show about a man able to turn invisible - but that’s just it – given that radio was a literary medium which required the writer to make visual images with words that the audience then imagined it was a great way to learn about how to tell stories). Although others went on to play the Shadow, I still get chills when I hear Orson intone, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows…Muh ha ha ha ha ha!”
Like any addict, I began to experiment, move beyond Orson Welles, and found an entire world of old-time radio horror that changed Halloween and my work as a writer and theatre artist. As noted above, I began to collect these cassettes, ordered through a catalogue or occasionally found in bookstores. One publisher, Metacom, had hundreds if not thousands of old shows for sale. They had comedies, dramas, the radio version of soap operas, but the horror, mystery, and sci-fi anthology shows were my thing. Each cassette began with an explanation – the cassette was from the network tapes which were made from a radio show that had aired live. All the mistakes, all the hissing and pops, the occasional drops in sound quality, the local station IDs were there. They all added to the experience.
I’d listen to them in my basement dorm room with the lights out, sometimes with friends I could convince to try the experience, more often alone before my roommate got back. Some of the stories were positively goofy, but some, like Arch Obler's Lights Out Everybody could sometimes get to me reach out and put one light back on. The medium of radio meant everything had to be done through sound and the audience's imagination, and as a result, was incredibly effective. As I sat in the dark, the noises were far more effective in evoking the horror and dread of the story than any CGI in the movies today.
An example, not even from a horror series: The action series, ø, which ran on CBS from 1947 to 1952, promised stories that would take you “away from the everyday grind and ESCAPE!” The show adapted a ton of great stories from the period, including stories by Ray Bradbury, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and H.G. Wells, as well as an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds, long before Hitchcock brought it to the screen. But one of the best was an adaptation of “Leiningen Versus the Ants” by Carl Stephenson. William Conrad played the eponymous plantation owner, whose Brazilian farm is overrun by army ants. The sounds of the ants approaching, the screams of the workers being overrun and devoured, the fire, the sound of the ants up close, all were incredibly evocative and left my skin crawling in a way few films ever have. “Three Skeleton Key,” another favorite, has virtually the same plot. Three men in a lighthouse see a derelict ship crash onto the key upon which the lighthouse sits, and a horde of thousands of hungry rats empty out, swarming over the island, and eventually the lighthouse. Try sitting in the dark listening to the sound of thousands of rats trying to get in.
There were some truly great series for scares. Among the best were Suspense, The Whistler, and Inner Sanctum. Suspense also ran on CBS from 1942 to 1962. It promised “Tales well calculated to keep you in…SUSPENSE!” All the major stars guested on the show at one time or another: Lucille Ball, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, and even a young Ronald Reagan all visited the New York studio to perform in the half hour episodes. (All of these shows, tangentially, were a half an hour, which make them the perfect bite-sized bits of terror to listen to in your basement dorm room or in your car on drives through the Maine woods on the way to God-knows-what.) Even Orson Welles guested several times, including one of the earliest episodes, “The Hitchhiker” (Find it and listen to it – it’s still effective!) and the much acclaimed two-part episode “Donovan’s Brain.” Welles’ frequent collaborator, Agnes Moorehead, appeared in the best episode of Suspense (which was eventually made into a motion picture), "Sorry, Wrong Number,” about a woman who overhears on a party line two men plotting the murder of a woman. She is unable to convince the authorities to listen to her, and then she hears the men coming for her. Chilling, even with the lights on, even today.
The Whistler, airing on CBS from 1942 to 1955, was named after its host, the anonymous, eponymous Whistler. Each episode began with the sound of echoing footsteps, then an eerie whistling, as if the man was walking closer to you, stalking you. He would then announce the show, the guest stars, and comment on the action. The Whistler featured grizzly crime stories and mysteries. Eventually, the character and the concept found its way into eight films from Columbia Motion Pictures, half of which were directed by William Castle. But for my money the radio show was much more effective at conveying threat and mystery.
Inner Sanctum also began with creepy sound effects – a creaky door slowly opening, followed by an invitation from “your host, Raymond” to enter the inner sanctum. Unlike the others here, Inner Sanctum tended to mix humor and horror and could often be quite campy for the time. Running from 1941 to 1952 on the Blue Network, the show offered a variety of stories featuring such stars as Boris Karloff (in a wonderful adaptation of “The Tell Tale Heart”), Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre, Claude Rains, and even Frank Sinatra! Of course, no horror radio anthology show is complete without a guest star turn from Orson Welles, who showed up in 1944’s “The Dream,” sadly now lost and unavailable to listeners.
My favorite, the one I recommend above all others, the one that still frightens me more often than not, is Lights Out Everybody. It’s opening was a clock striking midnight and a sepulchral voice intoning, “It…is…later…than…you…think.” Although created by Wyllis Cooper in 1934, Arch Obler took over as show runner in 1936, put his name on it, and guided it through the next decade and eventually into a television version when that became a thing. Obler’s version predated all the other radio shows mentioned here. He was the pioneer of radio sound effects, writing drama that served the medium, and finding ways to frighten the audience.
Again, stars showed up to be in the shows: Bette Davis, Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and, yes, Orson Welles. The stories were the reason it was one of the most popular shows, and they delivered the chills: “Murder Castle,” one of the first dramatizations of the H.H. Holmes story, “Bathysphere,” about a dictator and a scientist setting a world record descending below the surface of the sea (If you’re not claustrophobic before listening to this one, you will be after!), “Spider” about two men menaced by a giant spider, “Come to the Bank” about a man who learns how to walk through walls and then gets stuck inside one at the bank, “Revolt of the Worms” yet another story in the “Leinengen Versus the Ants” mode, and the famed “Chicken Heart” about a chicken heart in a lab slowly growing to consume everything around it.
Sitting in the dark (I mean you had to – the show was called “lights out!”), you listen to the actors and the effects and it all plays out in the theatre of your mind. We have become such a visual culture that it is easy to forget the power of sound. But lying in a bunkbed in pitch black and hearing the sound of scratching coming from the stereo, followed by a frightened voice saying, “What is that? It came from that locked door!” can set the heart to beating a little faster.
Lest I be dismissed as grandpa missing the days of radio, I shall sing the praises of the Internet. Google any of the shows I have discussed here. Many of them are now archived for free and easily listened to. Go ahead. This Halloween, turn off your computer, turn off your television, then turn off your lights. It is later than you think, and the voices from the thirties, forties, and fifties await to take you to a level of terror in your imagination and theatre of the mind which I promise will be more effective than any old film running on cable this month.
I now write horror and I write about horror. I always pay attention to sound, though, as radio in a dark dorm room in Stephen King, Maine, taught me the power of sound to create fear.3 And if you don’t believe me, ask anyone who tuned in late to that 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds. Happy Halloween.
Kevin Wetmore is an author and professor at Loyola Marymount University. His books include The Theology of Battlestar Galactica, Post-9/11 Horror in American Cinema, and The Empire Triumphant: Race, Religion, and Rebellion in the Star Wars Films. He has been a guest contributor to Fanbase Press, writing weekly editorials on Westworld and Game of Thrones, Season Seven. For more information about Kevin, check out his website, Something Wetmore This Way Comes, and to purchase his non-fiction and fiction books, see Amazon.
1. Okay, it’s actually Lewiston, Maine, but back in the late 80s if you looked in a mirror and said “Scary Maine” three times, Stephen King would appear in the mirror and then you’d owe him royalties. (No slight on Mr. King, who is by all accounts, a kind and nice guy).
2. Again, actually Lewiston.
3. Just here for the “rule of three.” Still Lewiston.