It we consider radio drama as an art form, three great names stand out as masters; Orson Welles, Norman Corwin, and Arch Oboler. Of the three, Arch Oboler could almost be counted as a forgotten or over-looked genius.
Oboler was the child of impoverished Latvian Jews in Chicago; his childhood was poor but highly cultured, surrounded with books and classical music. He had a tough time at university were his confrontational personality led to expulsion. He turned to writing pulp fiction to pay the bills.
Oboler entered radio, a medium that he felt was being wasted on soap operas, because he thought radio plays had terrific potential to tell stories with ideas. His gain experience and recognition writing short plays for Rudy Vallee and Don Ameche with The Chase and Sanborn Hour.
In 1936 Oboler was offered the reins of Wylis Cooper‘s Lights Out. At first he was unenthusiastic about being stuck with a horror show that played at midnight on Tuesdays (“not my idea of a writing Shangri-La”) but soon realized that the lack of sponsorship and full artistic control gave him a chance to experiment with content and style. Although NBC had a policy of strict neutrality in the pre-War years, Oboler still managed to smuggle in some anti-Facist messages.
Oboler was considered a minimalist who never used a sound effect or piece of music when a spoken word could create a better image in the listener’s mind. When he did use a sound effect, you can be sure that the image would be built in such a way heighten the effect of an often simple effect.
Some of the best are featured in the episode “Drop Dead”. Oboler explains that he has accepted a challenge to frighten his audience, even though he knows that his audience is not “easily horrified”. This episode features retelling of some of Oboler’s most famous radio horror plays.
One of the most creepy is “The Dark” were a greasy black fog escapes its confinement with a power to turn human bodies inside out. This is one of those stories that is best told on radio where the story teller has the best opportunity to manipulate the images in the listener’s mind.
The set up dialog is very well done, but the payoff is the actual sound of a person being turned inside-out. The story begins at 8 minutes and 10 seconds into the broadcast. Between 11 minutes and 11 minutes, 30 seconds we discover a body that has been turned inside-out, and from 14:30 to 14:45 we actually hear the sickening sounds as flesh is brutalized as a body is turned inside-out. We here this frightening sound twice more in the story.
How could the producer create the effect of a body abused in such a way without reaching down an actor’s throat and yanking? Here’s the spoiler: the sound effects man wore a surgeon’s rubber glove, and noisily removed it with his hand near the microphone!