Listeners who are new fans of OTR can be forgiven for thinking that horror radio shows were the dominant program during the Golden Age of Radio. They were not, in fact there were relatively few of them. However, those that survive are some of fans favorite series.
No genre is as uniquely suited to radio as horror. We can escape horror on the printed page by simply looking up from the book and see that it is all just fantasy. The fantasy of horror on the screen depends upon the director’s use of special effects to create the terrifying images. No special effects can create as intense images of horror as a good script writer can put in our minds, and even if we shut our eyes, the terror is still there, waiting and daring us to quit listening.
That school yard dare was one of the few campy elements of radio’s most effective horror programs, Lights Out. The tongue in cheek horror hosts and creaking doors would come later, perhaps to make the programs better suited to a wider audience.
The announcer’s voice ominously tells us “Lights out, everybody!” and a gong tolls thirteen times, punctuating the warning “It… is… later… than… you… think!” these Lights Out stories are definitely not for the timid soul, so we tell you calmly and very sincerely, if you frighten easily, turn off your radio now.”
Of course, no listener can resist a dare like that, although they may wish they did.
At 17, Wyllis Cooper was a bugler with the 131st Illinois Infantry in WWI, chasing bandits on the Mexican Border. His unit was shipped to France and he was gassed in the Argonne. After mustering out, Cooper got into the advertising game, eventually heading the continuity departments at CBS and NBC in Chicago. Some of his earliest dramatic include scripts for NBC’s pioneering dramatic anthology, The Empire Builder, sponsored by the Great Northern Railroad. On of his stories took place in the copper mines of Butte, MT. Cooper actually traveled to Butte to get a feel for the mining industry, an indication of the level of detail which would mark his later projects.
Late in 1933, Cooper began toying with the idea for “a midnight mystery serial to catch the attention of the listeners at the witching hour.” Most of the competition was just playing music at this hour, so perhaps thinking he could do little harm that late, WENR gave Cooper 15 minutes on Wednesday midnights beginning in January, 1934. The serial format was dropped in favor of an anthology of supernatural and crime thrillers, and Lights Out was successful enough to grow to a half hour in April.
Few, if any recordings of these early Lights Out episodes exist, but several of the scripts were used when Lights Out were brought back as a summertime revival during the forties. These scripts show that Cooper was experimenting with stream of consciousness writing and first person narration long before Orson Welles and Arch Oboler popularized them.
Characters in these stories could expect to be decapitated, eaten alive by a giant amoeba, vaporized in a ladle of molten steel or beaten to a bloody pulp. Chicago actor Sidney Ellstrom joked that he had “died a thousand deaths”, most of them unspeakably violent. Studio technicians spent many hours in pre production, devising just the right sound effects for heads being removed from shoulders, thousands of skulls being crushed and cannibalistic plants consuming their victims.
Cooper rode the success of Lights Out to Hollywood in 1936 to work on movie scripts, including The Son Of Frankenstein(1939). He never completely left radio, giving us several scripts for The Campbell Playhouse, The Army Hour, and one of radio’s most creative shows, Quiet, Please.
Although it was without a sponsor because of its late hour, Lights Out was too popular to let die, so it was turned over to another rising talent in NBC’s writing pool, Arch Oboler.
Oboler was the scion of poor but cultured Latvian Jews. Born in Chicago, he was a precocious child, a largely self taught intellectual and amateur boxer. He became fascinated with the possibilities of radio as a storytelling medium and disgusted that the potential was being wasted on soap operas.
NBC saw potential in Oboler’s talent (he would be seen later as NBC’s answer to CBS’s Norman Corwin), but had no real outlet for him. He was assigned to several “potboilers” until the helm of Lights Out became available. The lack of sponsorship and the late hour kept the program out of the censor’s attention, and Oboler thrived creatively.
While maintaining, perhaps even elevating the level of gore from Cooper’s days, Oboler’s stories were often more deeply psychological thrillers. Although NBC policy was to remain neutral in regards to the Nazi’s during the Thirties, Oboler managed to sneak in a few anti-Fascist messages. For most OTR fans, Oboler’s tenure with Lights Out is a high point in radio horror.
There is a story about one of Oboler’s most famous episodes being rebroadcast over AFRS during the War. The battle hardened troops, who knew they would face the Germans the next day, were relaxing in their barracks, listening to the radio. Just as the expanding chicken heart was about to engulf the world, the camp gener
ator went out and the barracks was plunged into darkness. The combat veterans scrambled like Girl Scouts from around a campfire!
By 1938 Oboler was ready to leave horror behind, but those thirteen gongs reverberated throughout the rest of his career. In 1942, Oboler reopened Lights Out on CBS, with a sponsor and a prime time slot this time around. There were few new stories, however, using scripts from the NBC series and some of the more psychological fare from Arch Oboler’s Plays.
The 1945 and 46 summer revivals of Lights Out brought back Cooper’s old scripts, but did not go over in 1947, as the sponsor felt the stories too gruesome for the modern audiences. Lights Out was briefly adapted to experimental TV broadcasts in 1946, and became a regular series in 1949. However, there was no way that TV could replicate the vivid imagery of Lights Out on the radio.
Besides, TV really loses its effect when you have the sheets pulled up over your head.