October is the time for horror, and this Halloween season radio as a vehicle for horror has been on my mind even more than usual. I’m in the midst of my usual autumnal horror binge, and that’s been extended to listening to radio shows on my commute. More importantly, The League’s own David Cole is appearing in the Post Meridian Radio Players live radio show (i.e. on stage but not actually broadcast) production of both the classic Suspense episode Ghost Hunt and a new adaptation of The Night of the Living Dead. If you live near Somerville take the time to check out-I think you will find that it’s worth it. Their Ghost Hunt is well performed and the script is interesting as one of the earliest “found footage” stories in a medium other than print (since found manuscripts that tell a horrific story that the narrator did not survive are legion); it also contains some meta humor as we listen to the recording of a radio DJ’s “night in a haunted house” stunt gone horribly wrong. Their adaptation of Night of the Living Dead is well done, and is your chance to see how the casting of Duane Jones transformed the script (since the actor playing Ben is white, but also since the script never mentions race). It’s also fascinating to see how the show deals with the issue of adapting the many scenes in the original film where there is no or little dialogue while people do things-a problem that faces many radio adaptations. The solutions mostly work (this is the most talkative Barbara ever, however), though it might be interesting to hear a radio version of the story at some point that adapted the story to the medium more liberally.
If you’re in the Greater Boston area, you can certainly go see the PMRP‘s show in the next week-but if you aren’t (or can’t make it) you can still get a seasonal radio horror fix in the next couple of days. One of the great things about radio is that the shows are available all over the web; knowing what I know about copyright law, it seems unlikely that they are truly in the public domain but there also doesn’t seem to be anyone rushing to sue people for posting them online. When I listened to these as a kid, they were on tapes and CDs my older brother bought, and selection was very limited; now there are thousands of episodes from a large variety of shows dating from the 1930s all the way up to the 1970s that are easily available. The only real challenge is where to start. Here are some suggestions, personal favorites:
The War of the Worlds:
The most famous Halloween radio show connected to Halloween is Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 adaptation of The War of the Worlds. It’s a fine piece and legendary for the panic it created (or did it? There is certainly debate on that subject), and many stations (including my local station WATD, to my pleasant surprise last year) play it on Halloween. Over the years I’ve also run into a recording with the cast of Star Trek and Jeff Wayne’s rock version that hues closer to Wells’ novel (memorably, I listened while lost and looking for parking on my way to a South Boston Halloween party dressed as Ferrari from Casablanca, adding to the fever dream feel of it all). It’s a great tale, and a possible starting point for those new to radio shows, but it’s certainly not the only starting point, especially when you consider how atypical it is, consisting of ever more alarming news bulletins and eyewitness reports and a narrative last act.
One of the great things about radio horror is, like written horror, there is an unlimited budget for visual effects, and, as you’ll hear if you listen to this tale, sound design can add a lot, however simple its origins.* Lights Out, an anthology show created by radio great Wyllis Cooper but best remembered for its run under Arch Obler, at its best the show featured some of the most imaginative monsters on the radio. The most infamous of these (thanks to a famous Bill Cosby routine that I’ve somehow never heard) is The Chicken Heart, a precursor to The Blob that features an ever-growing, ever-consuming grey blob of flesh generated from a chicken heart. Sadly, that episode no longer exists outside of an abbreviated recreation Obler made for a 1962 album. The same is also true for my personal favorite episode of Lights Out, The Dark, which follows an ambulance called to a weird old house…well…I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. My advice is to recreate the conditions I first saw this under**: turn down all the lights, listen, and be prepared to get the creeps….
*Apparently the most memorable sound here was just the Foley artist turning a heavy rubber glove….inside out….
** Better yet, listen to it in a cemetery or on a lonely dead-end street in a van on Halloween night…not that I’ve done either….
Casting the Runes:
There were many anthology shows on radio. Some, like Lights Out, did original stories. Others, like Escape, adapted short stories, which sometimes works even better than film adaptations. Since most radio shows ran for 30 or 60 minutes (with ads), a short story needs less stretching or padding (conversely, sometimes novels were compressed into 30 minutes, which is not generally a great idea). Escape is one of my favorite anthology shows, covering everything from adventure to horror. Casting the Runes made it to film as Curse of the Demon in 1957, but ten years earlier Escape adapted the Monatgue R. James story, keeping the early 20th century setting and featuring William Conrad as Karswell.
The Castle of La Voca:
One of the fascinating things about listening to old radio shows for me is finding connections between their ideas and more familiar television episodes and film. The Castle of La Voca (in which an American couple cycling through Europe encounters a strange castle and it’s even stranger master) is one such tale. It would spoil too much to tell you *which* episode of The Twilight Zone this tale reminds me of, but once you listen to it, you will know which it is. Listen to it at Relic Radio.
The Thing on the Fourble Board:
Quiet, Please is a very interesting show created by Wyllis Cooper and always starring announcer Ernest Chappell. The show is marvelously inventive, though at times the limiting format-Chappell as a character telling us his story-can get repetitive if you listen to too many in a row. The Thing on the Fourble Board is about an oil rig engineer who finds…something…while drilling. It’s quite creepy, and the conversational style of the show works marvelously with the tale.
The House in Cypress Canyon:
Suspense is one of the few shows that lives up to its own intro: when they say they are radio’s outstanding theater of thrills, they aren’t just talking. Suspense wasn’t always horror-it also featured plenty of thrillers, and seemed to specialize for a time in casting comic, dramatic and romantic actors as murderers. The House in Cypress Canyon has a wonderfully creepy hook: a real estate agent is given a manuscript found in a shoe box in a recently completed, never occupied home, a manuscript that details the horrors that will occur there…
The Hitch Hiker:
Orson Welles’ most famous radio show might be War of the Worlds, but he worked for years in the medium and War of the Worlds is just one of his great performances in the medium. The Hitch Hiker, from Suspense, is another one of his classics. A man traveling from New York to California is followed by a mysterious hitch hiker, who appears everywhere on his route, no matter how fast he travels or which detours he takes…
Corridor of Doom:
Inner Sanctum Mystery was another long running, popular horror and thriller anthology series that ran from 1941-1952. The show featured Raymond, a ghoulish host whose morbid jokes prefigured E.C. Comics’ creepy hosts such as the Crypt Keeper and the Mad Monk. Corridor of Doom features Boris Karloff who awakens in a strange hospital….who may or may not be dead.
Another found manuscript story, this time a notebook found in a department store and tells the story of a struggling writer who decided the most economical way of living would be to hide out in the dark corners of a major department store during the day and to take what he needs at night…only to discover he’s not the first person to think of this idea…. Listen to it at Relic Radio’s Strange Tales. It also highlights something I’ve found with radio…something about just listening to the stories unlocks my imagination, making the DAMNEDEST things get to me. Listening to this show on my drive home from my evening shift one week I was on the edge of my seat, dreading what was coming to the narrator…
I’ve really just scratched the surface of the shows that are available…if you enjoy the shows I’ve recommend, I encourage you to seek more out. I find the Relic Radio an ideal way to do this since it’s a podcast that’s easy to download from iTunes, but you may find simply going to the Internet Archive more your style, or just browse around on YouTube.