If you’ve never listened to horror radio, I wouldn’t blame ya. Most old radio shows are hokey, musty relics of forgotten times, only chilling to housewives in 1942. But there are exceptions, recordings from long ago with strange powers that have only grown over the passing decades. If you can look past the sometimes-dated presentation and put yourself in the right mindset, the best horror radio is like listening to the distant cries of ancient ghosts. Collected below are my ten favorite old-timey radio horror broadcasts. Turn off the lights and listen!
[You can hear each episode by clicking on the title.]
Forget The Blair Witch Project; this episode of Suspense marks the real beginning of found-footage horror. Recorded way back in 1949, the story is told through audiotapes “discovered” after wacky radio disc jockey Smiley Smith goes mad in a haunted house. Smiley starts off treating his visit like a goofy radio stunt, but before long, he begins mentally unraveling and babbling to long dead victims of suicide. It’s a perfectly paced, creepy-as-crap ghost story told in an innovative way, and is my favorite horror radio program ever.
Every episode of Arch Oboler’s excellent Lights Out is great in its own way. Oboler’s innovation was ditching the restraint and quaintness of a lot of “classic” radio in favor of a more naturalistic sometimes violent, pulp style that can feel shockingly modern. In “Valse Triste,” Two carefree women get lost in the woods and run into a very, very bad man. The dread, tension, and creepiness build slowly over this half hour, and end in a gruesome, brutal climax. This episode of Lights Out was so upsetting to its audience that Oboler ends it by assuring listeners that the story and characters are fiction. Plus, it’s sponsored by something called “Ironized Yeast,” which is so old-timey I can’t believe it.
Created by strange visionary Wyllis Cooper, Quiet, Please was one of the oddest radio horror programs of the 1940s. This is its most beloved episode, a half-hour many consider the scariest single radio program ever. A “fourble board” is the platform of an oil derrick, and in this story, a driller working deep under the earth pulls something unexpected and terrible from the dirt. The performances, pacing, and tension of this radio show puts it high above most offerings, and the final revelation of the creature still raises the hair on the back of your neck.
The oldest series in my list, The Witch’s Tale is usually more literate and less pulpy than a lot of horror radio. The show is hosted by 111 year-old witch Nancy and her black cat Satan, and characters like the Crypt Keeper and Elvira owe a debt of gratitude to this ancient crone. This episode of the show is about a couple of pirates who work together to bury a treasure, but eventually are driven by greed to turn against each other.
This story has everything you could ever want in a horror tale: Three colorful, desperate character trapped in a dank, desolate lighthouse, an over-the-top Vincent Price performance, and a ghost ship filled with millions and millions of killer rats. When the derelict craft crashes into the rocks and the rats disembark, the three men flee higher and higher up the tower, but really, there’s nowhere to go, and they have little chance against millions of starving rats anyway. “Three Skeleton Key” is a master class in how to craft perfect adventure/horror.
The great Boris Karloff stars in this weird piece of body horror from Lights Out. In it, a misbehaving wife horrifies her husband by gradually transforming into a cat, or maybe the couple is going crazy and they only think she’s turning into a cat; it’s not totally clear. It’s a concept that really wouldn’t work in any other medium (how could you film a story like this?) and the strange sexual undertone spread through the story is creepy as hell, especially when the Cat Wife goes into heat. Plus, it’s awesome that the she craps in a box.
This is the classiest of radio horror. Because it was broadcast on Public Radio, The Black Mass was free to present highbrow, literary horror without having to pander to a larger audience to sell soap. If you like the supernatural stories of literary heavyweights like Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka, and Nikolai Gogol, you gotta listen to The Black Mass. “The Jolly Corner” is adapted from one of Henry James’ best ghost stories, and in keeping with the elevated nature of the source material, the “ghost” haunting the hero’s house is the main character’s unlived life as opposed to a literal spirit of the dead.
This Ray Bradbury penned story is an intelligent, creepy Cold War paranoia fantasy. Equal parts science fiction and horror, “Zero Hour” tells the tale of a suburban mother who begins to notice that her children have become obsessed with a game called “Invasion,” and they’re taking it very, very seriously. In fact, Invasion is sweeping the nation faster than the Hula Hoop, with kids all over speaking to someone (or something) named Dryll, who lives in a rosebush. As the mother looks deeper into the world of childhood, it becomes clear that the new fad is something unspeakably sinister.
In the unlikely event that anyone involved in the production of Macabre is still alive, I apologize, but it’s a bad show. This second-tier horror series was produced by Armed Forces Radio, and is lousy with stock characters, stiff performances, trite dialogue, and predictable plots. “Final Resting Place” has all these faults, but it works, somehow. It tells the tale of a young husband being buried alive by a madman. The scene of the man’s wife desperately clawing at the earth to dig up her interred husband, and the bit where he wakes up and realizes his fate, are creepy and hypnotic in spite of (or maybe because of) the amateurishness of the series.
I’ve included this episode of the popular 1940s series mainly because the embedded ads are really weird and funny. Inner Sanctum is hosted by Raymond, a pun-loving ghoul who delights in all things macabre and murder-y, but the show is sponsored by Lipton Tea, the most wholesome and normal of beverages. For some reason, the producers of Inner Sanctum dealt with this incongruity by including segments where the scary host kibitzes with an average housewife. He wants to “probe deeply into the dark and cavernous depths of men’s souls to see what makes them kill,” but all she wants to talk about how awesome it is to drink tea. The story here is pretty good too. Listen.
Honorable Mention – The Witch’s Tale: "The Confession"
This story’s audio is nearly unlistenable, but if you can put up with the warped voices and loud hiss, you’ll be rewarded with a story as sadistic as any modern torture porn. In “The Confession,” a man catches his wife having an affair with a friend, but rather than going to Reno for a divorce, he ties the two of them up and meticulously, slowly exacts his revenge. It’s hard to believe this was considered mainstream entertainment in the 1930s, but I guess when your real life is The Great Depression, audio torture makes sense.
Follow Stephen Johnson on Twitter.
Follow Stephen Johnson on Twitter.