“American Horror Story”. “The Walking Dead”. “The Strain”. “The Exorcist”. They are magnets to horror fans, drawing us back each week during their season, compelling us to watch what happens next. Family and friends gather around the TV, huddle under blankets, and shiver together as their horrors are broadcast in living color into our homes. It might surprise you to know, however, that the same kind of entertainment was available long before a television was an essential home appliance.
From the 1920s through the 1950s, radio was the main source of home entertainment with a plethora of options in weekly programming. Quiz shows, soap operas, comedy/variety shows, and yes, even horror shows drew listeners from across the country who would gather around their radios and listen to the biggest stars of the day perform in a variety of roles.
In a way, it was almost freeing. With no need for special visual effects, costuming, make-up, etc., the producers of weekly horror shows like Suspense or Lights Out, could concentrate on stories that were terrifying and compelling and talented actors could ply their trade regardless of whether they had the glamorous good looks that Hollywood required or not.
“But wasn’t it kind of boring?” NOT IN THE LEAST!
In fact, most were quite the opposite. It’s amazing what the imagination can conjure with the right stimulus.
If you don’t believe me, pick one of the five radio plays below, turn the lights out, get comfortable, and click play.
#1 The HItchhiker starring Orson Welles on Suspense Theater
Suspense Theater ran from 1940-1962 on CBS radio. The show boasted theme music by Bernard Herrmann who would later compose for those shrieking violins in the Hitchcock’s classic, Psycho, and over the years their radio plays spawned award winning screen adaptations and gave birth to the careers of the stars of their heyday. You’ll see a couple of their entries on this list, but the first had to be my favorite.
Written by Lucille Flectcher, who also makes more than one appearance on this list, “The Hitchhiker” tells the story of Ronald Adams, a young man setting out on a drive to the west coast for work. Along the way he begins to notice an ominous hitchhiker who always seems to be ahead of him, no matter the route that Ronald takes. The story is full of twists and turn and Welles navigates each deftly bringing us to the tale’s terrifying end. The show would be performed many more times by other actors over the years, and would even see an adaptation as an episode of the Twilight Zone in its first season.
Settle in and listen to “The Hitchhiker”!
#2 Three Skeleton Key starring Vincent Price on Escape
Another story with another famous genre actor in the lead, “Three Skeleton Key” was based on a short story by George G. Toudouze. The plot surrounds three men who are the guardians of a lighthouse off the coast of French Guiana. One night, a strange ship comes floating in toward the rocks inhabited by something more sinister than ghosts and more dangerous than pirates. Over the course of three days and nights, trapped inside the lighthouse, the men succumb to madness…
The radio play would be performed several times over the course of a decade, not only on Escape (which specialized in stories of high adventure and intrigue), but also on Suspense, and while other actors performed the role, Vincent Price was the most well known and his performance is downright haunting. Have a listen below!
#3 The Dream starring Boris Karloff on Lights Out!
Originally airing in 1938, “The Dream” starred Boris Karloff as a man haunted by his dreams. Dreams that urged him to kill.
Unlike Suspense and Escape which included horror tales from time to time, Lights Out! was one of the first radio show solely dedicated to the genre and they drew in a host of big name stars to perform their plays from 1934 to 1947. Over the years, they produced many high quality stories, but few could outrank Karloff’s performance here which was lauded as one of the finest of his career.
#4 Sorry, Wrong Number starring Agnes Moorehead on Suspense
Another tale from Lucille Fletcher for Suspense, Agnes Moorehead stars as a bedridden woman who overhears a murder plot through a bad connection on her phone. Moorehead, most famous today for her role as the quintessential shade throwing wicked witch Endora on the popular 60s sitcom “Bewtiched”, drew listeners into a world full of sickening tension as he attempts to unravel who the men were and who they intended to murder.
The radio play was so popular that Moorehead was asked back several times over the years to repeat her performance. Eventually, the show prompted a big screen adaptation starring film noir icon Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck was nominated for an Oscar for her performance, but even though the adaptation was great, the film doesn’t hold a candle to the tension Moorehead managed to build with her voice alone.
#5 The Dunwich Horror starring Ronald Colman on Suspense
Many film makers over the years have attempted to adapt H.P. Lovecraft for the big screen. With few exceptions most have failed miserably. I’ve often thought it was because one simply couldn’t visually project the horrors Lovecraft created. How does one create a creature whose very visage could drive men insane without falling short, after all?
That’s why this radio adaptation works so much better than those film makers failed attempts. When sight is removed, the imagination will begin to provide the visual images and clues, and that, readers, is where the real magic happens.
Have a listen and see if you don’t agree.
#6 Valse Triste on Lights Out
Two vacationing women find themselves held captive by a violin playing murderer. One he will marry, and one he will kill. Easily one of the most tense plays on this list, “Valse Triste” could teach contemporary film makers a thing or two about scaring their audience.
#7 The Trap starring Agnes Moorehead on Suspense
Agnes Moorehead appeared on Suspense so often that she became known as the “first lady of suspense” by her peers. You heard her appearance earlier in “Sorry, Wrong Number”, and “The Trap” takes a similar route through tension as Moorehead plays Helen, a sweet natured woman who lives alone. Or does she?
Moorehead is at her best as she begins to notice things moved about her home on their own, food missing from the pantries, and even a strange whistling in the night.Is she losing her mind? Is she being haunted? Or is someone gaslighting her, trying to push her over the edge?
Click play and find out!
#8 The Horla starring Peter Lorre on Mystery in the Air
Based on the 1887 story by Guy de Maupassant, listeners were left to wonder if Peter Lorre’s character was being haunted or merely succumbing to paranoia in the course of this masterful horror radio classic. Add haunting music played on a Theremin to Lorre’s manic performance, and you have the perfect recipe for terror.
Mystery in the Air ran for only a short time with many of its shows based on classic stories, but it was the perfect vehicle for Lorre, who starred in many of their episodes.
#9 The Tell-Tale Heart starring Fred Gwynne on CBS Mystery Theater
Adapted from the classic tale by Edgar Allan Poe, this radio play stars Fred Gwynne, famous for his role as Herman Munster on “The Munsters”. Updated for the 1970s with added layers of abuse for a more modern audience, Gwynne’s deep voice is perfect for this horror tale.
You won’t want to miss this masterful performance, and the terror it will inspire.