Fear You Can Hear: 31 of the Scariest Old Time Radio Episodes

the_witchs_taleThey say a picture’s worth a thousand words, but, when it comes to the best old-time radio horror, each word is worth a thousand pictures.

By using voices, sound effects, and snippets of music, masters of radio terror turned what could’ve been a disadvantage of the medium—we can’t see what’s happening—into their greatest asset.

Radio writers and actors spawned monsters that the technology of the time couldn’t have realistically portrayed on film. They suggested depravity and gore that screen censorship would’ve banned. And they could manipulate the imagination so that listeners themselves collaborated in the summoning of their worst fears.

In case you can’t tell, I adore old-time ratio (OTR) horror. After countless hours poring over archives of old shows, I’ve selected 31 bloodcurdling episodes, from 1934 all the way up to 1979, for your pleasure.

A few caveats… First, scariness is obviously a very subjective thing. These are my personal choices. If I missed one of your favorite spooky OTR episodes, feel free to mention it in the comments. I also tried to include episodes from a wide range of series. I could easily have filled this list up with only a few shows, but what would be the fun in that?

Finally, although I did venture outside of my pre-1965 comfort zone, I draw the line before CBC’s Nightfall, since, unlike CBS Mystery Radio Theater, it has a more distinctly modern vibe to me. (My favorite Nightfall episode is The Porch Light, though, if you’re wondering.)

1. “The Devil Doctor” – The Witch’s Tale – January 8, 1934

Created by Alonzo Deen Cole, The Witch’s Tale was the first radio show devoted to horror and the supernatural. Its tales often had a Gothic feel to them, probing into a fantastic past when sorcerers and spirits roamed the earth and made mere mortals their playthings. Alas, only a small percentage of episodes survive to this day.

In “The Devil Doctor,” a long-dead warlock in league with Satan rises from the dead and seeks a woman’s blood to reassimilate his decayed body.

2. “The House on Lost Man’s Bluff” – The Hermit’s Cave – c. 1930s

The Hermit’s Cave‘s plots were often formulaic, but the series outdid itself here. This episode easily stands among best and most disturbing haunted house stories from the golden age of radio.

Car trouble forces a woman, her cold and snappish husband, and her brother to spend the night in a deserted house with a macabre past. A long stretch of airtime filled by nothing but breathing and quiet footsteps never fails to spook the hell out of me.

3. “Dracula” – Mercury Theater – 11 July, 1938

A few months before he shook up America with his War of the Worlds martian hoax, Orson Welles played everyone’s favorite undead count with sinister aplomb. I first listened to this all alone at night when I was a teenager, and it scared the bejeezus out of me. When the shadows grow long, I can still hear Welles intoning, “Blood of my blood…”

lights_out_banner

4. “The Dream” – Lights Out! – March 23, 1938

Created by Wyllis Cooper and taken over in 1936 by Arch Oboler, Lights Out! epitomizes old time radio horror (for this listener, at least). Though occasionally campy in retrospect, the show’s original stories usually hit the mark and yanked at the deepest human fears—fear of the unknown, fear of inherently evil people, fear of ourselves…

In “The Dream,” Boris Karloff delivers perhaps his greatest radio performance as a man whose recurrent nightmare urges him to kill, kill, KILL!

5. “Poltergeist” – Lights Out! – October 20, 1942

A trio of working girls unknowingly desecrates a snowy graveyard. They find themselves pursued by a murderous spirit on a snowy night.

6. “Valse Triste” – Lights Out! – December 29, 1942

Two women on vacation fall into the clutches of a soft-spoken, violin-playing psychopath who decides to take one of them as his bride—and kill the other. Honestly, I consider this episode the scariest on the whole list. Arch Oboler breathed life into a a very human, very plausible monster. “Valse Triste” chills me to the bone every time I listen.

7. “The Flame” – Lights Out! – March 23, 1943

By looking into the base of a flame, a man releases a diabolical female fire spirit who forces him to commit arson and threatens to burn his fiancée to death.

8. “Carmilla” – Columbia Workshop – July 28, 1940

Queen of radio suspense writing Lucille Fletcher modernized J.S. LeFanu’s vampire novel, and the result is just as unsettling as you might hope. Jeanette Nolan (a sexy and terrifying Lady Macbeth on film for Orson Welles) exudes wicked sensuality through her voice alone, seducing then drawing the life out of her prey.

9. “The Demon Tree” – Dark Fantasy – December 5, 1941

A young aristocrat decides to investigate a gnarled old tree supposedly hexed by a witch to bring ruin to his family. He and his band of friends should’ve gone to look at it before sunset…

agnes_moorehead_suspense

10. “The Dunwich Horror” – Suspense – November 1, 1945

A sophisticated long-running series with enviable production values, Suspense has aged perhaps better than any other old time radio show. Although it specialized in crime thrillers, Suspense made quite a few forays into out-and-out horror. Last year I actually did a post on 13 favorite scary Suspense episodes—although somehow I missed “The Dunwich Horror.” Shame on me!

Wilbur Whateley, the dangerously odd grandson of the village crackpot, wants to get his hands the local university’s copy of the Necronomicon. But why does he want it? Does it have to do with whatever he’s keeping locked up in his barn—and feeding on blood? As the professor narrating the story, Ronald Colman captures much of the cerebral terror that H.P. Lovecraft evoked so well.

11. “The House in Cypress Canyon” – Suspense – December 5, 1946

The golden ideal of radio horror, “The House in Cypress Canyon” is as impossible to explain as it is to forget. The episode begins, as so many scary OTR episodes do, with a young husband and wife moving into a new home. Soon they hear a howling in the night and run afoul of an otherworldly presence that threatens to destroy them both.

12. “Ghost Hunt” – Suspense – June 23, 1949

A zany radio host decides to spend the night in a famous haunted house and see what his microphone picks up. He doesn’t make it out alive, but we get to hear the recording. This episode’s clever premise foreshadows the popularity of the “found footage” horror subgenre. It’s not just spooky—it’s meta spooky.

13. “The Whole Town Sleeping” – Suspense – June 14, 1955

Agnes Moorehead delivers a typically electrifying performance as a level-headed spinster who makes the mistake of walking home alone at night while a serial killer prowls her little Midwestern town. Based on a story by Ray Bradbury, this episode is mostly told in real time, literally step by step, as fear consumes the protagonist.

peter_lorre

14. “The Horla” – Mystery in the Air – August 21, 1947

How do you make Guy de Maupassant’s uncanny story about a parasitic phantom (or paranoid schizophrenia, you decide) even creepier? Just add Theremin music and a full-throttle Peter Lorre performance! This may be the apex of Lorre’s radio hysterics, culminating in an ending so intense that it must’ve made listeners at home wonder if dear Peter had finally lost his sh*t.

15. “Evening Primrose” – Escape – November 5, 1947

Like Suspense, Escape was a prestigious, long-running show that specialized in adventurous fare, not necessarily horror. But when it got spooky, it got leave-a-nightlight-on-and-sleep-with-a-knife-under-your-pillow spooky!

A penniless poet decides to move into a department store and live in ease and comfort off of its inventory. He didn’t bargain for the race of pale mutants who already live there. Or for how they dispose of anyone who rebels against them.

16. “Casting the Runes” – Escape – November 19, 1947

In this adaptation of M.R. James’s classic, a scholar fights to lift the ghastly curse leveled at him by a vengeful occult master. The same story forms the basis of Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon.

17.How Love Came to Professor GuildeaEscape – February 22, 1948

A haughty intellectual dismisses human love as a weakness. Unfortunately for him, something decidedly not human falls in love with him. And it doesn’t take rejection well.

18.Three Skeleton KeyEscape – August 9, 1953

Vincent Price brings the creeps as only he can in this claustrophobic classic. A horde of bloodthirsty rats lays siege to a tropical lighthouse, driving the 3 men who live and work there to the point of insanity.

19. “Whence Came You?” – Quiet, Please – February 16, 1948

Why would a man be worried by a beautiful woman following him? Because she smells of ancient Egyptian enbalming herbs… An American archaeologist, trailed through Cairo by a mysterious lady, insists on completing his latest dig. He’ll unearth something holy, astonishing, and lethal. But will it let him go?

This story shows how Quiet, Please mastermind Wyllis Cooper could take well-worn horror motifs and settings (Egypt, mummies, tombs, etc.) and make them scary again. He uses detail to build our trust, all the while amping up the dread factor, until fantastic, mystical things suddenly don’t seem so ridiculous.

20. “The Thing on the Fourble Board” – Quiet, Please – August 9, 1948

Quiet, Please wasn’t a horror series as much as a series of haunting ruminations, in my opinion. However, Wyllis Cooper delivered chills for the ages with this justly celebrated tale of an oil rig roughneck who encounters a creature risen from the bowels of the earth.

inner_sanctum

21. “The Vengeful Corpse” – Inner Sanctum Mysteries – September 12, 1949

Today we tend to remember Inner Sanctum best for the sneering, sardonic antics and bad puns of its Crypt Keeper-like host, Raymond. The series served up a lot of mysteries and pulpy crime thrillers with spooky trimmings and plenty of gore, but generally avoided the supernatural (often through annoying cop-out endings).

Only every now and then did the series venture into the realm of the truly horrific, like in this grisly standout episode. An old hag burned as a witch centuries ago returns from the grave to exact retribution on the decendents of her persecutors. (For a terrific seasonal episode that’s also genuinely disturbing, I recommend Corpse for Halloween, which aired on Halloween night, 1949.)

22. Behind the Locked DoorThe Mysterious Traveler – November 6, 1951

A distraught, delirious archaeology student tells how his expedition into an Arizona cave, sealed for centuries, went horribly awry. Without giving too much away, let me just say that if you liked “The Thing on the Fourble Board,” this perennial favorite will be your cup of tea, as well.

23. “He Who Follows Me” – The Hall of Fantasy – March 11, 1950

I confess, The Hall of Fantasy is my favorite series on this list. Why? The sheer macabre bleakness of creator Richard Thorne’s vision. Evil often wins in his stories and adaptations, reminding us of the inevitability of our own deaths. Isn’t that why we take pleasure in horror? Aren’t we inoculating ourselves against the ultimate bad news of our existence? (Sorry, I’ve had too much black tea today, and it makes me melancholic.)

Transplanting M.R. James’s “Count Magnus” to 1940s America, this episode centers on the unfortunate fate of two travelers who unwittingly stumble into the mausoleum of a man known as “the death that walks.”

bannerx

24. “The Shadow People” – The Hall of Fantasy – September 5, 1952

A horde of murderous entities that only come out at night are hellbent on wiping out a family. This suspenseful episode showcases the unnerving brilliance of Richard Thorne in full force. It will literally make you afraid of the dark, as all great horror should.

25. “The Masks of Ashor” – The Hall of Fantasy – March 9, 1953

A happy, normal couple receives a pair of exotic solid gold masks from a globetrotting relative. And things get strange. Deadly strange.

26. “The Man in Black” – Hall of Fantasy – July 6, 1953

Two men out for a stroll one night run into a terrified woman babbling about a devilish man in black. Soon they become the next targets of this undead menace. This episode’s power lies in the nightmare logic of its storyline. It’s like some feverish, nocturnal hallucination that you can’t quite shake even as day breaks.

bannertree

27. “An Evening’s Entertainment” – The Black Mass – October 31, 1964

Gathered around the fire with her grandchildren, an old woman unravels the gory legends surrounding a forbidden tract of land, once the site of bloody pagan rituals, and the dire deaths that befell anyone foolhardy enough to trespass on it—or to try to revive those ancient rites.

28. “Lancerford House” – Beyond Midnight – January 24, 1969

Don’t move the ugly green vase that sits in the parlor at Lancerford House. Don’t lift it. Don’t even touch it. Because, if you do, something in the attic won’t like it.

29. “The Wendigo” – Theater 10:30 – before 1971

A party of hunters lost in the deep woods encounter a malicious whirlwind of Native legend that drags humans along and steals their souls. This radio adaptation of Algernon Blackwood’s bone-chiller captures the creeping tension and disorientation of confident men forced to confront a terrifying manifestation of nature’s power. And the howling of that wind… it stays with you.

devil

30. “Possessed by the Devil” – CBS Radio Mystery Theater – October 10, 1974

Just as horror movies upped the ante during the 1970s, so too did radio. Still, I sort of can’t believe that CBS got away with this episode, which features, among other things, satanic rites at a college and a brutal sex crime. Most stomach-churning of all is the utterly credible demonic voice emanating from the man possessed.

31. “Hickory, Dickory Doom” – CBS Radio Mystery Theater – February 26, 1979

At a garage sale, a couple buys an antique grandfather clock with strange shapes in the wood grain. In fact, the heirloom conceals a sinister portal that, once opened, could have cataclysmic consequences for the world as we know it.

As our friend Raymond from Inner Sanctum would say,“Pleasant dreams, hmmmmmm…?”

Advertisements

29 thoughts on “Fear You Can Hear: 31 of the Scariest Old Time Radio Episodes

  1. A great list! I think the only favorite of mine that’s not on here is “On A Country Road.” -Suspense -November 16, 1950

    • I wrote a film adaptation of On a Country Road. It shot last year and starred Kip Weeks (“The Strangers”) and Sharon Smyth Lentz (“Dark Shadows”) as is available for rent or purchase here: http://onacountryroad.vhx.tv/

      OK, end of ad. This is a great list. The Thing on the Fourble Board, Three Skeleton Key, and The House in Cypress Canyon really messed me up as a kid. Whence Came You? really messed me up as an adult. These shows really hold up and still pack a hell of a punch.

  2. What a great post. I am absolutely loving these, thanks so much! Have listened to a fair few already and suspect in time I will listen to them all, my favourite so far is ‘The Horla’, gosh Peter Lorre throws heart and soul into that performance doesn’t he? Thanks again.

  3. Great to find another fan of radio drama! I’ve listened to a fair amount of these but even the “old favorites” are always worthy of having their praises sung, especially in this day and age when we hear so rarely of them. I actually did a DARK FANTASY retrospective over at bare*bones e-zine that can be seen here: http://barebonesez.blogspot.com/search/label/Dark%20Fantasy.

    You are right though: HALL OF FANTASY was definitely the more unremittingly bleaker of the two. And I adore QUIET, PLEASE. So melancholy, so tragic! And NIGHTFALL is fantastic too, a real goosebump-inducer (see the ending to “Angel of Death”, among others). So many damn good shows. I could go on for days. Thanks so much for these recommendations!

  4. Pingback: Fear You Can Hear: 31 of the Scariest Old Time Radio Episodes for Halloween | Sean Writes Stuff Much

  5. So glad to se #30, Hickory, Dickory Doom included. My parents and I used to love listening to CBS Mystery Theater. I heard this when I was 13. This may be the only radio episode that truly frightened me.

  6. This is great! I belong to a group, Radio Players West, that reenacts radio shows on stage in the Chicago area. We will be doing The House in Cypress Canyon this weekend!

    • The House in Cypress Canyon is just about the scariest thing I’ve ever heard. I first heard it when I was 10 years old when my 5th-grade teacher (an avid collector who got me hooked on OTR) played it for the class. I have a 12-year-old and a 10-year-old, and frankly, I don’t think either one of them could handle it. Nevertheless, I absolutely loved it.

  7. Lights out and Quiet Please are two of my favorites! Truthfully I enjoy a store that leaves a little hope for the good folks (though LO and QP didn’t often do this either). One of my favorite Lights Out episodes is “A Knock at the Door” which has a pretty grim ending – I found it on YouTube here: https://youtu.be/k2UBSy0m1Bk
    Talk about your awful mother-in-laws….

  8. Excellent list with a small correction: The star of Whole Town Sleeping is not Agnes Moorehead but Jeannette Nolan, another great radio actress who was often tapped for roles one can imagine Miss Moorehead inhabiting as well.

  9. The well-known episodes like The Thing on the Fourble Board, The House in Cypress Canyon, & The House on Lost Man’s Bluff are top-notch spinechillers. In fact, I think Three Skeleton Key (The Vincent Price version) is one of the best shows ever recorded. But this list includes more obscure auditory frights like Lancerford House and The Wendigo, which are truly gripping horror classics. Fantastic! Well chosen! Thank you. As a long-time fan, there are still a few here I’ve never heard of.

    I chime in only to mention some of my favorites as well: The Hairy Monster from The Witch’s Tale, Hall of Fantasy’s Dance of the Devil Dolls, and Clarissa from Quiet, Please.

    I often forget which scary tales I’ve listened to and have to record their plot summaries. If anyone’s interested in how I rated them, it’s here:
    http://www.awakeatmidnight.com/oldtimeradio/otr/

  10. I know this list is old, but i cannot reccomend the show “Snow Shadow Area” from Vanishing Point highly enough. It is theeee most terrifying thing I have ever heard, reminds me of “the Shining” as it features snow and paranoid weirdness.

  11. Great list; happy to see someone else remembers Lorre’s “Horla” – there’s not another ending like that in the medium, and he was the only one who could have done it.

  12. Thanks for these. Three Skeleton Key I heard at an early age and it made a huge impression on me. It has been a lifelong dream to adapt this for film. Had never heard The Devil Doctor, The Demon Tree or The Dunwich Horror and enjoyed those very much. Particularly the last, Lovecraft seems to work well with radio.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s