They 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…”
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…
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.
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 Guildea” – Escape – 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 Key” – Escape – 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.
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 Door” – The 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.”
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.
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.
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…?”