Spine-chilling thrills lurked in the 1940s’ ‘theater of the mind’
“If you frighten easily, turn off our radio dial now,” the ominous voice on the radio announced, following up with its chilling weekly warning: “It is later than you think.” Between each word, a gong boomed in the background, dramatically accenting the eerie effect.
The year was 1946. Every Friday at 7 p.m., Arch Oboler thrilled audiences with the program Lights Out. Listeners felt a cold chill crawl over them at the beginning of each episode as a voice from the radio crowed, “This is the witching hour, … the time when dogs howl … and evil is let loose on a sleeping world. Want to hear about it? Then turn off your lights and come close to your radio.” And people in millions of homes across America did exactly that.
Lights Out debuted in 1935 and soon became the forerunner of radio’s macabre mystery era. Faithful followers tuned in each week to be joyfully scared by mysteries such as Lights Out, Inner Sanctum, The Shadow and The Whistler.
The radio was America’s main source of entertainment and news in the ’40s; 90 percent of households owned a radio, and most of them tuned in an average of two to four hours a day.
Back then, kids by the millions listened breathlessly to the tales of horror and doom. Tantalized and mesmerized by descriptive dialogue and realistic sound effects, our imaginations soared into high gear. They listened in rapt silence, totally immersed in each rousing episode hanging on valiantly to every exciting word, flesh goose-bumped with fear.
Among the most celebrated of radio’s crime investigators was an invisible sleuth known as The Shadow. The Shadow was the alter-ego of Lamont Cranston, who was dramatically portrayed on CBS radio by popular actor Brett Morrison. Part of The Shadow’s popularity sprang from his remarkable ability to roam freely among people sight unseen – a little trick he learned while traveling in the Orient.
With all the lights in the room turned off and only a dull glimmer coming from the radio dial, living room audiences gave The Shadow their undivided attention. The entire family listened to this program each week in numbed silence, their concentration focused only on The Shadow’s every syllable.
It was probably one of the few times families sat in such close proximity without bickering. At the conclusion of these thrillers their bravado had diminished to a whimper, and one of them would call out, “S-somebody, t-turn on th-the l-lights, please.”
In 1936, a young Orson Welles stepped in as the voice of The Shadow. After his infamous Mercury Theater broadcast, “War of the Worlds,” in October 1937, he had to give up the role because his voice had gained nationwide notoriety.
“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of man? The Shadow knows,” the announcer called out before each show, followed by a blood-curdling laugh and ghoulish groans, screams and moans.
This show was definitely not for the faint of heart. At the close of every episode, the announcer signed off with his usual pearl of wisdom: “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay. The Shadow knows.” Fade-out with screeching laughter and the swell of dramatic organ chords.
Another of radio’s most listened-to thrillers was Inner Sanctum, a long-running show of the ’30s and ’40s. Each episode began with the eerie sound of a door screeching slowly open and the announcer’s greeting: “Gooooood eeevening friends of the Inner Sanctum. The host, occasionally voiced by Boris Karloff, was named Raaaaaymond. After telling us the weekly tale, he would apologize for the stories’ frightening contents and wish us all pleasaaaaaant dreeeeeaams” as the door squeaked shut.
The squeaky door, so much a part of every show, was actually a door in the studio’s stockroom. The producer, hearing the noisy squeak, knew it would be perfect for the opening of his show. When the program moved to NBC in 1941, they had to leave the door behind and hire a technician to create a door with the same familiar sound. After the squeak was finally perfected, the story goes, an unknowing janitor oiled its creaky hinges. It took the technician hours of overtime to get the squeak just right again.
Radio has been described as the “theater of the mind,” and those who remember how their imaginations painted vivid and spectacular pictures while sitting transfixed by radio’s weekly episodes will agree with that analogy. Radio touched everyone’s hearts and lives in a way few entertainment inventions have ever done since.