From it’s first show to its last,
was billed as “The ultimate in horror.” Never had such sounds been heard
on the air. Heads rolled, bones were crushed, people fell from great
heights and splattered wetly on pavement. Few shows had ever combined
the talents of actors and imaginative writers so well with the graphic
art of the sound technician. The thrills are back at network radio!
Lights Out was an American old-time radio
program featuring “tales of the supernatural and the supernormal.” It
was immensely popular, and was one of the first horror
programs, predating Suspense
and Inner Sanctum.
In its heyday, Lights Out rivaled the popularity of those
Lights Out ran
through several series and networks, from January 1, 1934 to August 6,
1947. The principal sponsor was Ironized Yeast. Most episodes were
broadcast at midnight. Lights Out then made the transition to television
in 1949, where it was broadcast until 1952.
Lights Out was created in Chicago
by Wyllis Cooper
and the first series of shows ran 15 minutes on a local station. In 1935
the show was picked up by NBC
and was reformatted to the standard half-hour length. Cooper stayed on
the program for a while as writer, but when another writer on the show, Arch Oboler,
was promoted to director and host the series took off in popularity.
(Cooper later wrote a few movies, and created Quiet, Please,
another fine radio program.)
Each episode of Lights Out began with an ominously tolling bell,
over which Oboler read the cryptic tagline:
“It... is... later... than... you... think.” This was followed by a dour
“warning” to listeners to turn off their radios if they felt their
constitutions were too delicate to handle the frightening tale that was
about to unfold. Naturally, the intended—and successful—effect of this
was more tantalizing than off-putting. While many of the episodes may
seem dated today, more retain their ability to generate chills.
Oboler’s horror tales made effective use of sound
effects and atmosphere. Listeners were treated to the ghastly sounds of
skulls being crushed and people being eaten. One episode, 1937‘s
“Chicken Heart”, is said to have frightened listeners almost as badly as Orson Welles‘ Mercury Theater
presentation of The War of the
Worlds did the following year. Bill Cosby‘s 1966
album Wonderfulness relates his humorous account of staying up late
against his parent’ wishes and being frightened by this episode.
A winking sense of self-referential, metafictional
humor sometimes enlivened the proceedings; in “The Coffin in Studio B”,
two Lights Out script typists become trapped in their
building after hours as frightening, unexplained events occur.
After Lights Out’s radio run, Oboler
went on to Hollywood
to write and produce a number of films, including the notorious 3-D
schlock-fest Bwana Devil.
Prized by collectors today, extant episodes of Lights Out are nonetheless sparse: much of Oboler’s run survives, but many early
episodes under Cooper’s direction are presumed lost.