Cannibals And Cat Women: How A Creepy Classic Radio Program Came To Be
by Chris Morgan
Delivering scares, according to Wyllis Cooper, was a matter of “raiding the larder.” His radio program “Lights Out,” which premiered in 1934 on NBC station WENR in Chicago, aired at midnight, specializing in tales of the horror and supernatural. Food, pots and cutlery provided sound effects for a wide range of disturbing acts from Cooper’s scripts, including breaking bones (cracking spare ribs), burning flesh (frying bacon), severed appendages (chopping carrots and cabbages), being murdered (stabbing raw pork), cannibalism (eating spaghetti), and so on. Cooper, a former advertising copywriter and continuity editor for CBS and NBC, ran the show for two years, exiting for a career in Hollywood (to write such films as Son Of Frankenstein). The show was handed over to Arch Oboler, another Chicago writer with credits to mainstream shows like “Grand Hotel.” In “Lights Out” the 26 year old saw a chance to push his own artistic ambitions. Where Cooper’s scripts were punctuated with gross-out sound effects and bits of mordant, pulpy humor, Oboler sought to create terror through the gradual ratcheting up of atmosphere and psychological tension. His debut episode, “Burial Services,” told the tale of a paralyzed girl being buried alive. As John Dunning recounts in On The Air, the backlash was immediate, and NBC was inundated with more than 50,000 letters of complaint.
While not his creation, “Lights Out” today is mostly associated with Oboler, and for good reason. (Oboler himself, though, would continue to credit Cooper for the originality of what he’d created with the show for decades after.) As Cooper had, Oboler wrote and directed most of the episodes. Early drafts were written as Oboler lay in bed, speaking lines and acting out scenes into a Dictaphone as they occurred to him, a cigarette going in one hand. This method allowed him to produce scripts at a prolific rate, and it also gave the stories an odd, fluid, experimental quality. The “Lights Out” episodes written by Oboler could play more like tone poems than narratives, sometimes being told from the stream-of-consciousness inner-monologue of a single character, such as this one from “Kill.”
I closed my eyes. I slept. And then… it happened. The strange murmuring in my head. Yes, that’s how it started. The murmuring as if in warning. And then in the darkness around me, strange faces lifting and falling… white faces, faces without hope. Their eyes full of horror, their white, bloodless lips pleading wordlessly in a way that made the heart in me cry out in pity!
The best episodes of “Lights Out” were devoid of any moral sense; it was a show low on heroes, hope, or resolution. Here are the plots to a few classic Oboler episodes: The narrator who we hear in “Kill” is driven to murder by the voice of a demonic woman intoning “kill … kill … kill” over and over in his head. (He dies of a heart attack just as his guilty verdict is handed down.) In “The Flame,” a fire obsessive goes full-pyromaniac when he inadvertently conjures a “spirit of the flame,” burning down multiple buildings with scores of people inside, children included. Oboler delved into metafiction as well, going so far as to insert himself at the center of the blackly humorous episode The Author And The Thing. In the story a fatigued Oboler — he played himself in the broadcast — struggles to write his next play (“a press agent named Black killing a man named White” is one abortive plot), only to create a real life “concentration of all the evil in men’s hearts and minds. A tremendous force of fiendishness and inhumanity…” after reading an incantation aloud.
Oboler’s imagination could take episodes into outlandish directions, but his production methods ensured that even the most insane-sounding premises came off. “The Dark” tells of an ambulance crew that encounters a black fog that turns flesh inside out. The sound of the flesh was produced with a rubber glove and a straw basket, but listeners without the privilege of knowing that could only squirm at that simple, effective combination. Chicken Heart, from title to concept, seems even more ridiculous on its face — and indeed, it is literally about a chicken heart that grows ceaselessly, engulfing a city, the United States, North America, and engulfing its protagonist (the scientist who had unwittingly unleashed the horror) before it seemingly spreads across the world. As the episode builds, the rhythmic thumping of the heart grows in intensity as a kind of doom signal. It was enough to stick in the minds of both Bill Cosby, who recalled it both in his standup act and paid tribute to it in an episode of “Fat Albert,” and Stephen King. In Danse Macabre King observes: “Oboler, like so many in the horror field — Alfred Hitchcock is another prime example — are extremely alert to the humor implicit in horror, and the alertness was never better than in the Chicken Heart story, which made you giggle at its very absurdity even as the gooseflesh raced up and down your arms.” The Chicken Heart was not the only odd, outsized terror to be featured in an Oboler stories: “Revolt of the Worms” was about giant worms, and “Cat Wife” was about a man (played by Boris Karloff) whose wife had morphed into a human-sized cat.
“Lights Out” developed a loyal following and when incarnations of it ended, it was usually from lacking a creator rather than an audience. The early run of the show lasted until 1939, a year after Oboler departed to write more mainstream “message” plays about the rise of fascism and other issues that preoccupied him. From 1942 to 1947, however, the show would come and go. Oboler himself resurrected it for a year in 1942, now for CBS. To free up his time for other projects, Oboler reused older episodes, a short-term convenience that became a long-term blessing as the 1942–43 broadcasts are the only ones widely available today.
The show still has its loyal fans, but it’s mostly understood today in the shadow of “The Twilight Zone.” It’s true that Arch Oboler was one of Rod Serling’s chief influences, one who shared with him an urge to moralize in his stories. But “The Twilight Zone” is almost entirely dominated by moralizing, with most of its memorable episodes being wrapped in the framework of having to deliver a pressing message (think here of the critiques of the Cold War in “The Shelter” and “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” or of conformity in “The Eye of the Beholder”). Strangely, given the two shows’ relative fames today, many “Twilight Zone” episodes haven’t aged as well as those of “Lights Out.” Though the show’s production values seem quaint today, its sense of mood hasn’t been so easily equaled. The debt that shows like “The X-Files” and “Millennium,” wherein the unexplained often remains that way, owe to “Lights Out” is greater than the debt “The Twilight Zone” owes to “Lights Out.”
Oboler would leave radio for a less-than-memorable career in film, albeit one that includes work on the first 3D color film, Bwana Devil. But he returned to recording in 1962 with a stereo record that proved to be a perfect swan song for “Lights Out.”
Drop Dead! An Exercise In Horror!, a 36-minute-long album, contains unsettling vignettes in the “Lights Out” style, some of which (“The Dark,” “Chicken Heart”) are abridged versions of old :Lights Out” episodes. The longest track is over eight minutes and the shortest is over a minute and a half, and this included introductions from Oboler himself. There is, at first look, an appearance of mercenary self-cannibalizing to the project, but overall it’s an effective mood record. Listened to today, the atmosphere-heavy but context-light narratives call up associations to (1) witnessed crimes, (2) last year’s found-footage omnibus V/H/S, and (3) noise rock records. Going off on his Dictaphone improvisations, Oboler’s sketches could become dissonant, disorienting, emotionally agitated and absurd. Like the best guitar droning, these plays sink into the listener’s mind rather than confront or scare them outright.
That was the “Lights Out” way, though — scare people, sure: startle them with sound effects, thrill them with ludicrous, spooky plots — but lead the listeners along in such a way that they themselves will supply what’s truly frightening out of their own imaginations.
Chris R. Morgan is the editor of Biopsy magazine.