Lights Out was an extremely popular American radio show, an early example of a network series devoted mostly to horror and the supernatural, predating Suspense and Inner Sanctum. Versions of Lights Out aired on different networks, at various times, from January 1934 to the summer of 1947 and the series eventually made the transition to television.
In the fall of 1933, NBC writer Wyllis Cooper – who also wrote the screenplay for Bride of Frankenstein – conceived the idea of “a midnight mystery serial to catch the attention of the listeners at the witching hour.” The idea was to offer listeners a dramatic program late at night, at a time when the competition was mostly airing music. At some point, the serial concept was dropped in favor of an anthology format emphasising crime thrillers and the supernatural. The first series of shows (each 15 minutes long) ran on a local NBC station, WENR, at midnight Wednesdays, starting in January 1934. By April, the series proved successful enough to expand to a half hour.
Cooper’s run was characterized by grisly stories spiked with dark, tongue-in-cheek humor, a sort of radio Grand Guignol. A character might be buried or eaten or skinned alive, vaporized in a ladle of white-hot steel, absorbed by a giant slurping amoeba, have his arm torn off by a robot, or forced to endure torture, beating or decapitation – always with the appropriate blood-curdling acting and sound effects.
Though there had been efforts at horror on radio previously (notably The Witch’s Tale), there does not seem to have been anything quite as explicit or outrageous as this on a regular basis. When the series switched to the national network, a decision was made to tone down the gore and emphasize tamer fantasy and ghost stories.
In the mid-1940s, Cooper’s decade-old scripts were used for three brief summertime revivals of Lights Out. The surviving recordings reveal that Cooper was experimenting with both stream of consciousness and first-person narration a few years before these techniques were popularized in American radio drama by, among others, Arch Oboler and Orson Welles.
From early 1934 to mid 1936, Cooper produced close to 120 scripts for Lights Out. Some episode titles include “The Mine of Lost Skulls,” “Sepulzeda’s Revenge,” “Three Lights From a Match,” “Play Without a Name,” and “Lost in the Catacombs” (about a honeymoon couple in Rome who lose their way in the catacombs under the city). Typical plots included:
- A novelist, struggling to write a locked room mystery, locks himself in his office only to be interrupted by a stranger who resembles the story’s murderer.
- A killer named “Nails” Malone has “a conference with his conscience” about the murders he’s committed.
- A scientist accidentally creates a giant amoeba that grows rapidly, eats living things (like the lab assistant’s cat), and exhibits powers of mind control.
The series had little music scoring save for the thirteen chime notes that opened the program (after a deep voice intoned, “Lights out, everybody!”) and an ominous gong which was used to punctuate a scene and provide the transition to another.
When Cooper departed, his replacement – a young, eccentric and ambitious Arch Oboler – picked up where he left off, often following Cooper’s general example but investing the scripts with his own concerns. Oboler made imaginative use of stream-of-consciousness narration and sometimes introduced social and political themes that reflected his commitment to antifascist liberalism.
In June 1936, Oboler’s first script for Lights Out was “Burial Service,” about a paralyzed girl who is buried alive. NBC was flooded with outraged letters in response. His next story, one of his most popular efforts, was the frequently repeated “Catwife,” about the desperate husband of a woman who turns into a giant feline. He followed with “The Dictator,” about Roman emperor Caligula. This set the pattern for Oboler’s run: For every two horror episodes, he said later, he would try to write one drama on subjects that were ostensibly more serious, usually moral, social, and political issues.
In the spring of 1938, the series earned a good deal of publicity for its fourth anniversary as a half-hour show when actor Boris Karloff traveled to Chicago to appear in five consecutive episodes.
Among his roles: an accused murderer haunted by an unearthly creature urging him to “kill…kill…kill” in “The Dream”; the desperate husband in a rebroadcast of “Catwife”; and a mad, violin-playing hermit who imprisons a pair of women, threatening to murder one and marry the other, in “Valse Triste.”
Other well-remembered Oboler tales, many of them written in the 1930s and rebroadcast in the ’40s, include:
- “Come to the Bank,” in which a man learns to walk through walls but gets stuck when he tries to rob a vault.
- “Oxychloride X,” about a chemist who invents a substance that can eat through anything.
- “Murder Castle,” based on the real-life case of H. H. Holmes, Chicago’s notorious serial killer.
- “Profits Unlimited,” a still-relevant allegory on the promises and dangers of capitalism.
- “Spider,” in which two men attempt to capture a giant arachnid.
- “The Flame,” a weird exercise in supernatural pyromania.
- “Sub-Basement,” which finds yet another husband and wife in peril—this time trapped far beneath a department store in the subterranean railway of the Chicago Tunnel Company.
Lights Out often featured metafictional humour. Perhaps inspired by Cooper’s “The Coffin in Studio B,” in which actors rehearsing an episode of Lights Out are interrupted by a mysterious coffin salesman peddling his wares, Oboler wrote stories like “Murder in the Script Department,” in which two Lights Out script typists become trapped in their building after hours as frightening, unexplained events occur. In “The Author and the Thing,” Oboler even plays himself pitted against one of his own monstrous creations.
The success of Oboler’s 1942-1943 Lights Out revival was part of a trend in 1940s American radio toward more horror. Genre series like Inner Sanctum, Suspense and others drew increasingly large ratings.
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In 1946, NBC Television brought Lights Out to TV in a series of four specials, broadcast live and produced by Fred Coe, who also contributed three of the scripts. Critical response was mixed but the program was successful for several seasons.
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The 1949-1952 series featured scripts by a variety of authors, including a young Ira Levin (author of Rosemary’s Baby). In 1951, producer Swope even bought a few stories from Cooper and Oboler. “Dead Man’s Coat,” starring Basil Rathbone, was adapted from one of Cooper’s 1930s plays. Among the young actors employed was Leslie Nielsen, who appeared in several episodes including “The Lost Will of Dr. Rant,” based on “The Tractate Middoth”, anM. R. James story. These and many others are available on DVD.
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In 1972, NBC aired yet another TV incarnation of Lights Out, a TV movie pilot which was not well received. In fact, Oboler announced publicly that he had nothing to do with it.