16 September: The terrors of the soul

Arch Oboler. (Photo: NBC.)

Arch Oboler. (Photo: NBC.)

Arch Oboler hardly flinched when he was handed the job of taking Wyllis Cooper’s reins for Lights Out, when Cooper left his creation in May 1936 for what proved a modest screenwriting career. Before his first Lights Out run is finished, Oboler will write and direct over a hundred installments, developing the stream-of-consciousness techniques that help establish him as radio’s new macabre master.

Oboler’s particular specialty is his deft use of silences, his ability to allow individual listeners to fill them in “with the terrors of his own soul,” as he phrases it. In very short order, Oboler has become famous enough that Lights Out will be remembered as his calling card and few during the peak of network radio will seem to remember that Cooper had created it in the first place.

As his fame grew, Oboler found himself in the enviable though frightening position of competing with himself. Each week he strove to top his last performance, an exhausting and ultimately impossible goal. But the pursuit produced seasonal high spots  that kept his name on radio front burners . . . That Oboler was an innovator is beyond doubt; love him or hate him, almost everyone in radio will give him that. If his horror plays do not often stand the test of time, it may simply be that freedoms of the modern age have allowed so much more graphic horror to be seen as well as heard. What frightened so deeply fifty years ago can seem dated and even preposterous today.

John Dunning, in On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio.

Perhaps, however, the very trait that Dunning will fear dates Lights Out beyond the network radio era might be the very thing that removes much of its dated quality. Saturated nigh unto death with too-graphic horror presentations, it may prove that a 21st Century listener discovering Lights Out will find that what Oboler achieves with nothing but a mind’s-eye-and-ear delivery induces what the over-the-top graphics of his successors in that freer era merely wish they could induce, a genuine soul-deep terror . . . of the kind Wyllis Cooper himself would refine and master even more acutely with his eventual masterwork of horrific fantasy, Quiet, Please.

Which makes it more than a shame that almost the entire first season of Wyllis Cooper’s Lights Out will appear to be lost forever to that 21st Century audience.


Lights Out: The Sea (NBC, 1936)

A dutiful son’s words to his mother before going on a fateful sea operation (The sea has made me fortune, and the sea will bring me back) come to haunt the woman, who was torn between the dutiful son and the shiftless, fanciful, brawling son who lured his brother into the dangerous job. Who says “Chicken Heart” was the best of this series’ legendary stories?

Cast and announcer: Unidentified. Sound: Bill Brown, Jerry McCarty. Writer/director: Arch Oboler.


Further Channel Surfing . . .

Lum & Abner: The First Day of School; or, Stranger Looking for President of the Mine (NBC Blue, 1935)
Suspense: The Kettler Method (CBS, 1942)
Suspense: The Cross-Eyed Bear (CBS, 1943)
Words at War: Since You Went Away (NBC, 1943)
The Whistler: The Brass Ring (CBS, 1946)
The Milton Berle Show: Salute to Radio (NBC, 1947)
The Comic Weekly Man: Remembering Alice, Hoppy, and the Prince (NBC, 1951)
You Bet Your Life: The Secret Word is “People” (Season premiere; NBC, 1953)
Fibber McGee & Molly: The Lost Library Book (NBC, 1954)


Special Report: War of Words (Czech European Radio , 1938)

The Nazi propaganda machine ramps up over the Sudetenland crisis, despite President Benes’s reluctant martial law order having restored a fair semblance of order, according to this news report by an unidentified English-speaking reporter.

This entry was posted in old-time radio. Bookmark the permalink.