Column: Summer Screams: Arch Oboler’s “Lights Out”

By J. Keith Haney

Some of my most treasured memories of childhood were listening to cassette tapes of old radio programs. It got to where some of them could put me to sleep at night if I played them enough. This was even true of the Mercury Theatre On the Air’s infamous “War of the Worlds” broadcast. Some nights, I’d be nodding off to the sound of the bloodcurdling screams of burning human beings. But there are two programs that chilled me to the bone to listen to. One was “The Black Museum”, also hosted by Orson Welles. The other one I’m going to talk about today: Arch Oboler’s Lights Out, the radio equivalent of the late-night horror movie.

Though the Chicago-born Oboler and the program became symbiotically linked in the same way that Orson Welles was linked to the Mercury Theatre, Lights Out actually predated Oboler’s involvement by two years. It had originally been created in 1934 by Willis Cooper as a 15-minute program for the Chicago area. It was a very special program from conception, intended to be a scary-suspenseful drama. Thus, it usually ran at hours ranging from 10pm to midnight (the better for impressionable kiddies to be tucked away in their beds…at least, in theory). NBC picked up the program the following year and it was expanded to 30-minute broadcasts. Then Cooper went to Hollywood to write Son of Frankenstein (any resemblance between that film and several elements of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein is purely noncoincidental) and Oboler, who had been a regular writer for radio for over a decade (having honed his skills as a pulp writer after getting himself expelled from the University of Chicago by insulting a professor), was offered the position of director/host by NBC.

Oboler himself was very unenthusiastic about the change. As quoted in Oboler Omnibus: Radio Plays and Personalities, Oboler stated that “a weekly horror play that went on at Tuesday midnight to the somber introduction of 12 doleful chimes, was not exactly my idea of a writing Shangri-La….” However, he gradually realised the unique position that he was being given by the network. He was working in a time slot that nobody cared about, answered to absolutely no sponsor (as much an anomaly in the days of radio programs as it is in today’s cable broadcast medium), and could pretty much do anything he wanted and get away with it. In short, it was a creative person’s dream and Oboler made the most of his opportunity.

Where Oboler managed to get under his audience’s skin was in his innovative use of sound. He demonstrated this in his inaugural broadcast by asking his audience to shut off all the lights, turn their back to the radio, and…listen. Then, with halting detail that would do credit to a Lovecraft protagonist, he tries to describe something that is getting closer and closer to them behind them, while a set of footsteps can be heard just under his narration. Then, after two minutes of build-up, there’s a scream and then the chimes strike. Chances are excellent that most of his listeners jumped (My exact comment upon listening to this the first time was: “Asshole!” – mainly because he made it work). He even mockingly suggests how they weren’t so scared…or were they?

Oboler then goes on to demonstrate how he could use that same effect in story format with two gruesome nuggets. “I’m Hungry” has the audience listening to a Peter Lorre type (it might actually be Peter Lorre, but I was unable to confirm) as he invites his audience into his home just before dinner. He then casually describes how he’s not a psychopath just because he likes to eat human brains, such as the ones in the head that came out of a box he had. Why, he even has a special bone saw to get the brains out because he wants to work at his meal. We hear it sawing through the bone. Then Oboler makes us listen to “Taking Papa Home”, which follows a very drunk retiree and his wife as they make their way home. The sober wife is thankfully driving. Unfortunately for both of them, the old car decides to stall out on the train tracks just as a train is barreling right at them. Hubby is out cold, Wifey can’t lift him, and the car refuses to start. The overall effect is more horrific than any slasher film I’ve ever seen. The sound of the wife, the oncoming train, and its brakes effectively ratchet up the tension all the way to the grim climax…not bad work for a brief, three-minute piece.

Next on the hit parade is “The Dark”, an unnerving account of the medical emergency call from hell. A doctor and his paramedic assistant from General Hospital (no, I’m not making that up) go out, only to find the following: a cackling, insane woman; a man who has literally been turned inside out; and a dark fog that caused the latter and possibly the former. Here, the sound effects really start to shine. The woman’s cackle keeps ringing out like a hideous keynote and the mewling sounds of those who get turned inside out are horrific in their suggestiveness. This is especially true when the overzealously inquisitive doctor finds out firsthand how the process works. There is something of Lovecraft about this tale; as Oboler was almost a contemporary of HPL’s, it makes me wonder.

A Day at the Dentist” is Oboler’s idea of “horror with humour”. A dentist gets a last patient at the end of his day and upon hearing the patient’s name – ‘Houseman’ – he decides to send his assistant home so that he can deal with this man himself. Houseman is a neurotic about dentists, insists on them being painless. Turns out our dentist bought out the dental practice’s previous owner, who provided such care. Our current dentist offers the same privilege…if Houseman will just submit to the straps on the chair. Everybody who has ever feared a visit to the dentist will find something unsettling about this one, particularly the final sound of the drill as it proceeds to “let out of a little bit of Loverboy.”

The Posse” is nothing less than an ugly indictment of racism: the lynching of a Mexican thief by a white guy who wants to deal with this in his own way rather than have the sheriff deal with it. The sounds of the sobs, the monologue of the lynching man, and the horse are the only notable sounds. Ugly subtext aside (not a particularly common one for the 1930s, it should be noted), this one feels a bit flat in its execution.

Drop Dead Chicken Heart” came to Oboler, he tells his listeners, when he heard the story of how a piece of a chicken heart kept beating on its own in a dish. He began wondering what would happen if the heart just grew…and grew…and grew. The resulting story sounds like The Blob crossed with Godzilla. A chicken heart, under the conditions described, begins growing at an ever-accelerating rate, consuming everything in its path. It eventually grows large enough to consume the building that it is in and is getting ready to consume the entire planet. The human race has no recourse, despite the guns and firehoses that they throw at the thing. The final scene of the reporter and scientist who were there at the beginning meeting their final death was aptly described by Stephen King in Danse Macabre as making you want to laugh and throw up at the same time.

The final piece of the broadcast, “The Laughing Man”, is a post-apocalyptic tale which takes place “20,000 years from tomorrow”, according to Oboler. A scholar of this time is laughing his head off over the biggest joke that he has ever encountered. An old codger of his acquaintance has managed to find a complete and accurate account of our time, and the scholar has been laughing at the absurdities of its contents ever since. As he recounts the very real sins of our civilisation – killing each other over property, racism, the hypocrisy of Christianity, and the sheer destruction of the human race at the hands of bombs – you begin to feel a palpable chill in your blood. It begins to sound like a sermon given by the Joker. He concludes this with even more laughter and the final statement: “Isn’t it all a joke?” Indeed, it is. The problem that Oboler is pointing out is that the joke is on us if we keep on doing what we are doing. One can trace many of Rod Serling’s more socially insightful episodes of the Twilight Zone (“He’s Alive!”, “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street”, and “The Shelter”, to name a few) to this bold and daring broadcast right here.

As King noted in Danse Macabre, sound is the real key to Oboler’s genius in this program. Certain sounds (the giant chicken heart in “Drop Dead Chicken Heart”, the intermittent cackling and mewling of “The Dark”, the barely-controlled laughter of our speaker in “The Laughing Man”) are maintained or repeated throughout the program, like a leitmotif in a Wagner opera. It cuts through the rationalisations of the more deluded characters, gives the otherwise innocent wording of some speakers a sinister cast, and, at its most unwholesome, suggests ugly horrors that no one would want to face head-on.

Oboler did not stay long with the program that would make him famous, just a little over two years. He moved on to bigger – and what he thought were better – things, being more interested in taking on Fascism through realistic dramas. But the crown jewel in his legacy remains to this day the brilliant work on Lights Out. Listen to these broadcasts in the dead of night and see if you don’t wind up being scared of what may be in the dark.