When we think of the great first era of American radio drama in the 1930s and ’40s, the suspense and horror shows always receive a particular place of pride. Inner Sanctum, Lights Out, Quiet Please, Suspense, Escape, The Mysterious Traveler–these featured a stunning collection of guest appearances by great actors of the stage and screen. Some of the best writers in radio worked on the shows as well, and a few, like Louise Fletcher, author of the classics Sorry, Wrong Number and The Hitchhiker, were catapulted to major careers. But even the less stellar of the shows attracted loyal listeners for the lengths of their runs.
The choice of October 30th as International Audio Drama Day is a nod to the most famous radio drama broadcast of all, Orson Welles’ 1938 adaptation of The War of the Worlds. The hour-long broadcast, transposing the action to caused wide-spread panic as listeners were convinced that an actual invasion, Martian or otherwise, was underway, and reacted accordingly.
What makes audio drama so appealing for horror and suspense is its combination of intimacy and immediacy. We see plays as an audience, but we hear each on our own, and this creates a closeness between ourselves and the unseen speakers. When you let someone into your ears, you’re in a very close relationship.
As to immediacy, there is a wonderful ability for audio works to surprise and delight us. Using the canvas of our imaginations we have access to special effects factories that can produce from very little indeed–a scrape of wood, a door creak, a loud wind–astonishing landscapes.
As well as terrifying ones.
Stephen King, in his quite wonderful survey of horror Danse Macabre, has some great insights into why audio drama is so good at chilling our skin:
“Nothing is so frightening as what’s behind the closed door. The audience holds its breath along with the protagonist as she/he (more often she) approaches that door. The protagonist throws it open, and there is a ten-foot-tall bug. The audience screams, but this particular scream has an oddly relieved sound to it. ‘A bug ten feet tall is pretty horrible’, the audience thinks, ‘but I can deal with a ten-foot-tall bug. I was afraid it might be a hundred feet tall’….The artistic work of horror is almost always a disappointment. It is the classic no-win situation. You can scare people with the unknown for a long, long time but sooner or later, as in poker, you have to turn your cards up. You have to open the door and show the audience what’s behind it.”
But our minds, King observes, will give us exactly what we can imagine. “Radio avoided the open/closed-door question, I think, because radio deposited to that bank of imagination rather than making withdrawals in the name of ‘state of the art’, Radio made it real. When you made the monster in your mind, there was no zipper running down its back; it was a perfect monster.”
We’re proud to present our own contribution to the horror genre starting this Halloween, The Devil in Whitechapel. And if you find yourself wanting more, here a special treat: a link to what we continue to be one of the most harrowing audio dramas ever, Three Skeleton Key, in which three men in a remote lighthouse have to fight for their lives when a derelict ship swarming with rats crashes into their tiny island.