Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Lights Out

Before there was Tales From the Crypt, before there was Tales From the Darkside, before there was even Thriller, One Step Beyond, or The Twilight Zone, there was Lights Out. Lights Out was not the first horror radio show, but it was one of the earliest and probably the one which made the most impact. With Grand Guignol plots which sometimes ran to very dark humour, Lights Out was to radio shows what E.C. Comics were to comic books and Thriller was to television.

Lights Out was conceived by writer Wyllis Cooper, a writer at NBC in 1933. According to an article in the November 28, 1933 issue of Variety, Mr. Cooper developed the idea of  "...a midnight mystery serial to catch the attention of the listeners at the witching hour." He soon dropped the idea of a midnight mystery serial, but kept the idea of a series which would air at the witching hour, namely a horror anthology series. That idea would become Lights Out.

Lights Out debuted on January 1934 on WENR in Chicago. In the beginning it was only 15 minutes in length, but the show proved so successful that it expanded to a half hour in April 1934. Very much in demand as a writer, Wyllis Cooper's workload grew as he worked on Lights Out. Indeed, he wrote radio plays for NBC's award winning Immortal Dramas, which adapted tales from the Hebrew Bible. For that reason in January 1935 Lights Out was cancelled. Listeners would demand its return in droves, however, so that Lights Out returned after only a few weeks. Indeed, in April 1935 Lights Out went nationwide on the NBC Red Network.

Under Wyllis Cooper Lights Out emphasised sound effects to depict action over descriptions read by a narrator. What is more, Lights Out was very gruesome, although often played tongue in cheek. Indeed, Mr. Cooper endowed Lights Out with a sense of the bizarre that would not be seen on any other horror anthology. The episode "Cat's Wife" featured a woman who could turn into a human sized cat (this was several years before Val Lewton's Cat People). In "Death Robbery" a scientist who has developed a resurrection serum planned to use it on his dead wife. Naturally, because of the nature of the subject matter featured on Lights Out, NBC only aired the series late at night. Sadly, only a few of Mr. Cooper's original recordings survive.

Wyllis Cooper left Lights Out in 1936 to write for Hollywood (writing among other things the screenplay for The Son of Frankenstein and many entries in the "Mr. Moto" series). NBC then turned to writer Arch Oboler to take over the series. If anything Arch Oboler would be even more outrageous with his scripts than Wyllis Cooper had been. Indeed, his first radio play for the series, "Burial Services," concerned a paralysed girl who is buried alive. Because of the episode NBC received 50,000 letters in complaint! Mr. Oboler kept the tradition of graphic sound effects which Mr. Cooper had established, but at the same time made Lights Out all his own. He experimented with narration, even bringing something to Lights Out rarely heard on other radio shows--stories told from a specific point of view. Among other things he used on a series were a stream of consciousness technique and monologue techniques, allowing listeners to get into the heads of characters.

While Wyllis Cooper created the series, Arch Oboler arguably wrote the most memorable episodes. Indeed, the most famous radio play of all time besides the "War of the Worlds" broadcast of The Mercury Theatre on the Air, may have been "Chicken Heart," in which a chicken's heart grows to enormous sizes and devours everything in its path. In "The Dream" a character accused of murder (played by Boris Karloff) is haunted by an unearthly siren urging him to kill. In"Revolt of the Worms," common earthworms grow to gigantic proportions after a scientist disposes of a formula in his backyard. In "Murder Castle" a man finds a novel way to finance his dream home.

It was in 1938 that Arch Oboler decided to leave Lights Out. He had tired of fighting with NBC's Broadcast Standards over the content of the show, and had a desire to write plays as well. The show would continue until it was finally cancelled in 1939. Lights Out would not remain dead, however, as Arch Oboler would bring it back to life in October 1942 on CBS. For this revival of the series, Oboler re-used material from the original run of the show, as well as material from his plays. It lasted until September 1943. NBC would revive Lights Out from July to September 1945 and again from July to August 1946. ABC revived the show from  July to August 1947. From 1970 to 1973 episodes from the 1942 to 1943 run were syndicated under the title The Devil and Mr. O. Since the Sixties many collections of episodes of Lights Out would be released, first on vinyl records and later on cassette tapes and CDs.

It was in 1946 that NBC brought Lights Out to television in a series of four specials produced by Fred Coe and aired live. It would be in 1949 that Lights Out  would become a regularly scheduled programme, including both original episodes and adaptations of Wyllis Cooper's radio plays. It ran until 1952. In 1972 Lights Out was revived as a telefilm, adapting episodes from the radio show.

As popular as Lights Out was, it would have an enormous impact on pop culture. The episode "Chicken Heart" would inspire Bill Cosby's well known comedy routine of the same name. The episode "What the Devil," in which two drivers are stalked by a truck drive they can't see, may have inspired Steven Spielberg's movie Duel. It would also have a lasting impact on horror anthology series on both radio and television, including stylised introductions and gallows humour. In the end, shows from Starring Boris Karloff to Alfred Hitchcock Presents to The Twilight Zone to Thriller, all owe their existence to Lights Out.

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