When people think of horror anthology shows, they probably think of the Nineties' Tales From the Crypt, the Eighties' Tales From the Darkside, or even the Sixties' Thriller. All of these shows were pre-dated by Lights Out, a television series based on the classic radio show. In fact, it might have been the first American television horror anthology.
Lights Out numbered among the oldest of radio's suspense and horror anthologies, pre-dating both rivals Suspense and The Inner Sanctum. It debuted on NBC in January 1934. It was the creation of Wyllis Cooper, who would go onto write several of the "Mr. Moto" films, as well as Son of Frankenstein. After Wyllis Cooper left the show, screenwriter and playwright Arch Oboler took over Lights Out. On radio Lights Out was marked by often grisly plots laced with tongue in cheek and, more often than not, dark humour. If anything, under Mr. Oboler Lights Out became even more outré.
Lights Out made its debut on television as a series of specials aired on NBC from June to October 1946. These specials were broadcast live and produced by Fred Coe, who would go onto produce The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse and Playhouse 90. While the Lights Out specials received good notices, however, it would not be until 19 July 1949 that it would become a regularly scheduled programme. The first several episodes of the regularly scheduled series were produced by Fred Coe, but by 1950 the production duties were taken over by Herbert Bernard Swope Jr., who would go onto produce the TV shows Dobie Gillis and The Five Fingers. Like the majority of the anthologies of the late Forties and early Fifties, Lights Out was broadcast live and then distributed to television stations on kinescopes.
In addition to adapting the original radio scripts by Wyllis Cooper and Arch Oboler, the television version of Lights Out adapted the works of such writers as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, August Derleth, and even the young Ira Levin. The show also featured several well known actors. In addition to horror actor Boris Karloff, such stars as Eddie Albert, Billie Burke, Yvonne De Carlo, Burgess Meredith, and Basil Rathbone appeared. Several young, up and coming actors appeared on Lights Out, including Anne Francis, Grace Kelly, Ross Martin, and Leslie Nielsen,
While reviews of the standard run of Lights Out were mixed, it proved very popular. In fact, a June 1951 issue of Billboard referred to Lights Out as being the top rated mystery/crime programme on television at that time. Unfortunately, on 15 October 1951 I Love Lucy debuted opposite Lights Out on CBS. As a result the ratings for Lights Out declined sharply and it aired its last original episode on 29 September 1952. In 1972 NBC would attempt another television adaptation of Lights Out, but that ended with the pilot.
Having aired live the television version of Lights Out would not see the endless reruns that later horror and suspense anthologies would. As a result Lights Out would largely be forgotten. Regardless, well over a decade before Thriller, let alone Tales from the Darkside or Tales from the Crypt, Lights Out paved the way for horror on the small screen.