No genre is better suited to the audio drama form than horror. Horror, of course, often finds its power in what you don’t see. The thought of what might be behind the door is always going to be more terrifying than whatever actually is. A radio drama, which exists only in the ear, allows you to picture horrors that are far scarier than whatever could be filmed. It’s a form that ushers the concrete back into the abstract. And abstract fear always trumps the tangible.
As a horror fan and a fan of audio dramas, I have consumed many hours of horror radio in my day and can attest to its power. I can also express the requisite outrage over the persistent obscurity of the form, which is too often considered “old-timey” or a thing of the past. Below, you will find a list of the finest horror radio dramas available, and I can only implore that you cue them up, turn the lights down, and let the fright take hold of you.
You’ll only be doing yourself – and your nightmares – a favor.
The Mercury Theater on the Air ran for 22 full episodes in 1938, and was comprised largely of famous literary adaptations. Their debut episode, however, was also their creepiest. It was an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s DRACULA with Welles playing the famous vampire lord. Welles was precocious as fuck, and his naughty willingness to toy so openly with great literature gives his DRACULA an immediate listenability.
The genre of the found-footage horror movie is still alive and well, and if you have any affection at all for this subgenre, then you would do well to go back to 1949’s GHOST HUNT. The show follows a lesser-known radio star – a bit of a comedian – as he decides to spend some time in a haunted house. The house has been the location of many deaths; there is something eerie about the place, etc. etc. It’s a story you’ve likely heard before around countless campfires. Of course, there is more in the house than he expects. If you think the story is tired, consider that GHOST HUNT had beat most other versions of it to the punch. This was where this well-worn tale perhaps started. Even if it isn’t, it’s a creepy and vivid storytelling.
Be sure to listen to this one with headphones. THE MIST, produced in the 1980s, was recorded on a special microphone known as a kunstkopf, a recording device that is shaped like a human head making for a fully immersive 3D surround sound. Stephen King’s THE MIST is, of course, a story of a small town that is beset by a mysterious opaque cloud that seems to be carrying a spate of man-eating monsters in it. The story is famous for its apocalyptic ending, and its heaping helping of atmosphere. ZBS, the company that produced the radio version, certainly doesn’t skimp on atmosphere, making it feel like the mist is actually surrounding you. Modern recording techniques used to make you weep with fear. It’s why we put on headphones.
DONOVAN’S BRAIN was originally a 1942 pulp novel about an enterprising scientist who manages to keep the brain of an ambitious tycoon alive in a jar and who learns to communicate with it on a rudimentary level. The scientist, however, soon begins taking on the characteristics of the tycoon, perhaps going mad, or perhaps being influenced by the brain itself. In the 1944 radio version, Orson Welles plays the scientist, and his transformation is uncanny. No one can use his voice to loom over you as well as Welles, and even in this relatively obscure sci-fi story, he pulls out all the stops.
TALES FROM THE CRYPT is perhaps one of the best horror TV series of all time. The most notable audio afterlife of the Cryptkeeper came in 2002 when a now-defunct online radio collective called The Seeing Ear Theater produced 8 new episodes. The best episode of Seeing Ear’s rendition was perhaps Tight Grip, a story about a young, often silent, abused girl who is left for dead inside a steamer trunk by an abusive stepfather. The depiction of domestic abuse is chilling enough, but the real creative kicker is the narrator. Played by Tim Curry, the narrator of the story is actually the steamer truck itself, viewing the abuse from afar. It’s an odd premise to be sure, and one that could only work in audio form; this is not something that could be filmed.
CLOSED ON ACCOUNT OF RABIES is a rather superb collection of celebrities reading the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Each reading has its own music, and since so many of them are told in the first person, they function handily as full-blown radio dramas. The best reading on the collection, surprisingly enough, comes from Iggy Pop, reading THE TELL TALE HEART. Iggy Pop, most certainly not an actor, doesn’t have the guile to “act” the story, rather just letting the narrative take control of him. He begins bleating and shouting like, well, a punk star, bringing a new layer to an already excellent story.
ESCAPE was an adventure series that ran from 1947 to 1954, and each episode featured a character or characters being trapped in an inextricable situation, only to escape… or not. It seems like a thin premise, but it made for some pretty rollicking adventures. The best episode of the show – indeed one of the best of all radio dramas – is Three Skeleton Key, from 1949 and starring Vincent Price. Price plays one of a small group of lighthouse keepers who witness a shipwreck. The ship then unleashes millions of live rats onto the shore, and the entire lighthouse is covered by the squeaking vermin. You will not feel more trapped and horrified than when you hear yourself trapped in a remote lighthouse, going slowly mad, beset by millions of hungry, flesh-eating rats.
TALES FROM BEYOND THE PALE is an indie horror audio project produced in 2010 and 2012 by horror legend Larry Fessenden. The idea of the project was to give upcoming horror film directors a chance to write their own 30-minute horror stories in an anthology style, with Fessenden serving as host. Some of the shows are very good, some are fair, but one is excellent. The Conformation, written and directed by Paul Solet (GRACE, DARK SUMMER) follows a cosmetic surgeon who never seems happy with his work. He feels he can always get a nose, a brow, a breast, that much more perfect. He soon runs into a young woman who seems addicted to plastic surgery. The end up having a bizarre love story as he carves more and more off of her. The final scene has no visuals, of course, but will still burn its way into your memory.
The episode of SUSPENSE that aired on September 6th, 1945 is not only the best of the series, but is perhaps the best horror radio show of all time. Agnes Moorehead plays a paranoid biddy who, while making unconnected telephone calls from her apartment, accidentally overhears someone plotting a crime. In true Hitchcockian fashion, none of the telephone operators will believe her, nor can she track down where the criminals may be. As the show mounts, Moorehead swerves ever more deeply (and ever more amazingly) into hysterical mania. The drama grows as well, as she tries to track down the criminals, to get more information, and to communicate her fear without sounding too fearful. It’s a closed box thriller that functions as a one-woman show, and it’s astonishing. Listen to it. Spread it around. Keep this hit alive.