by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
August 28, 2007
LIFE BEFORE SPECIAL EFFECTS
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- Long before special effects bombarded us with sights and sounds beyond belief, we had sights and sounds beyond belief - although they reached our senses only when we were shielded from the light. We had radio; and, we had vivid imaginations.
"Lights Out," a 15-minute radio program of the supernatural, supernormal and a high level of suspense was introduced to the airwaves in 1934. I was 3, and I snuggled close to my mother as she rocked back and forth, holding onto to me for dear life with a grip that was more to protect her than me. We had no ratings to warn us ahead of time that blood and gore were on the agenda for the next quarter-hour.
It was a Wednesday night tradition, right up until after the war, that most American households tuned in to "Lights Out," and did as the announcer said when he slowly spoke the chilling words in his very deep and throaty voice, "Lights out, everybody."
It ran for over a year in New York before it went national with NBC. It was intended to be a midnight horror show but eventually moved to what we now call prime-time.
It was so very real that no special effects on the screen today can rival what played out in our imagination. I mean, I "saw" a hand being crushed. Don't tell me it was a lemon on a block being smashed with a mallet. That was not a pencil being snapped, it was a bone. That was his arm being pulled from the socket not a frozen drumstick being pulled from a turkey.
Intellectually, we knew it was a pencil but those sound effects technicians were good, very, very good. When someone dropped through the trap door on a gallows, you could almost feel the rope tightening. And, today, we know Bruce Willis is not actually jumping from a bridge into a moving car while another car blows up over his head. N-a-a-ah. Couldn't really happen. But, we suspend our imagination and believe in the madness for two hours.
With "Lights Out," then later "Suspense" and "Inner Sanctum" jumping on the gory train, we were left with spine-tingling chills long after the little red light went off on the radio. Is there anything more dour than the thirteen chimes with their ominous sound that started off the show? And, when a scene was being switched or something had to be underscored there was a gong resonating out of the little Philco radio and into the darkened room. Aside from that, there was no music to punctuate the drama as it unfolded.
There were stories that just missed being straight drama. Not unlike Rod Searling's "Twilight Zone," on television. You find yourself wondering if that really could have happened, well could it? In "Light Out" we were asked to believe a huge chicken heart was beating on its own ... and had capabilities. "What if," we'd murmur in the dark.
Many of us are suckers for fantasy. We'll take a flight of imagination and build a castle in the sky. Before long we see ourselves as Rapunzels, letting down our hair for Prince Charming. But the stories on "Light's Out" were usually within the realm of possibility until the very end, when there would be a twist.
One in particular was very popular and rebroadcast a few years later, and then taken up by Radio City Playhouse for their Christmas program. The online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, tells it this way:
"The plot is typical ... of gentler fantasies. On the first Christmas after World War I, three Allied officers meet by chance in a train compartment and find one another vaguely familiar. They fall asleep and share a dream in which they are the Three Wise Men searching for Jesus. But is it really a dream? In the best tradition of the supernatural twist endings, [the author] has the officers wake to find a strange odor in their compartment - which turns out to be myrrh and frankincense."
When I recall those days from where I am and with what I know today, I know we preferred to let the fantasy linger when the program ended. We didn't say "n-a-a-h" and go on about our business. We allowed our imagination to hold court for a little while longer.
"Well, it's a reach but they could have had the same dream at the same time," someone would say.
"Even if they could, they had to imagine the odor; that couldn't have happened," another would respond.
"Suppose they were near the dining car and smelled fried onions?"
With such banter, the radio audience would allow itself to come back to earth slowly from the flight of fancy and laugh at themselves for being duped.
I've discovered some of these old radio program are available through "The Internet Archive's Old-Time Radio Collection." Do I intend to order a set? Not on your life - or, my life. The announcer used to say: "It ... is ... later ... than ... you ... think." The listening audience was then advised not to listen to the program if they felt they couldn't take it.
I took it once, but twice would be suicide.