Lights Out: Haunted Cell [Radio drama review by John Bruni]

Lights OutOriginally broadcast July 20, 1946
Written by either Arch Oboler or Willys Cooper (evidence suggests Cooper)
My rating: ★★★★

“Lights out, everybody . . . .”

* * *

Meet Maxie. He’s a career criminal who just got busted for sticking up a filling station. Unfortunately, the arresting officer is Miller, and he’s the partner of a cop Maxie had killed last week. While they have Maxie red-handed for the stick-up, Miller wants more. He wants a confession in regards to his partner. His solution: he locks Maxie up
alone and in the dark in a cell reputed to be haunted by criminal Skeeter Dempsey’s ghost.

Maxie, who narrates this story, tells of his panic in the dark as Skeeter actually shows up and starts having a conversation with him. As it turns out Skeeter comes off as non-threatening and lonely. All he wants is to talk to someone . . . but does he have ulterior motives?

He tells Maxie of other prisoners who had stayed in this very cell, prisoners who wound up killing themselves here rather than face the chair. Skeeter died in the chair, and it seems that he seduces criminals into committing suicide rather than being executed later. And then, he mentions shoelaces to Maxie . . . .

One of the things people forget about radio dramas is the fact that you have to focus so hard on the words. You don’t have any images to look at, so the dialogue and narrative suddenly engulfs you and even overwhelms you a bit. A major weakness of the medium is that writers feel the need to over-explain things, since they can’t exactly show you certain things.

LIGHTS OUT doesn’t suffer from that. Strong writing makes everything seem like you’re actually being told a story by the protagonist, and the dialogue seems like something you’ve just overheard rather than an artifice.

The sound effects add tremendously to the tone of the tale. From the footsteps of the guard to the incessant dripping of water, it all serves to put the listener in the right
frame of mind, so that if you close your eyes, you can feel that you’re in that jail cell with Maxie and Skeeter.

The only thing that fucks with you is the gong. Every time something major happens, a gong crashes. Granted, it was the style of the show—every episode had this—but it’s jarring, nonetheless.

Here’s the thing, though: Skeeter doesn’t disappear when the lights come on. He still haunts Maxie, although Maxie is the only one who can see Skeeter. Very creepy.

By today’s standards, the ending is predictable, but back then, especially considering the medium, it is easy to see why people would be chilled by the conclusion. It’s definitely worth checking out, as is the entire run of LIGHTS OUT.

(One final note: during the interrogation scene, Miller beats Maxie senseless with a hose. LIGHTS OUT was recorded in Chicago. The Chicago PD has long been known to be the most vicious bastards to ever walk a beat. Put this information together however you see fit.)

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0Lm3sOAi9M]

FOR RADIO GEEKS ONLY:

(Because I don’t think anyone else would give much of a shit about what comes next.)

I’m sure you noticed the odd notation next to 1946 above. The reason is this: back when LIGHTS OUT aired, nobody really cared about keeping track of things. For example, no one today knows who wrote this episode. I’ve narrowed it down to two possibilities: Wyllis Cooper (who created LIGHTS OUT), and Arch Oboler, who replaced Cooper as head-writer in 1936. It fits more with Oboler’s aesthetics, but there is certainly a lot of Cooper’s grim and ugly style here, too.

The reason I settled on 1946 is because that’s what it said on the disc I have. But there is evidence to suggest that it aired as early as 1937. The problem is, back then writers recycled so many of their scripts, it’s hard to track them down. It’s possible that it aired earlier in a different form. Maybe they used different actors, different directors, different everything, just the same script. It would make sense, since LIGHTS OUT ended its run before the ‘Forties even started (although it was revived for a brief period of time during the war, so it’s hard to say for sure).

I have no doubt that this aired on NBC on July 20, 1946, but I have my suspicions that the script might have been used before.

[Wikipedia lists an episode entitled “The Haunted Cell” being broadcast on October 26, 1938. If this was the same script, it was most likely written by Oboler. –Ed.]

About John Bruni

John Bruni is the author of DONG OF FRANKENSTEIN (New Kink), POOR BASTARDS AND RICH FUCKS and TALES OF QUESTIONABLE TASTE (StrangeHouse) and STRIP (Riot Forge). His short work has appeared in anthologies like A HACKED-UP HOLIDAY MASSACRE (Pill Hill), ZOMBIE! ZOMBIE! BRAIN BANG! (StrangeHouse) and the critically acclaimed VILE THINGS (Comet). He edited STRANGE SEX 3 for StrangeHouse, and he was the editor and publisher of TABARD INN: TALES OF QUESTIONABLE TASTE. Find out more at www.talesofquestionabletaste.com and www.talesofunspeakabletaste.blogspot.com.
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4 Responses to Lights Out: Haunted Cell [Radio drama review by John Bruni]

  1. Bob says:

    Yes, the script had been used before, but I’m afraid this one’s by Cooper, not Oboler. NBC’s 1946 LIGHTS OUT summer revival series featured vintage Cooper scripts from 1934-36 (except for an adaptation of Dickens’ “The Signal Man” by another author). Cooper reworked the basic idea of this play into “Good Ghost,” a script for his later QUIET PLEASE series.

    Oboler left LIGHTS OUT in the summer of ’38, so Wiki’s alleged October 1938 broadcast date doesn’t really help establish authorship. According to the Chicago Tribune, a LIGHTS OUT episode entitled “The Death Cell” was scheduled to air on 13 February 1935 during Cooper’s tenure. I don’t know for sure, but perhaps it might have been “The Haunted Cell” script under a slightly different name.

  2. Pingback: NEW REVIEW: LIGHTS OUT: HAUNTED CELL | Tabard Inn: Tales of Questionable Taste

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