With our archives now 3,500+ articles deep, we’ve decided to republish a classic piece each Friday to help our newer readers discover some of the best, evergreen gems from the past. This article was originally published in October 2014.
Before folks sat around the TV watching American Horror Story or classic movies like The Shining and Friday the 13th, they gathered around the radio to listen to their favorite weekly programs. Many of them were comedies or dramas, just like today’s television programs, but there were also shows dedicated to the creepy crawly — auditory storytelling that made goosebumps rise and sent shivers down the spine. It’s often said that what you can’t see is scarier than what you can, and radio programs can sweep you up and create a whole spooky world in your imagination.
With Halloween coming this weekend, there’s no better time to visit some of the scariest shows and episodes that old-time radio has to offer. They’re all available for free online, making for quality, affordable entertainment. If you’re interested in more, I strongly suggest checking out both RadioHorrorHosts.com and www.escape-suspense.com; both were immensely helpful in my research for this piece. I’ve broken it down by radio show, then given a few suggestions of episodes to listen to from each show. To up your experience, convert an old-time radio into a mp3 speaker and huddle around it with your family or friends with the lights dimmed.
The Mercury Theater on the Air
This series was started by Orson Welles in 1938. The show presented literary works that were performed by Welles’ Mercury Theater company. The program was elected into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1988. While not focused on fear, two particular episodes gave some genuinely good scares:
“War of the Worlds” — Originally aired as a 60-minute Halloween special, this episode gained fame for scaring many listeners into believing it was real. It starts with some nice music, but then, like a real breaking news bulletin, is interrupted with a frantic reporter. He states that scientists have witnessed strange explosions on Mars. The scientists believe it’s simply volcanic activity, but reality proves much more frightening. Set just like a live news program, the brilliance of this episode of radio cannot be understated. You’ll thank yourself for listening, preferably in the dark on Halloween night. After you’ve done that, read the 1898 book by H. G. Wells.
“Dracula” — This was the very first episode of The Mercury Theater on the Air. Although it aired in July, its horror is fit for Halloween. Orson Welles plays the roles of both Dr. Seward and Count Dracula. Hear the tale of Jonathan Harker being imprisoned in Dracula’s decrepit castle. Then follow the cast as they travel to England and try to solve the mystery of this unusual count from Transylvania.
With a haunting introduction, this show is known as one of the scariest/weirdest, but also most inventive, of old-time radio. While it didn’t get much notice when it originally aired, it’s become known as one of the finest radio dramas to ever have been produced. It only ran from 1947 to 1949, with around 100 episodes broadcast. For a long time only 12 episodes were available for listening, but then in the 80s, the majority of the rest of them were found and made available to the public. You