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A radio wave form overlaid on two images - on the left are some frightened people with the devil looking over their shoulder and on the right is a close up of a man wearing glasses.

Golden Days: Horror radio serials

Radio 100: Horror radio serials from radio's Golden Days

Jo Palazuelos-Krukowski explores a handful of the horror radio serials that thrilled millions across the nation for decades. 

This feature is part of the NFSA's Radio 100 celebrations.

By Jo Palazuelos-Krukowski



'Where there is no imagination, there is no horror.'
– Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet, 1887 

A look through the ledgers of media history reveals that the radio broadcasters of Australia’s golden age had imagination in spades. From its very first broadcast, this island continent distinguished itself for its willingness to delve deep into the realm of the macabre for the sake of entertainment. In 1922, Eugene Walter’s log cabin drama The Wolf was the first radio play produced in the United States, while the BBC aired Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night for Britain’s first broadcast in 1923. Down Under, however, a different kind of story weaved its way through the air and into the homes of radio listeners.

JH Booth’s The Barbarous Barber has the honour of being Australia’s first-ever dramatic radio play, a slasher of the Sweeney Todd variety directed by Stanley Brookes and performed live on Melbourne’s 3LO in 1925. So began a rich production history of sound effects and screams that would echo across the airwaves for over 40 years.

Horror radio programs are campfire tales written across the sky. This great Australian tradition, built by some of the world’s most talented writers, technicians, and performers, maps an aural topography of the country’s hopes, anxieties and fears. Here are a handful of radio serials that thrilled millions across the nation for decades.  


Inner Sanctum

Inner Sanctum is a stand-out example of an American horror program that Aussie radio artists made their own. Originally airing in 1941 as Inner Sanctum Mystery in the United States, Inner Sanctum found its way to Australian shores on Sydney’s 2GB in 1952. The program was retooled for Australian audiences and performed by the nation’s preeminent radio talent, including Alan Trevor, Lyndall Barbour and Neva Carr Glynn. Inner Sanctum’s signature sound effect, the slow opening of a rusty-hinged creaking door, would usher listeners into host Raymond’s carnival of terrors. Moray Powell served as the Australian show’s Raymond, where the actor mastered his grim and gallows-humoured framing of mystery thriller plays.

The series is noteworthy for its sympathetically-crafted heroes and the trials they endure to ensure that justice prevails. Sydney writer William Matthew Moloney’s The Stain on the Tombstone, for example, adapts a New Zealand legend about a murdered woman’s gravestone which seeps blood until her killer goes mad and confesses. The Australian adaptation of Tomorrow is a Two-Edged Sword uses the spectre as an instrument of retribution against the Nazi war criminals of the Third Reich.

In a 1952 publication of The Mail, Adelaide radio critic John Quinn stated the program was 'too horrible' for his taste: 'it has about it the malevolence of ghosts'. His contemporary James Crammond disagreed, saying he wouldn’t miss an Inner Sanctum episode 'for all the straitjackets in the world'.

Excerpt from episode 8 of Inner Sanctum, 1952. NFSA title: 338861

My Lady Waited

There were three things that mid-century Australian broadcasters knew tended to appeal to female listeners: women-centred stories, historical dramas and horror radio. My Lady Waited, launched on Melbourne’s 3DB-LK in 1951, is a fascinating amalgam of all three.

This unique series recounts the lives of famous women throughout world history, with an ethereal twist: the women portrayed in these episodes were depicted as spirits returned from the realm of the dead to share their stories with the living. From British queens, to Byzantine empresses, to French courtesans who denied the existence of God, My Lady Waited featured historical female figures renowned for their intelligence, wit and ambition.

While the show could be seen as a feminist endeavour, it was not necessarily a categorical one. Supernatural plot elements were often deployed to qualify these women’s successes, casting their rise to power as a result of occult dealings with dark forces. Radio advertisements for My Lady Waited featured its female leads under the direction of male producers and accompanied by young children – perhaps an attempt to reign in the more socially progressive facets of the series. These efforts do not temper the rarity of a program that showcased the accomplishments of the great women of history, and how their 'fragrant ghosts haunt the gardens of the past'.

Excerpt from My Lady Waited, Episode 8: Catherine De Medici, 1951. NFSA title: 215369

Devil's Holiday

'Going… down?' This Donovan Joyce production featured radio star (and ironically named) Keith Eden as the nefarious Nicholas Lucifer, who takes his lift up from the depths of the underworld to tempt weak-willed souls to villainy. A self-proclaimed heating expert, this show’s Old Nick spends each of these fifty-two episodes focusing on a different 'client', offering them their darkest desires for a steep price. Sometimes his targets succumb, sometimes they resist - but the inevitable plot twist at the episode’s close always satisfies.

First airing on Melbourne’s 3KZ in May of 1953, this well-constructed series was penned by aspiring actor Frank Thring at only twenty-eight years old. Thring would come to make a name for himself as Australian acting royalty, featuring in Ben-Hur and later in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Narrator Keith Eden’s gravelly, gleeful laughter echoing down the elevator shaft is a sound you won’t soon forget. 

Devil's Holiday, episode 8. Courtesy: Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.

Phantom Time

This Australian 1958 thriller series is unusual for not featuring a host of any kind, though it does have a very talented Max Osbiston serving up the show’s dramatic introduction. Each Phantom Time episode consists of a 15-minute radio play and its own distinct brush with the supernatural. Director Maurice Travers drew inspiration from literary greats like Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sheridan Le Fanu, while also crafting dramatisations of original stories sourced from local radio writers.

The mood of these short narratives varied widely. Some were deeply unsettling: in The Tall Woman, a man is visited by a towering female figure who portends death to those around him over and over – until the last time, when she comes for him alone. Other episodes shimmered with surrealism. In The House in the Dream, a woman living in America has regular visions of a house she’s never seen in the English countryside. She is guided there by an unseen force, and promptly discovers she is the ghost who haunts it. Every episode of Phantom Time is an invitation to go somewhere strange, and touch something otherworldly.


The Uninvited

'Have you heard them? Those fearful sounds in the dead of night? The muffled creak of a loosened board? The shuffling step of a ghostly figure? The eerie voice of…  The Uninvited?' This adroitly performed program from 1963 stands apart for slotting itself alongside the radio sub-genre of the 'actuality drama'. Playing off other stranger-than-fiction programs like Passing Parade, This Actually Happened and History’s Unsolved Mysteries, this Artransa production by Jim Bradley stylised its content as a series of dramatisations portending to have their basis in reality.

While the format of most horror series is generally defined by their campy hosts, this show’s anonymous, sober-voiced narrator takes a matter-of-fact approach to these supposedly true supernatural stories. Introduced by the no-nonsense Peter Whitchurch, its half-hour horror episodes distinguish themselves through evocative sound design, strong cast performances, elaborate plots and the rich characterisation of its protagonists. Though listeners are likely to question the veracity of its tales, The Uninvited’s production value is undeniable.


Mostly Ghostly

This sparkling 1960s series of three-minute ghost stories is one of the crowning jewels of Australia’s horror radio legacy. Performed singularly by radio legend Moray Powell, Mostly Ghostly was conceived as television was coming into ascendency and radio drama producers sought desperately to compete with Top 40 music programs. The result? Original ghost plays that were short enough to be listened to on the car ride home while still stirring enough to completely enrapture listeners. 

Narrator Powell voices the delightful Mr Nightmare, who imparts spine-chilling tales in the first-person while reminding you to take your nerve tonic. Powell spent his teenage years working as a jackaroo in Western Australia before he risked it all to become a radio actor. His gamble paid off: after taking his discharge from the Australian Imperial Force in 1945, he swiftly earned his reputation in Sydney and Melbourne as one of the most gifted voice actors in the country. With its velvety resonance, maniacal laughter, and breathtakingly authentic screams, Powell’s voice still manages to astonish over six decades later. These bite-sized episodes pack a performative punch while deftly touching on a wide breadth of themes: unrequited love, vengeance, jealousy, guilt, world war and the nation’s colonial legacy.

Excerpt from episode 23 of Mostly Ghostly, 1960. NFSA title: 534813


Special thanks to Grace Gibson Radio, the State Library of Victoria and the Australian Performing Arts Collection at the Arts Centre Melbourne for their support of this research.


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Main image: (L) A promotional still for Devil's Holiday featuring Keith Eden dressed as Satan, from the cover of 'Listener In' magazine. (R) Mostly Ghostly narrator, Moray Powell.