When radio reigned as the primary form of home entertainment during the early to mid-20th century, Australians enjoyed a wide variety of genres of radio plays and serials. One of the most popular genres was the ‘thriller’ – encompassing crime, horror, fantasy and the supernatural. Curator Chris Arneil shares three spooky, full-length thriller episodes from popular radio serials of the time.
Although relatively tame by today’s standards, these thrillers courted controversy for almost the entire period that they were heard on air. From the 1930s through to the 1950s, listeners wrote to newspapers protesting these broadcasts and experts debated the ‘damaging’ effect they had on young people.
'Do parents realise the serious damage that may be done to the minds of their children by the horror story of the radio? One serial broadcast from a local station between 6 and 7pm for children could cause untold mischief to many an innocent child ... This mental cruelty is worse than punching a child in the face' – CT Turnbull, Assistant Secretary of the Newcastle Young Men's Christian Association, Newcastle Morning Herald, 6 June 1941.
'A great deal of crime is committed throughout Australia ... This is not less than we may expect, because every night when we listen to radio programs we hear of murders, or of detectives beating up people. Programs are punctuated by screams, and the children have no alternative but to listen to stories of crime … It is tragic to hear in almost every home the sound of shooting, squeals, and screams, emanating from radio sets' – New South Wales Labor Senator Stan Amour,1946.
The Argus reported (on 20 June 1940) that psychiatrists had diverging opinions on horror broadcasts, and while some said that ‘blood and thunder and gangster and murder stuff’ heard over the radio could cause mass hysteria, others ‘considered that some people get enjoyment out of them’.
Radio actress Nell Stirling told the Wireless Weekly in 1934, ‘It seems to me this outcry from a certain section of the people is much the same as the protest against the wearing of shorts for tennis ... To my way of thinking, if people don't want to listen to a thriller there are other stations to which they can tune in.'
You can sample three full-length episodes of popular radio thrillers below:
The Witch's Tale – 'All Hallows' Eve' (1941)
This episode of The Witch's Tale, entitled ‘All Hallows’ Eve’, was written especially as a Halloween broadcast and adapted for Australian radio by Sydney radio producer and writer E Mason Wood.
The original American series of The Witch’s Tale was significant as the earliest horror program produced for radio. It was first heard in May 1931 out of radio station WOR in New York City and was created by Alonzo Deen Cole, who wrote, produced and also acted in the series. Old Nancy the Salem Witch introduced a different story each week alongside her cat, Satan.
The Brisbane Telegraph described the program in 1947 as ‘not the sort of radio program the timid would enjoy listening to when alone in the house after nightfall. This, obviously, is the Witch's aim, and this is the grizzly old lady's achievement.’
The opening sets the tone of the episode, with the chiming of a bell, an eerie voice and sinister music. Sound effects are used effectively to create a dramatic space for the performers. Seventy years later this recording is still fresh and engaging.
Inner Sanctum – Episode 13, 'The Grey Wolf' (1952)
This episode of Inner Sanctum involves a mysterious visitor arriving at the country estate of sports player John Allerton and his wife, while they are being terrorised by a grey wolf. The episode stars Ruth Cracknell, Max Osbiston, Henry Gilbert and John Tate.
The series was broadcast between 1952 and 1957 and adapted from imported American scripts. Boris Karloff starred in the original American version of this episode, which is now believed lost. The Australian series was devised by E Mason Wood and starred Moray Powell as Raymond, the show’s host and ‘doorkeeper’.
Extremely popular with listeners, Inner Sanctum was investigated by the Broadcasting Control Board following complaints about the ‘alleged detrimental effect of horror shows’. This recording is a great example of all the melodramatic radio thriller tropes, from the sardonic host to the wonderful sound effects and eerie organ playing.
Some critics at the time were less than kind. 'As a horror series, Inner Sanctum is a total failure. We have good listening, medium listening, bad listening. Inner Sanctum is in a class of its own, way down past the ordinarily bad. If it is kept on the air because of public demand, public taste is as poor as the most contemptuous sponsor asserts' (Lesley Morris, Advocate, July 1952).
The Shadow – Episode 10, 'Murder With Music' (1946)
The Shadow starred Lloyd Lamble as Lamont Cranston, the invisible avenger of the title with ‘the mysterious power to cloud men's minds’. Lyndall Barbour played his friend and companion, Margot Lane.
Originally created to narrate a radio version of a pulp magazine in the United States in 1930, The Shadow became one of the most well-known adventure heroes of 20th century North America.
The character of Lamont Cranston was first voiced by a 22-year-old Orson Welles in 1937, in the original radio drama that was the basis for the Australian series.
South Australian Labor Senator Thomas Sheehy condemned The Shadow in parliament in December 1946, proclaiming that he had ‘heard an episode of a serial which ended with a shot and a scream, followed by the words, “Now The Shadow watches”’, and that ‘some of the serious crimes which young people have committed in the last few years may be attributed, in part, to these gruesome radio plays’.
Grace Gibson, the show's producer, countered that The Shadow doesn’t glorify crime, because every episode ends with the disclaimer ‘crime does not pay’.
The NFSA holds a number of thrillers on radio transcription discs, as well as related photographs, scripts and documentation.
This article was first published in 2018. The text was updated in 2023.
Want to be the first to hear stories and news from the NFSA?
Subscribe to our newsletter and never miss out.
Main image: Peter Finch, Neva Carr-Glynn and Vivian Edwards in Greyface, one of the Blackburn detective radio serials, c1940.