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The pungent delights of the CBC horror radio series, Nightfall

Friday 2/2/24

I've been making a point of listening to many episodes of the CBC radio program, Nightfall, which ran from 1980 to 1983. Nightfall could have this feel of being made by the people, rather than professionals, if that makes sense, but it could be quite scary so far as these things go. It's almost like going to the community theater in your town and you end up experiencing real frights from these people who live in the area and who you might carpool to work with or what have you.

If someone were to say, "I think Nightfall is the scariest of all classic radio dramas," I could understand where they're coming from. It wouldn't be an esoteric choice. The scariest episode I've heard is "The Porch Light," which I've written about on here. It's not perfect--people tend not to walk around alone narrating aloud what they're seeing--but it doesn't need to be. A guy wakes up, with his wife still asleep, in the middle of the night, notices their porch light is one, and looks out the window to see someone standing outside. That's the set-up.

Another one worth checking out, with a greater degree of that amateur feel I was talking about--but you could even say that makes the drama more effective--is an episode called "After Sunset," in which a horror from fifty years earlier comes back. The ending is...well, let's just say I bet it shocked people hearing it for the first time then and now.

A Nightfall episode with a further ratcheting up of the amateur pungency is "The Repossession." Two conjoined babies are born, and only one of them can live, so the other has to be killed. The unfortunate infant returns as the voice of a full-grown man later on to create, let us say, problems, for the twin that was chosen to survive. People who make radio dramas love sound effects. It's an art, creating them. They like the challenge, how inventive you often need to be. The main reason why I recommend "The Repossession" is for the sound effects at the end. They're pretty wild.

Speaking of carpooling: We feel like we're riding along with the big-rig driver of "Welcome to Homerville." A guy is in his truck, he's passing the time on the CB with other truck drivers and the odd CB enthusiast, and when he mentions that he's going to Homerville, everyone does this verbal double-take and tries to get him to get some sleep first or some such. I like hearing the catch in the characters' voices when the destination is mentioned and the tone changes.

Nightfall could be pretty classy. Like the late 1960s series, Beyond Midnight, from South Africa (remember how we talked about their adaptation of A.M. Burrage's "Smee"?), these Canadians would also turn to classic literature.

There's an adaptation of Dickens' "The Signal-Man," which is has been done on a number of dramatic radio programs (Suspense did it three times), Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," Le Fanu's "Carmilla," Aickman's "Ringing the Changes," but what Nightfall really seemed to like was combining atmosphere with a certain gross-out factor. Usually we get one or the other, but not with Nightfall.

A good example of the approach--and it's very much in the Nightfall spirit--is "All-Nighter." A young woman works in an all-night laundromat, where people are being killed. She has a friendly cop buddy who checks in on her on his beat to make sure she's okay. Gives a whole new meaning to the word "washed."

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