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The three scariest episodes of the radio program Suspense

Monday 10/31/22

The radio program Suspense aired from 1942-1962, and even with in the golden age of radio--which effectively ended when Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar went off the air in that year of 1962--this was a hell of a long run. There were nearly 1000 episodes of the program. Suspense was what was called a thriller at the time, but we can safely think of many of the episodes as having a horror component.

The problem with Suspense was its concept. I'm not talking about how the show--which aired once a week--used Hollywood stars to serve as the star of each episode, casting the actors, comedians, and entertainers against type. So, Jimmy Stewart would be a murderer, for instance. Fun. I'm referencing the show's reliance on the twist ending. The intro to each Suspense episode fairly bragged about the upcoming twist. One box was overloaded, so that at the end, the contents could be dumped into another, and you were supposed to say, "Wow, I didn't see that coming."

The program would go to extremes to make sure there was an extreme twist. As such, a lot of these episodes are laughable. Listenable, but laughable. The series, on the whole--though again, there was a lot of material--doesn't hold up like the episodes of Quiet, Please, do, or Escape, which ran from 1947 to 1954 and functioned as a less manic cousin of Suspense.

But there are three Suspense episodes that are pretty much perfect, and honestly frightening--as frightening as anything that has ever gone out over the American airwaves. I'd say that the scariest episode of Suspense--which we'll come to in a moment--is the scariest program ever broadcast on radio in this country.

These episodes don't do the twist routine. Or, if they do--and I'm really just talking about the middle selection--that's built into the narrative so seamlessly that it doesn't register as a twist at all, but the final phase of a logical progression. So here we go.

"Ghost Hunt," air date, June 23, 1949.

The episode started Ralph Edwards, and it dovetails well with our social media/performative age. A loud, brash radio host is going to spend a night in a haunted house. It's very TikTok-y. Very livestream-y. I wrote a big feature about this episode which I've been mulling as an addition to You're Up, You're Down, You're Up: Essays on Art in Life and Life in Art. I'm not sure. It's tough to know what should go where when you have so much work. The radio host is a likable guy, despite his shtick. Usually, when we get shtick, we get someone who is...well, a tool. Not so here. And not that the Suspense universe will have any mercy for him, though.

"The Hitch-Hiker," air date, September 2, 1942.

Lucille Fletcher--author of "Sorry, Wrong Number"--wrote "The Hitch-Hiker" specifically for Orson Welles, on account of his voice, and because she believed with his advancements in radio, he and his team would turn her script into even more than what it was. She must have known how strong the script was. And she also must have known that Welles would have considerable say in how this episode was made, never mind that he was only a guest on the program, albeit one who was doing all five shows that particular week. But yes, Welles pretty much took over, and the episode bears the hallmarks of his radio art.

This story has been around for a long time--sort of. E.F. Benson had an early version with his short story, "The Bus-Conductor." Rod Serling heard this broadcast on the air and later did a version of the story for The Twilight Zone, with a female protagonist. I don't think that works as well, but that's also partially because you're hearing Orson Welles. The 1962 film Carnival of Souls, which I had a feature come out on today, uses this idea well, and, to an extent, The Sixth Sense.

The narrator--who tells his tale in a parked car in a forlorn spot in New Mexico--keeps seeing a hitch-hiker as he attempts to drive from Brooklyn to California. It's the same guy. In order for this to work, Fletcher needed memorable descriptive phrases, which return as verbal leitmotifs. Fresh rain on the shoulders, for example. Welles did another rendition in 1946, but he's not quite as good. Different energy.

Welles's introduction is fascinating and lyrical in and of itself. He makes a joke about "The War of the Worlds," without directly naming that infamous broadcast from 1938.

"The House in Cypress Canyon," air date, December 5, 1946.

I'm going to be writing a feature about this scariest of all Suspense episodes this week. It's a frame story, starring Robert Taylor and Cathy Lewis. At Christmastime, two guys are shooting the shit at the real estate office of one of them. The latter has come upon a manuscript discovered in a home that had just been built. He read the thing, and he's thoroughly creeped out now, and wants to run it by his buddy. The manuscript recounts the story of a young married couple who had taken possession of a house like that one--it ends up being that exact house, which seems confusing, but isn't in the story--and things didn't go super great.

In theory, the episode shouldn't work. But you know what? The White Album shouldn't feel cohesive, but it does. How the art is made can change everything, including everything about "in theory." Everything comes down to execution. The account is mind-blowing, and when we leave it, we return back to the frame, if you will--the two buddies have the conversation. The skeptic dismisses the story as a yarn, a manuscript a would-be writer left lying around. His friend decides to agree, they wish each other the best of the season, the skeptic leaves, and then something messed up happens. Again, it's not a twist, because the progression is logical, not reliant on the jump cut or jump-shock. That deepens the fear. Scariest radio episode ever!


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