I was 12 years old and sat alone in my dimly lit bedroom listening to my favorite scary radio program, “Inner Sanctum.” It always began with the creepy sound of a squeaking door opening, and a welcome into a house of horrors.
Immediately, I was transported to a storm-lashed small island home to a towering lighthouse and nothing else. I saw wind-driven rain and huge waves pounding its shores. Then something crashed loudly onto its rocky coast. I watched as the lighthouse keeper donned his yellow slicker and hurried outside to find a rusty freighter driven onto the rocks. I watched, horrified, as hundreds of rats but no crew scrambled from the ship’s shattered hull.
The keeper raced to the lighthouse and slammed its door behind him. Immediately I heard the rats scratching their way through the wooden door.
Terrified, he raced up a ladder to the next level and slammed the door behind him. Again, I heard the scratches of the rats assaulting the door; it soon crumbled. He again scrambled up the ladder to the next floor only to have its door also yield to the rodents’ assault,.He then scurried to the top level, where the giant light rotated relentlessly. The rats began their assault on the final door as I listened, in delicious terror.
I won’t tell you how the episode ended, but now, 70 years later, I can see each of those scenes that frightened and delighted me so long ago. They exist in what my favorite high school English teacher explained was “the theater of the mind.”
Two years later, with television still in its infancy, I was thrilled to learn that I would be able to watch “Inner Sanctum” on TV. Wow, I thought, how great.
We didn’t have a TV set yet, but I went to a YMCA to watch “Inner Sanctum” along with about 20 other fans. We very quickly came to realize that it was not good. It wasn’t scary; the cheesy video images couldn’t compare with the images that we created ourselves as we listened to our radios.
Similarly, in the late 1940s my family gathered around our Zenith radio to listen to the Lux Radio Theater on Sunday nights. Once, with only our Christmas tree’s lights on, we listened to Charles Dickens’ immortal “A Christmas Carol.”
I watched Ebenezer Scrooge as he abused Bob Cratchit, and saw poor Tiny Tim’s struggle with his crutches. I shuddered as I saw the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future drag their chains as they hovered in Scrooge’s bedroom terrifying him (and me) with their tales. I was thrilled to see a reformed Scrooge call to a boy to buy a Christmas goose for the Cratchit family and loved watching him deliver it, making their Christmas, and mine, come alive with joy. Each image remains clear in my mind today.
I have seen Dickens’ classic novella on television many times since then, but it has never compared to that magnificent radio evening, when the images were mine alone. I created them as I listened, converting words into pictures, pictures that thrilled me then and still do.
Sadly, the images on today’s addictive electronic screens have diminished our power to allow radio and books to prompt our imaginations to create. We experience less today as electronic images replace those far more powerful and lasting visions that books and radio led us to create in the theater of the mind.