Lights Out is an extremely popular American old-time radio program, an early example of a network series devoted mostly to horror and the supernatural, predating Suspense and Inner Sanctum. Versions of Lights Out aired on different networks, at various times, from January 1934 to the summer of 1947 and the series eventually made the transition to television.
In the fall of 1933, NBC writer Wyllis Cooper conceived the idea of "a midnight mystery serial to catch the attention of the listeners at the witching hour." The idea was to offer listeners a dramatic program late at night, at a time when the competition was mostly airing music. At some point, the serial concept was dropped in favor of an anthology format emphasizing crime thrillers and the supernatural. The first series of shows (each 15 minutes long) ran on a local NBC station, WENR, at midnight Wednesdays, starting in January 1934. By April, the series proved successful enough to expand to a half hour. In January 1935, the show was discontinued in order to ease Cooper's workload (he was then writing scripts for the network's prestigious Immortal Dramas program), but was brought back by huge popular demand a few weeks later. After a successful tryout in New York City, the series was picked up by NBC in April 1935 and broadcast nationally, usually late at night and always on Wednesdays. Cooper stayed on the program until June 1936, when another Chicago writer, Arch Oboler, took over. By the time Cooper left, the series had inspired about 600 fan clubs.
Cooper's run was characterized by grisly stories spiked with dark, tongue-in-cheek humor, a sort of radio Grand Guignol. A character might be buried or eaten or skinned alive, vaporized in a ladle of white-hot steel, absorbed by a giant slurping amoeba, have his arm torn off by a robot, or forced to endure torture, beating or decapitation—always with the appropriate blood-curdling acting and sound effects.
Though there had been efforts at horror on radio previously (notably The Witch's Tale), there does not seem to have been anything quite as explicit or outrageous as this on a regular basis. When the series switched to the national network, a decision was made to tone down the gore and emphasize tamer fantasy and ghost stories.
Only one recording survives from Cooper's 1934-1936 run, but his less gruesome scripts were occasionally rebroadcast. An interesting example is his "Three Men," which became the series' annual Christmas show (a 1937 version circulates among collectors under titles like "Uninhabited" or "Christmas Story"); it has a plot typical of Cooper's gentler fantasies. On the first Christmas after World War I, three Allied officers meet by chance in a train compartment and find one another vaguely familiar. They fall asleep and share a dream in which they are the Three Wise Men searching for Jesus. But is it really a dream? In the best tradition of supernatural twist endings, Cooper has the officers wake to find a strange odor in their compartment—which turns out to be myrrh and frankincense.
In the mid 1940s, Cooper's decade-old scripts were used for three brief summertime revivals of Lights Out. The surviving recordings reveal that Cooper was experimenting with both stream of consciousness and first-person narration a few years before these techniques were popularized in American radio drama by, among others, Arch Oboler and Orson Welles. In one tale, a murderer describes how the Chicago police try to beat a confession out of him. When that doesn't work, they put him in a jail cell haunted by the ghost of a previous occupant, a smooth gangster named Skeeter Dempsey who describes his own execution and discusses the afterlife knowledgeably. In the final twist, the narrator reveals that he has taken Skeeter's advice to commit suicide and is now himself a ghost.
Another story, originally broadcast in March 1935 as "After Five O'Clock" and revived in 1945 as "Man in the Middle," allows us to follow the thoughts of a businessman as he spends a day at the office cheating on his wife with his secretary. The amusing contrast between what the protagonist thinks to himself and what he says out loud to the other characters enlivens one of Cooper's favorite plot devices, the love triangle.