Radio Horror Stories
Here are notes regarding techniques for writing horror
stories for the radio medium.
I was asked how to create good horror stories for radio,
specifically, what scares people on radio?
Radio is well suited to imaginative happenings--much like
the print versions of horror or science fiction
stories. Unlike film horror, in radio your special effects
budget is unlimited. The listener's imagination is your
slave/genie. You need only suggest something and the
audience will conjure it up in their minds. So the key to
radio horror is the same one for all other radio genres; you
must convincingly weave a world. Since the fantastical is
easy in radio, the medium is perfect for horror. So, exploit
the medium. Imagine yourself sitting around the camp fire
telling spooky tales--now do it on radio with music, sound
effects and more voices.
Some How-To Resources
I was already a radio writer when I was commissioned to
write a couple of horror shows. Not knowing much about the
horror craft, I did some research and found plenty of advice
on creating contemporary horror novels (use everyday
settings, avoid all the spooky clichés, etc.) Unfortunately,
I was seeking to write classic, old-fashioned horror,
so most of the current "How to" books were useless. However,
for any dramatic writing, I always keep in mind Alfred
Hitchcock's lessons about suspense from
Hitchock/Truffaut, the wonderful book-long interview by
Francois Truffaut. In it, the "master of suspense" explained
how he manipulated audiences so well in his films. I find
suspense more useful in horror than gore or grisly surprise
and many of Hitch's techniques can be applied to radio
There are the many books advising wanna-be Stephen Kings
and some are handy. In
How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction
edited by J.N. Williamson, I found Dean Koontz's essays
useful. I also enjoyed H.P. Lovecraft's short 1927 analysis
Supernatural Horror in Literature. Directly dealing
with radio drama,
Stephen King's Danse Macabre, a non-fiction
essay collection on horror, includes a chapter on "Radio and
the Set of Reality." These works were useful, but not
essential. (Note: several of these titles are currently out
of print. Try your public library or the
Mostly, I read old horror short stories. I love M.R.
James early 1900s short stories. Try "Casting
the Runes: And Other Ghost Stories" or any collection of
H.P. Lovecraft's short works. I actually avoided studying
old-time-radio horror programs like "The Witch's Tale,"
"Inner Sanctum" or even Arch Obler's brilliant "Lights Out"
because I wanted to approach the genre freshly. So I sat and
thought, "What makes for scary scenes?" And "How do I make
them work in radio?"
By exploring a generic idea of "what's scary," I was able
to intuit some approaches to radio horror. If you can
understand the ideal--telling a story in a scary manner,
then you can apply what you discover throughout your story.
Hey there, Little Red Riding Hood
A classic horror cliché is the girl walking alone
through the graveyard or the girl wandering alone
into the Werewolf's lair. Here, something bad is about
to happen. Your job as a writer is to delay the bad
happenings as long as possible--thus creating suspense. For
advice on what to have happen, see the recommended books
above. The actual content of the scene is up to you, but
how to convey that content is what I'm examining here.
In a print novel, the author narrates the girl's passage,
describing the surroundings and her mental state. In a film,
the audience can actually see the creepy surroundings and
the werewolf lurking in the background.
However in radio, the audience is blind. In order
for the listeners to "see" the surroundings and action, you
can only rely on narration, sound effects, and dialogue.
This is the case for all genres on radio, but horror
presents special problems for radio writers because our
usual approach to spinning a world into being can actually
detract from the horror.
Narrators, Sound Effects, or Music to the rescue?
For our girl in the graveyard scene, we need to depict
where she is and what's happening. Using a typical narrator
can work, but his very presence removes the audience from
directly experiencing the horror "face to face." One of
Alfred Hitchcock's great strengths was to put the viewer
into the place of the protagonist--we experience what they
experience. That's the core of making horror
work--regardless of medium. However, the use of a narrator
here will cut into the listener's identification with the
girl--something that can be fatal to fright. So one
desirable element--identification with the protagonist--may
be difficult to sustain at the most direct level.
Sound effects alone often aren't clear enough to work
here. The sound of the girl's footsteps amidst the wind and
an occasional ghostly moan have only a limited power to
frighten. Here, these clichés will work against you--they've
been drained of their potency through over-use. Plus so many
sound effects by themselves can be mis-read by the audience
and merely confuse the action. Think of those terrible
"horror sound effects" recordings they sell every Halloween.
Sit down and listen to one and see how long you are
enthralled. Many amateur radio producers slap some sound
effects together and then wonder why the audience is
scratching their heads.
Spooky music can help, but by its abstract nature, music
can't render concrete details about graves or werewolves in
the shadows reaching out to grab the girl. Use music, but
don't rely on it to carry the story. To render those
details, we need voices.
Normally in radio, when you need to describe a scene or
some action, you add a second character and have the two
exclaim to each other what they (we) are seeing. "Look,
Phyllis. It's a g-g-ghoul!" This can work, but there's a
drawback. If there are TWO girls walking through the
graveyard together, it's not as threatening as it was when
there was only one girl--alone. This extra girl is different
than the narrator--she can be killed, but once she's dead,
you're stuck again with trying to depict a scene with one
character, the original girl.
I might get around this by having the girl talk to
herself as she progresses through the scene. Maybe you can
throw in some red herrings (like a mouse) and have her talk
to it and ask it questions. Maybe you can do a montage of
"voices from the past" warning her. You'll have to see what
As an exercise, go ahead and write this scene, record it
quickly and play it back. Then re-write, record and play
back again. Repeat this process until you discover what
works. I often cook up a few horror set-pieces and then
build out the rest of the story from there.
Tell! Don't Show
Now, this bit of advice runs counter to nearly all good
writing for film and print, but a very effective way to
render horror in radio is to have a character TELL a spooky
story within the main story and accompany it with music,
sounds, and occasional dialogue. This "narration with
accompaniment" is the great Norman Corwin's most powerful
technique--although he didn't do traditional horror stories.
In "Crusade of Terror!," an episode of my Grim Scary
Tales horror anthology series, I had an idea for a scene
where corrupt crusaders are venturing through an underground
city in 1204 A.D. Turkey. They wade through an "ocean of
bones" to find a golden tomb and as they open it, are
attacked by Ifrits (snake haired monsters from the Arabian
Nights). I first envisioned it as a real-time scene, but
that took a lot of time on radio: "Look! Up ahead! What's
that?" "It's a tomb." "A golden tomb!" "Gold!" "I knew it!"
"Let's go in!" "Should we?" etc.
Feeling that ghost stories tend to work better around a
fire, I instead rewrote the scene as a tale told by a
frightened survivor of the attack. The survivor narrates the
adventure with spooky supporting music, one line of "live"
dialogue and some key sound effects--wading through the
ocean of bones, frightened walla walla, prying open the
tomb, attacking creatures, swords, etc.
CAVERN TOMB--[BED]--CONTINUE UNDER.
HARALD: (NARRATING) ...Deeper we went, past hellish
the remains of ancient camps--ghastly and strange! But
in a large grotto, lit by some far off dim glow, a
foul stench arose! The smell of a thousand open graves!
(PAUSE) Some wished to turn back, but Cliff of Thorsness
refused! Up ahead, Sir Garrick yelled...
3. SIR GARRICK: [REVERB]
Lord Cliff! Look! Ahead! An ocean of...
HARALD: (NARRATING) ...Bones!--a vast sea of
strewn hither and yon! In the center of this grisly pool...
we spied an... ancient tomb! The treasure of the Saracens,
we thought, but this tomb was not Muslim. It looked much
older--not made by man!
WADING THROUGH BONES. WALLA--FRIGHTENED MEN.
HARALD: (NARRATING) We waded through the sea of bones
the tomb.... when suddenly...
Here, the storyteller moves things along and keeps the
action clear--which is essential for action scenes, but also
to control the tale. This "narration with accompaniment"
approach made a much better scene and really played to
radio's strengths--particularly using evocative music and
sound effects. By using a character as narrator (as opposed
to the standard omniscient narrator) you can inject fear
into the telling.
Here's an audio example of "narration with accompaniment"
from, of all things, a soap opera I wrote. It's not straight
horror, but demonstrates how powerful this technique can be
at guiding the listener through a scene. It's an MP3 file.
Life's Little Ups & Downs - A 3 minute soap opera demo
that demonstrates radio's imaginative range. [1.7Mb]
Contrary to what I'd said earlier about how desirable it
is to put the listener into the character's shoes to
experience the horror directly, here I used a narrator to
actually distance the listeners from that
identification--but I have a reason. By deliberately
removing the listeners from a direct experience of the
horror scene, you fuzz up their perception and keep things a
bit murky or unknown. Normally, clarity is what you
strive for in radio drama, but horror is one area where
less is more. So, don't fully describe a monster--just
give snatches of it. Let the audience paint their own demon.
With Sir Harald's ghost story told, now the listeners had
knowledge of evil awaiting, so I could later put my heroine
into this same place and anything she did frightened
the audience. The suspense about something bad going to
happen created a sense of dread and that made the horror
work. Try to delay direct confrontation with evil until the
climax of the story since once you get to the "Boogie Man"
you'll have to resolve the story--either the heroine escapes
or the monster eats her.
It's All About Fear
And here lies the difference between adventure stories
and horror stories. In an adventure, the heroine would
escape the terrible evils. In a horror story, she doesn't
escape. I don't like pessimistic endings and so, find horror
less creatively fulfilling. But that's my own taste. I can
only enjoy having taken the listeners on a roller coaster
ride and for that, horror, suspense, and fear are
Here's an excerpt of a production of mine that uses
music, sound, two types of narration, as well as dialogue to
evoke and sustain a sense of dread. It's an MP3 file.
Scrooge & Marley - A 4-minute clip from my adaptation of
Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. [2 Mb]
Fear of the unknown is very powerful. Since total clarity
in radio is nearly impossible, it lends itself to keeping
things unknown. You must seek to exploit this unknown-ness.
Use radio's "smoke and mirrors" to your advantage... because
where there's smoke--there's fear!