Music 286R Listening, Creativity, and Imagination

The Psychology of Horror Radio

The radio is, in many ways, the perfect medium for horror: with radio being a "blind medium," many of the frights concocted by horror radio producers could be amplified to any degree on the screen of the listener's imagination. Research does exist on the psychology of horror (Neil 2019), the psychology of radio (Cantril and Allport 1935), and the history of horror radio (Hand 2006), respectively, but the psychology specifically behind horror radio has not been closely researched to my knowledge. As such, examining the psychology behind the enjoyment of horror radio may reveal unexpected aspects of humanity, and send a message about society during the golden age of radio and even society now. After listening to and transcribing famous episodes from eight different shows, one overarching theme throughout is gender and relationships, from grotesquely feminine horror creatures to an emphasis on couples and love. My final project, a meta radio drama inspired by the shows of the 20th century, aims to pick apart these dynamics and show that a major part of the appeal of horror radio may be from the way gender and relationship dynamics are depicted and distorted.   

Beginning in the 1930s with some of the earliest shows from The Witch's Tale and The Hermit's Cave, I focused on eight radio programs up untl the 1950s and their effects on a modern listener. As I listened to the programs, I noted the exaggerations of feminine or masculine dynamics, along with the use of sound effects and vocal emotions (via throat noises and other indications of terror) to create a horrifying atmosphere. Transcription helped me greatly in this respect; given that I am most comfortable with typing, I mostly typed out my thoughts and feelings in real-time while listening to each of the radio broadcasts. Taking inspiration from each of these shows as well as the "intimate" style of radio programming as described by Neil Verma, I knew I wanted to create a piece of art that would put listeners into a first-person perspective of an entertaining but ultimately terrified individual, rather like Sorry, Wrong Number from Suspense or Terror by Night from The Inner Sanctum. In a way, this breaks the fourth wall, as Murder in the Script Department does in Lights Out. All other shows I listened to are mentioned and evaluated in some way over the course of the radio drama I ultimately ended up resting.

Creating my own radio drama to display my findings pushed me quite far out of my comfort zone, as someone who is not very familiar with acting. The vocals are recorded and edited over Audacity, with added sound effects from Epidemic Sound online. The storyline is a meta, first-person story of a student radio host who is contacted by a terrifying caller. This approach closely reflects some of my personal experiences of being "trapped" in a radio station late at night, and on occasion receiving harassing phone calls while being in that space alone. The best way to experience the audio drama is through headphones or something similar, for the purpose of immersion in that sense. I found that much of the "psychological" research I had done was more applicable to the actual process of recording the piece; one example is, in attempting to play the character of a slightly naive student radio host, actually changing my facial structure to reflect the emotion I was trying to convey (i.e., forcing myself to smile) actually did change my voice quality in the way I hoped (as mentioned by David Huron). One detail I had still wanted to capture but didn't quite achieve was the extreme, intense emotions that many of the radio show actors and actresses were able to capture in the classic horror shows. Another factor that I would like to explore more going into the future would be how present-day radio shows have different approaches to addressing relationships or inducing fear, as well as a more scientific method of analyzing vocal quality or pacing and how they affect fear.

In this project, I achieved my goal of beginning to speak about and analyze the psychology of an entirely audio-based horror medium, and I hope to continue this work going into the future to elucidate the appeal of horror and of radio as a medium. Departing from the relationship binaries often described in these golden-age radio shows is also an interest for me; looking into more complex dynamics and continuing to improve my artistic and acting abilities in creating audio-based media will be a goal of mine going forward.