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The dark talent of Arch Oboler: The man who could conceive of the world being destroyed by a chicken

His name was Arch Oboler. He was one of America’s greatest radio playwrights, and one of the most imaginative horror writers of the 20th century. If you have not heard his name read on — as no one could imagine the end of the world better than Arch Oboler.

A Chicagoan, Arch Oboler started writing for radio when the medium was new, and he was in his 20s. He got his big break in 1936, when Wyllis Cooper left the early radio horror show he had created called Lights Out in 1934. The show was tame by modern standards, but pushed the envelope on horror in the 1930s. When NBC asked Oboler to take over, he was not too excited by the horror theme, but he took it on. The show aired at midnight, with a creepy thirteen chime followed by "Lights out, everybody!") The late hour gave Oboler a freedom seldom seen in radio. He dived into dark themes, and took on the rise of fascism in Europe. The new series opened with Burial Services, about a young girl buried alive, the network asked him to tone it down, but his mind soon came up with new horrors. Such as the tale of a chicken heart, that kept beating in a in a lab, growing exponentially to choke the entire planet. Chicken Heart, first broadcast March 10, 1937.

Look at it down there — a gray blanket of evil covering everything! No hope I tell you! None! See how the roads are black with men and women and their children running for their lives! See how the protoplasmic grey reaches out and engulfs them!

The little men down there did not believe their doom either until it engulfed them! Oh, listen to me, Lewis - you remember only a handful of days ago you asked me my prophecy of the end of the earth? You remember my answer — ah, such a scholarly prophecy! — cessation of earth rotation — mighty sounding astronomical theories! But now, this is reality, Lewis! The end has come for humanity — not in the glory of interstellar combustion — not in the peace of white cold silence — but (IN DISGUST) with that — creeping, grasping flesh below us! It is a joke, eh, Lewis? A great joke! The joke of the Cosmos! The end of mankind — because of a chicken's heart!

For there, Oboler came up with a thousand ways to end life on earth, and one of his darker was his most humorous. The Laughing Man told the tale of a future human, who had found a book hidden from the distant past. He reads the book, and finds the story it tells so ridiculous that he has to laugh as he recounts the tale of a lost civilization — that developed great technology, with amazing machines — but ended up using all it wonders to destroy itself — a topic so absurd the man thought that such violence could only be a joke.

His play Meteorman told of a meteor that fell to earth, containing a being that is intent on feeding on humans, or Catwife, where a man’s wife turns into, you got it, a cat…Or the Coffin in Studio B, where a coffin is mistakenly delivered to a radio studio… or is it a mistake?

After the war began, Arch Oboler found a new calling in writing propaganda, and he took it to a new level by aiming to develop a real hatred of the enemy — partying the Japanese and Germans as evil, blood-thirsty and cruel. His radio series Plays For Americans were some of the best and most powerful (and dark) radio propaganda plays ever written. He cast Bette Davis in Adolf and Mrs. Runyon, where Hitler finds himself suddenly sent into the back seat of a car belonging to an irate war bride.

But, his classic work was a radio play Chicago, Germany - where we get a Man in the High Castle feel for what a total loss to the Germans looked like…

Now, I'm - I'm not a human being any more. They said so. Verboten -- everything verboten for me -- for people like me -- who are just plain Americans. The thousands they were killing, and the thousands they were tearing out of their families to die in their labor camps-- We weren't human beings anymore! We were slaves! That's why I cried, Ann. I suddenly saw that all those months trying to shut out what was happening just to stay alive-- I'd been kidding myself in a way you didn't do! For this was their world. They'd won. And what you said was true -- there wasn't any place left in the world for us. And there wasn't anything I could do about it. We'd lost the war -- and I'd helped lose it. And now it was too late. Too late to fight. Too late to even cry. (SOBS) Too late to even cry!

Steven King was inspired by the fantastic tale of the Chicken Heart. Bill Cosby found fame in his monologue on the same topic. Oboler re-invented the genre of horror, and led to shows such as Inner Sanctum, that copied his approach. But his idea of what was scary was so much more than monsters and vampires. He took the mundane, like a harmless chicken heart, or an old book, and made them truly scary. And, we cannot forget the power of radio. It was the theatre of the mind. Like a book, you saw the images in your head. And that made it all the more terrifying.

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Aug 27, 2020

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