×
header-image

Skinning the Americans

HORRIFYING, WAR-INFORMED B-MOVIE SLASHER FLICKS FIND THEIR BLOODY ANTECEDENT IN THE 1940S RADIO DRAMA OF ARCH OBOLER.
DISCUSSED
A Slab of Glistening Boar Meat, Ultraviolent Blockbusters, Human Sushi, Eli Roth, Old-Time Radio Drama, The Splat Pack, Orson Welles, Psychos, Murderers, Mutilators, Thanksgiving Feasts, Frightened Boys, Shocked Listeners, Thirty-Foot Killer Worms, The American Flag, War, Guilt, Subterranean Hollows
by Jason Boog
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

Skinning the Americans

Jason Boog
15 Snaps

The movie poster for Hostel: Part II featured a slab of glistening boar meat, simulating freshly skinned human flesh. The sequel followed three Am­er­ican coeds trapped in a factory where sadists pay to torture and kill backpackers. The film’s director, Eli Roth, banks on queasy close-ups of pain: the torture of a naked girl dangling from the ceiling, a live victim carved into sushi, and the climactic castration of an executioner. The marketing campaign and story line stirred up pockets of moral outrage, but the film spent less than a month in theaters this summer, grossing $28 million at the box office—a fraction of the first film’s total haul.

Nevertheless, the New York–based Museum of the Moving Image enshrined the franchise in a special hor­ror series called It’s Only a Movie. The exhibit’s press release explained that director Roth and his contemporaries are leading “a resurgence in production, popularity, and inventiveness unparalleled since the rise of the indie horror movement in the 1970s.”

While the exhibit focused on recent film history, I discovered an eerily similar story buried in a sixty-year-old radio program. Recorded in 1942 for the radio show Lights Out, the drama was broadcast under familiar circumstances: one year after a terrorist attack on Pearl Harbor and one year into an uncertain war. The show opened with radio writer Arch Oboler warning his audience: “We urge you calmly, but very sincerely, if you frighten easily, turn off your radio now.”

He wasn’t kidding. I’d been ex­pecting cheesy lingo, campy monsters, and vintage cigarette commercials, but Oboler shocked me. The episode follows a precocious American girl prowling Paris for action, just like Roth’s European backpackers. “Men looking at me,” she moans. “Oh, if I could only talk French. Fun, I gotta have fun!”

In less than ten minutes, she is kidnapped by a sewer-dwelling killer who skins the corpses of suicides. “Their miserable unhappy flesh, I take it off them,” he laughs. “Then at last, they are bones—hard, white, useful bones.” He proceeds to saw into a corpse’s skull with vivid sound effects, and ­abuses the girl physically and psycho­logically for the rest of the episode—ultimately forcing the girl to chop up bodies in his workshop. She survives, but the trauma transforms her into a raving lunatic.

Few remember Oboler, but his gruesome methods are back in style. According to the bean ­counters at Box Office Mojo, Roth’s original Hostel grossed $47 million domestically—nearly ten times its production budget. It joined a string of ultraviolent blockbusters released over the last three years, including the mounting domestic successes of Saw ($55 million), Saw II ($87 million), and Saw III ($80 million), and the desert gorefest The Hills Have Eyes ($42 million).

“We all have the same agenda,” said Roth, characterizing this new breed of film directors (dubbed the “Splat Pack” by journalists) last December in Variety. “To bring back really violent, horrific mo­vies.” These directors resurrected a breed of violence that was absent from popular culture for years, but these stories have a spooky precursor in the art of Oboler. As audiences, critics, and museum curators resurrect this savage art, we must also unearth Oboler’s bloody legacy.

*

Oboler hit the Chicago radio scene in 1933, half-starved by the Great Depression and hell-bent on writing radio dramas. He sold his first script at twenty-six, working any writing job NBC threw his way. In 1936, the horror program Lights Out needed a new writer. Oboler came in as a temp, but showed an aptitude for the form—burying a girl alive in his first show. In the anthology Oboler Omnibus, he de­scribes having a bloody epiphany:

I had no conception, as the pages streamed from the typewriter, that what I had written was ­horror beyond horror. For I had taken a believable situation and un­derwritten it so completely that each listener filled the si­lences with the terrors of his own soul; when the coffin lid finally closed in­exorably on the conscious yet cataleptically paralyzed young girl in my play, the reality of the moment, to thousands upon thousands of listeners who had buried someone close, was such that each had the horrifying thought that perhaps [a] sister, or brother, or mother had also been buried… alive

According to John Dunning’s On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, that episode generated fifty thousand letters from shocked listeners. NBC liked the publicity, and gave Oboler a late-night workshop where he crafted more than a hundred bloody radio plays over the next two years. Most of these original recordings were lost, but his parade of zombies, serial killers, and vengeful ghosts paved the way for the twenty-first-century B movie.

Lights Out quickly drew millions of listeners and significant ad­vertising. The network gave its young genius a side project, Arch Oboler’s Plays. When the Nazis took their first hostile steps in 1938, Oboler penned a couple of serious pieces about the dangers of fascism. In Oboler Omnibus, he re­membered how America ignored these prewar warning signs: “Every­where you went, no matter what you did, you heard the screaming; every day it grew louder, and soon there was nothing but the screaming,” he wrote. “You went around asking everyone did they hear, and only a few did; the rest shook their heads quickly and hid in the holes of their ­self-interests.”

Oboler translated those screams in his horror work. In a 1938 episode titled “Murder Castle,” an impoverished girl visits a castle to beg for work. The owner punches the girl in the face and drowns her in a vat of concrete. He proceeds to kill more helpless women until one girl arrives to avenge her murdered sister. She suffocates the serial killer in a ­vacuum-sealed room, and we hear him beg for mercy, gag on his own blood, and die screaming. The heroine is driven insane by her cold-blooded murder, chanting, “Revenge, revenge, revenge…” as the episode ends.

The story was based on a late-nineteenth-century serial killer named H. H. Holmes, a man hanged for murdering countless women in Chicago. Oboler added a vigilante twist, channeling the rising tide of prewar violence and apprehension through a historical tale.

Orson Welles summoned sim­ilar anxieties as he dramatized War of the Worlds on the radio for a Halloween broadcast in 1938. He took Oboler’s fright one step further, con­vincing more than a million people that Martians were actually invading Earth. In the book Words at War, historian How­ard Blue attributes the broadcast’s power to fears of global conflict:

 

To millions of Americans the world seemed to be on the brink of war. It was. And to many of those listeners, the crisis pointed to the possibility that the United States might be dragged into the war and, perhaps less plausibly at the time, even be invaded by an enemy force.

 

By the end of that year, Oboler had moved on to more urgent and didactic plays about fascism. A small team of writers replaced him on Lights Out, but the program shut down in 1939. Until world war rekindled Oboler’s grisly spirit, it seemed that America had lost its premier writer of horror stories.

*

During my teenage years in the benign days of the early Clinton administration, horror movies were a joke. The Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th franchises climbed into absurd double digits with titles like Jason Takes Over the Moon, and most ultraviolent flicks bombed at the box office. Unimpressed by these offerings, my friends and I turned to films from the 1970s.

One hazy summer night in high school, we watched a maniac dismember a vanload of hippies in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The room stank of frightened boys—just like love sets off a hormone pinball game, these gruesome films cause physical distress. At the end, the lone survivor of the massacre sits at a gory dinner table watching cannibals dine on her friends.

It made me sick. I kicked open the door and collapsed on the front lawn. I felt like I’d just received a dispatch from a different planet; it was a set of emotions and feelings I’d never experienced. For the rest of the night, I expected madmen to saw me in half, nuclear bombs to detonate in the distance and flatten the mid-Michigan landscape in a billowing cloud of doom. It felt like war.

It was supposed to feel like that. Chainsaw was part of a strain of American horror that followed in the bloody wake of the Vietnam War. Wes Craven—who would later direct A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream for teenagers, like me, who had no memory of Vietnam—set the sadistic standard with The Last House on the Left. In that 1972 movie, a family of psychos torture and murder two suburban teen­agers, but end up vengefully slaughtered by one of the girl’s parents.

Adam Lowenstein, a film studies professor at the University of Pittsburgh, analyzes that film in his new book, Shocking Representation: Historical Trauma, National Cinema, and the Modern Horror Film. “Cra­ven claims that the film grew out of his desire to demythologize ab­stracted Hollywood-style violence, to capture the kind of raw documentary footage from Vietnam that he suspected was being censored in film and television,” he writes.

The Last House on the Left shows us another perverted feast. After murdering the two girls, the killers wind up eating dinner with one victim’s family. These savage individuals stick out like a sore thumb in the tranquil suburban dining room. Craven’s film took the madness of Vietnam and served it for dinner. Chainsaw paid homage to that scene a couple years later, sticking the last surviving hippie at that cannibal Thanksgiving feast.

Over and over these directors return to imagery immortalized in Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Want, a painting that depicts a large, wholesome family drooling over a Thanksgiving feast. That stereotypical scene has been refashioned in popular culture for years, from The Simpsons’ dysfunctional efforts at saying grace to the dust jacket for Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, where a carefully cropped family photo focuses on a scowling child at the end of the dinner table.

Most recently, Eli Roth defiled the nuclear family in a two-minute-long mock movie trailer called Thanksgiving, created for Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse. Roth pays homage to 1970s exploitation flicks with scratchy film stock and a lo-fi audio track. The short ends with a family physically bound to the dining-room table, watching the killer have sex with a broiled corpse.

One critic has already traced an in­direct connection between Obo­ler and these gruesome films. Last year, Richard J. Hand published the most comprehensive study of Obo­ler’s Lights Out run—giving Obo­ler twenty pages in his scholarly study of radio drama horror, Terror on the Air!: Horror Radio in America, 1931–1952. Hand deconstructed one of Oboler’s darkest stories, “Valse Triste,” in which two young girls accidentally stumble into a psycho’s lair. In an outrageous twist, the killer decides to kill one of the girls and marry the other, flipping a coin to make his decision.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre may have been loosely based on the true story of the 1950s serial killer Ed Gein,” Hand theorizes, “but the narrative structure, characterization, and plot twists and surprises, the treatment of violence, and the pervading bleakness owe a debt, di­rectly or indirectly, to ‘Valse Triste.’”

Even though Oboler is mostly forgotten today, his stories are the poisonous root of wartime horror movies. Whether or not Craven listened to Lights Out, Oboler broke many of the thematic and moral boundaries that once constricted horror, paving the way for Craven’s shocking pictures. Oboler and Craven both operated with extreme illogic, dropping us in dan­gerous places where there is no happy ending and most of the main characters die. These are the bloody realities of modern warfare; the Vietnam carnage that Craven sought to unlock from censorship and politicization; it’s the material that my friends and I could hardly imagine during the relatively peace­ful 1990s in America.

*

“I  woke up one morning to find that I had no more money left,” Obo­ler wrote in Oboler Omnibus, describing how World War II affec­ted him. “The long period of writing without fee had emptied the ex­chequer; if I was to go on writing plays which contained some level of maturity and usefulness, I had to find a way to make money ­quickly.”

After Lights Out ended in 1939, Oboler had volunteered to write plays for the Office of War Information, a government agency bent on convincing the American public that this war was worth it. Howard Blue estimated that Obo­ler wrote more than seventy “beat the Axis” plays during World War II. Between 1939 and 1945, Oboler wrote countless poetic, overwrought, and, ultimately, un­memorable plays es­sentially for free.

Eyeing his finances, Oboler re­turned to his stock resource, fear. Fear was everywhere during World War II—this was the first war where Americans actually saw and heard what happened on the battle­field. The Smithsonian book Reporting the War: The Journalistic Coverage of World War II notes: “The immediacy of airwave journalism’s reportage of the war’s early phases bred a sense of personal involvement among Americans… News­week credited radio’s play-by-play coverage of these events with ‘creating a tension in America un­dreamed of when the [First] World War broke out in 1914.’”

As anxiety mounted, Oboler landed a major sponsorship contract with Ironized Yeast—vitamins ­touted to cure anything from de­pression to skinniness—and revived Lights Out for NBC. This was the most important work he did in his entire career. From 1942 to 1943, he reproduced old scripts and wrote a few new bloody chestnuts, producing the primary body of Lights Out recordings that would survive him.

Oboler opened his first war­time season in October 1942 with the story of a chemist who flees the war. “Run, away from reality,” mumbles his character. “From ­reality, war, war, run away. I wanted to be out of the world until it’s over.” While other scientists supported the war effort, Oboler’s cowardly doctor resolved to feed roses with hormones and cultivate gigantic flowers. After railing against the isolationists who al­lowed European fascism to meta­stasize into Nazism, Oboler heaped doom on the coward. In the climax, hormone-mutated thirty-foot worms rise out of the ground and kill the chemist.

Trying to approximate that original experience of horror ­dramas booming through American speakers during wartime, I spoke with Kurt Kuersteiner, a radio historian who maintains Radiohorrorhost.com, an online guide to old-time radio horror.

In the course of his research, Kuer­steiner met a World War II vet who recalled listening to one of Obo­ler’s most famous episodes during basic training. The soldier’s whole camp heard “Chicken Heart” on the radio, the story of yet another mad scientist, this one injecting a chicken heart with growth serum, accidentally destroying the world in a meaty apocalypse. “It had just ended, late at night,” Kuersteiner told me. “Just then, the power went out on the base and the whole barracks freaked out. These weren’t housewives reacting to War of the Worlds. These were battle-trained soldiers panicking when the power went down. It goes to show you how Oboler had the pulse of America back then.”

“Chicken Heart” resurfaced many times over the years. In a 1966 comedy sketch, Bill Cosby riffed off the delicious fear he felt listening to that episode as a kid. Stephen King called Oboler the “prime auteur” of radio horror in his book Danse Macabre. That book also delivered the best de­scription of the play that I’ve ever read: “We hear [the chicken heart’s] steady beat… louder… louder… and then the sickly splash that ends the play. Part of Oboler’s real genius was that when ‘Chicken Heart’ ended, you felt like laughing and throwing up at the same time.”

Like many of Oboler’s earliest recordings, no copy of that radio play exists today. Oboler thought it was trite, and all the originals perished over time. King and Cosby’s generation contains the last surviving listeners who heard the original Lights Out broadcasts.

*

Last year, I saw Alexandre Aja’s remake of The Hills Have Eyes in a packed chain theater in Brooklyn. The movie rehashes Wes Craven’s 1977 film about a vacationing red-state family stranded in the New Mex­ico desert. Throughout the film, a plastic American flag flaps out the passenger-side window, a relic of the overabundant patriotism that followed 9/11—but this symbol seems feeble against the sweeping landscape. As the family circles up for a prayer, the camera reveals a group of cannibal hunters stalking them through binoculars.

Over the next hour, the family is raped and pillaged by these ­stalkers, but the survivors mount a spectacular counterattack. The Iraq war is never explicitly mentioned, but this desert battleground re­enacts the scenes we see on television news with exploding cars, guerilla warfare, and an endless supply of enemies. The whole movie theater cheered when the hero stabbed a desert attacker with the American flag, avenging the bloody massacre of his kin.

The third act takes place in an abandoned nuclear test site, a series of clapboard shacks we’ve all seen blown to matchsticks during ­atomic bomb test footage. Inside one of these houses, the director self-consciously references the orig­inal Chainsaw and Last House with another grisly dinner scene: the cannibals prop up the father’s corpse at the dining-room table with the American flag stuck in his brain—the absurd head of the ruined nuclear family.

Adam Lowenstein believes these images arise from our na­tional insecurities. “We are experiencing a kind of mood in the country that’s more receptive to extreme kinds of shock and horror,” he told me. “Less like Scream, more like The Last House on the Left. There’s a correlation with the crisis of American confidence—the whole idea that America’s economic riches and military might will be more than enough to triumph over any obstacle.”

Watching these movies in the theater, it’s easy to dismiss that kind of scholarly analysis. On first viewing, they seem as flashy and hollow as music videos. However, the DVD editions are packed with ef­fusive commentary from these directors.

In the commentary track for The Hills Have Eyes, Wes Craven (who served as producer on this remake) rhapsodizes about the 1950s decor in the nuclear test village, affirming Low­enstein’s thesis about American confidence: “It’s the death of the American dream,” he says. “It was just part of a different world, everybody thought America was just a great place; it was kind of the last moment of innocence in American history.”

The commentary track for Hostel was even better. During the film’s most intense scene, in which the hooded protagonist is dragged off to the torture chamber, director Eli Roth comments: “Americans have this false sense that we’re Americans, we have the most powerful army in the world and we’re protected and no one’s going to fuck with us… But you know, there are areas of the world where it doesn’t fucking matter.”

As Roth concludes his speech, a psychopath proceeds to poke holes in our American hero with a power drill. These dingy basement spaces have become familiar to viewers from beheading videos and army torture photos. Roth’s ­camera gives us a first-person point of view from underneath the torture victim’s hood, adding contemporary anxieties to the lexicon of horror.

Later Roth discusses the ­R ­rating on his film while a chainsaw-wielding maniac chops off three of the protagonist’s fingers. Roth giggles at the kid’s slapstick attempts to pick up his slippery digits, and says: “I think it reflects the culture, where we’re at right now. I mean, you know, we’re at war, how much worse is my movie?”

Critics attacked Hostel: Part II as misogynistic, exploitative, and juvenile, and I won’t defend the film. Roth couched his vilest scenes within a gendered symmetry, perhaps in hopes of dodging such criticisms. Once the naked girl is cut to pieces, for example, one torturer is vengefully castrated a half hour later. The young director hid a sapling of twenty-first-century misogyny within a forest of misanthropy; and then he blamed our culture, rather than his own worst impulses, for the on-screen carnage. But he’s not alone. This whole genre critiques wartime depravity, but paradoxically dulls our sensitivity to suffering. Oboler, Craven, and Roth incriminated American hostilities for inspiring their sick fantasies, but their work corrodes any moral argument it creates. Those of us who consume this ugly art are diminished by it, like respectable citizens driving slowly past a car wreck.

*

“There was no pleasure anymore in the using of one’s imagination for the conjuring up of purely entertainment plays. No master strategist needed to tell me that the war was going slowly and that there was a long fight ahead,” Obo­ler wrote, attempting to re­press his horror legacy in Oboler Omnibus. “I then played myself on a final Lights Out broadcast, murdering myself off so completely, within the frame of the play, that the series, so far as I was concerned, could never be resurrected.”

The radio drama “The Author and the Thing” features a writer named Arch Oboler (played by Oboler) struggling to write the last Lights Out radio drama.

War guilt plagues Oboler’s character: “Men dying in foxholes, and what am I doing?” he cries. “How about Nero chopping off heads in the Roman circus?” Al­ready, he sees the titillating contradiction wrap­ped up in his genre—wartime horror depends on the same human instincts that sent Christians to the lions. The genre arouses and critiques our basest impulses.

Lowenstein analyzed the complex guilt that haunts these sadistic horror stories. “Revenge is part and parcel of the core American iden­tity, since the very beginning,” he told me. “The flip side of re­venge is guilt. What gave people so much comfort in the days following 9/11 was the president saying, ‘We’re going to track these people down.’ That promise of revenge hasn’t paid off the way we ex­pected—that’s the ‘affect’ of vengeance.”

By 1943, Oboler felt the unexpected influence of his vengeful impulses. He’d begged for war for years, and now saw reports of thousands of GIs dying in Europe. In his final episode of Lights Out, Obo­ler’s character reads an ancient book of curses for inspiration, accidentally summoning a beast from hell. Over the next twenty minutes, this monster devours his mother and his brother in a Freud­ian perversion of his revenge. No­body sees this hell-spawned Mr. Snuffleupagus, except for Oboler.

In a postmodern twist, the story shifts back to Arch Oboler in the radio studio, happily calling his secretary to tell her he just wrote his last horror script—we’ve simply experienced the story he imagined. This illusion of safety shatters when the “imaginary” monster growls in the corner and kills our hero. Oboler’s scary story came to life and killed his radio show.

This was not just the figurative death of Oboler’s radio career. By the end of the war, the universe that he commanded had changed completely. “By 1947… television programming began to expand and the American consumer began to develop a passion for the new electronic marvel,” writes Blue in Words at War. Fueled by postwar paychecks, television sales overwhelmed the radio. Oboler struggled to adapt, moving into the mo­vie business and shooting the world’s first feature-length 3-D picture (Bwana Devil, 1952). Except for a few unsuccessful revivals, his radio legacy nearly faded away.

Just before his death in 1987, Oboler sold 850 master tapes from radio dramas to a Midwestern cassette company that has since faded into oblivion. On Amazon you can still buy used copies, but Oboler nearly sabotaged his own legacy by keeping his radio plays out of circulation for so long. On certain old-time radio websites, pirate copies of his work can be bought and sold like Canadian medication.

Most recently, Oboler’s me­m­ory resurfaced in the 1998 film Twilight. The film follows the adventures of an el­derly private detective (played by Paul Newman), with three highlights: Susan Sarandon giving CPR to Gene Hackman; an awkward sex scene between Liev Schreiber and a teenage Reese Wit­­herspoon; and an ongoing debate about whether or not some­body had shot Paul Newman in the balls.

According to the Washington Times review trashing Twilight, a few crucial scenes were shot at Arch Oboler’s former house in Malibu. Frank Lloyd Wright had de­signed the sprawling California home during Oboler’s radio heyday, but the complex was never completed. The walls are studded with multicolored minerals that Oboler collected in the desert; his home looked like an alien fortress abandoned by a Star Trek television crew. In the film, Newman spends the night shoveling holes around the swimming pool, searching for a body buried in a twenty-year-old murder.

This fictional private detective picked an evocative real-life landmark to uncover. Ever since Obo­ler wrote his first horror drama, our wartime enemies have lurked in these subterranean places: the bunker where Hitler blew his brains out, the sprawling networks of tunnels where guerillas hid during the Vietnam War, and the desert spider hole where American soldiers uncovered Saddam Hussein. In our civilian world back home, these primal spaces take on mythical proportions. We fear finding them just as much as we fear not finding them.

More Reads
Essays

My Feminist Friend

Rafia Zakaria
Essays

A Natural Mother

Bianca Giaever
Essays

Good Shepherds

Meghan O’Gieblyn
more