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The Witch’s Tale

the witch's tale

Douse out your lights so we’ll have it cozy and dark, as we listen to the first broadcasted horror series… “The Witch’s Tale!”

Vampira is often cited as the first horror host. However, I might point out that this is only true if television is the only form of media we’re looking at. If we include radio dramas and their tale through time in that mix, that title goes to ‘Old Nancy, The Witch of Salem.’

The Witch’s Tale was a radio anthology series that played in syndication between 1931 and 1938. It was both the first horror radio show and, by extension, the first broadcasted horror series. The show was popular with children in particular, and had enough of a following that there was an attempt to bring back the series for television in the fifties, although this eventually fell through.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of the recordings for The Witch’s Tale were destroyed by the series creator, Alonzo Deen Cole, in 1961. There are a few dozen surviving recordings left out of over three hundred. However, you can still find a decent amount of episodes on RelicRadio.com, and some of the original scripts have been published.

If you’ve listened to old radio dramas such as The Shadow (1930-1954), then The Witch’s Tale will feel very familiar to you in style. It contains the dramatic music, studio sound effects, and melodramatic acting we’ve all come to know and love from old radio shows. Unfortunately, I don’t remember hearing a Camel cigarette ad, but I don’t doubt there’s one in there somewhere.

Our host is Old Nancy, The Witch of Salem, voiced by Adeliade Fitz-Allen until her death in 1935, after which the part was taken over by Miriam Wolfe. She is joined by her black cat in The Witch’s Tale, who she very subtly named ‘Satan,’ meowed by Alonzo Deen Cole. The concept behind the show is that whenever Old Nancy has a birthday, she gives us a new story. She’s somewhere between one-hundred-and-three and one-hundred-and-nineteen, depending on the episode. It’s sort of a strange running gag, but it’s sort of a strange show.

As an anthology series, most of the stories in The Witch’s Tale are pretty fun. They’re sort of standard campfire tales, so I can see why the show was particularly popular with kids. I can definitely picture me and my friends sitting around the radio to listen to a show like this after school. It’s hosted by a witch, so you can expect plenty of magic, but there are also your standard ghost and vampire stories. 

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Unfortunately, there are episodes where the show’s time period becomes apparent in negative ways. The 1935 episode, “The Spirit of the Lake,” seems to be trying to have an anti-racism message, but it does so in a way that sort of reminds me of the way Freaks (1932) tries to have an anti-ableism message. Like with the ablest characters in Freaks, the racist characters in “The Spirit of the Lake” from The Witch’s Tale are very much presented as bad people, and their bigotry is used to highlight that. And boy, are they bigoted. The phrase “stupid savages” is thrown around a lot in this episode. Like, a lot. The same way Freaks’ message seems to be “don’t be ableist, and definitely don’t try to kill your husband to steal his fortune or else the freaks will turn you into ‘one of us’,” “The Spirit of the Lake” seems to have the message of “don’t be racist against Native Americans, and definitely don’t kill your wife to steal her fortune and run off with your mistress. If you do, you’ll get cursed!”

It’s an approach to the topic that wasn’t terribly uncommon in morality tales in the first half of the twentieth century. There’s been some debate about them, and I tend to be on the side of “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I think defending a marginalized group by telling bigots that said group is dangerous is a tad… counterproductive. However, I also appreciate the appeal of bigots getting what’s coming to them, and that’s why these story-lines are so common. In my opinion, this episode in The Witch’s Tale hasn’t aged well, but your mileage may vary.

So, what are some of the episodes I would recommend? Well, the 1933 episode “Graveyard Mansion” is a fun vampire story that follows brothers Curtis and Alan, both of whom fall in love with Netty, a woman who looks strangely like a miniature they found of a woman who has been dead for a hundred years. 

I also very much enjoyed the 1936 episode, “The Mannequin,” of The Witch’s Tale, which is a killer doll story with a grimly romantic twist. It’s one of those “living doll who is protective of its owner” stories, which is a story we’ve heard before, but I’ve always liked that approach to the killer doll story. That’s why “Living Doll” is such a great Twilight Zone episode.

I’ll grant you that Talky Tina has a better motive for attacking Christie’s stepfather than the mannequin has for attacking her owner’s wife. Christie’s stepfather is an abusive jerk. The mannequin, on the other hand, is made of the bones of the deceased wife of the now long-dead artist who made her, and she’s convinced that her new owner is her dead husband. I appreciate being angry because you think someone’s moving in on your spouse, but I think hammer throwing is a bit uncalled for. I’ll grant you that the ending does leave room for the possibility that this might be a reincarnation situation, but still. No hammer throwing.

This episode of The Witch’s Tale ends with sort of the standard sweet ending to a romantic horror story. They, of course, lay her to rest by burying her bones next to the grave of her husband. It was a fun episode, and I’ve definitely added it to my “listen again” list.

Radio dramas continued for a long time after the rise of television, but eventually, television did take over. It’s kind of unfortunate. I often think of it sort of the same as I think it’s somewhat unfortunate that sound killed the silent film; a silent movie and a “talky” are very different forms of art, and I feel like they could have coexisted in the same world. We never stopped going to live shows after movies became popular, after all. When it comes to radio shows versus television, listening and viewing are very different experiences.

In the age of podcasting, however, the radio show has come back to some degree, which is nice to see. While most podcasts follow a comedic or talk show format, here and there you’ll find the occasional podcast drama similar to a radio drama. I hope to see- or, more accurately, hear– more of that. And, if you are interested in early horror radio, you may want to check out The Witch’s Tale.

Check out Dead Talk Live’s episode on the “Ultimate Horror Trivia!”

Source: Dead Talk Live

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