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Which Witch? The Journey from "The Witch’s Tale" to "Tales from the Crypt"

by John C. Alsedek:

The name of the radio anthology The Witch’s Tale has popped up in this column on several occasions; it was one of the earliest shows of its type, airing from 1931 to 1938. The brainchild of writer/director Alonzo Deen Cole, The Witch’s Tale featured arguably the first "horror host/hostess": Old Nancy, the Witch of Salem. Accompanied by her wise cat, Satan, Old Nancy would introduce each episode with a cackle and a few cheesy asides. The voice of Old Nancy was supplied by a stage actress named Adelaide Fitz-Allen until 1935, when she passed away at the age of 79; she was replaced by Miriam Wolfe, a 13-year-old who did an uncanny impression of the late Fitz-Allen.

The Witch’s Tale, surpassed by a plethora of other anthology programs it had helped inspire, went off the air in 1938; twenty years later, the New York–based production company Television Programs of America started to develop a pilot episode for a potential The Witch’s Tale TV series. There was already a precedent for radio anthologies moving to television, as Lights Out and Inner Sanctum had both made the jump in the late 1940’s/early 1950’s. However, despite the involvement of Alonzo Deen Cole as a consultant, the pilot was never filmed, and The Witch’s Tale was at an end. But that’s only the first part of this tale . . .

The second part begins eight years earlier in 1950, at the offices of EC Comics in New York. EC Comics had been founded by Max Gaines in 1944 with the intention of printing comic books with an educational bent and selling them to schools and church groups. But when Gaines was killed in a boating accident in 1947, his son William took over EC Comics—and his vision for the company was very different from that of his father. An Army Air Corps veteran, Bill Gaines started a line of new titles along very different lines. Drawing inspiration from the spooky radio shows he’d loved as a kid and young adult, Gaines launched the trio of titles it would become infamous for—each with its own horror host/hostess: The Haunt of Fear (whose "Old Witch" was directly inspired by Old Nancy), The Vault of Horror (hosted by "The Vault-Keeper") . . . and Tales from the Crypt, starring "The Crypt-Keeper."

Featuring frequently gruesome storylines and lurid comic art, the trio of EC Comics horror titles were big sellers on national newsstands. But their success also put them square in the sights of a movement bent on "sanitizing" the comic book industry. Spurred on by Seduction of the Innocent—a book by psychologist Fredric Wertham that blamed the rise of juvenile delinquency in America on comic books just like those EC Comics published—concerned parents, teachers, clergy, and others pushed to eliminate comic books entirely. Never mind that it later came out that Wertham’s study had relied on faulty—if not outright deceptive—data: the comics industry was in hot water, especially when it became the target of the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. Fearing that they’d be put out of business completely, the comics industry instituted the Comics Code Authority, a self-regulatory set of guidelines that essentially banned anything horror-related. Furiously, Gaines ceased publication of EC Comics’ three horror titles. But Tales from the Crypt refused to stay dead . . .

In 1989, HBO premiered a television version of Tales from the Crypt; in a fun twist, the fact that it was produced for cable meant that it could be as graphic as needed, which must have pleased the anti-censorship Gaines. Hosted by a puppet version of the Crypt Keeper that cackled and wisecracked in a way not far removed from Old Nancy, Tales from the Crypt was a huge success. Besides being widely available (in edited versions) in syndication, it spawned two movies, an ABC animated version for kids (take THAT, Fredric Wertham!), and a CBS children’s game show. It also spawned a radio version that aired on SyFy’s Seeing Ear Theatre, which brought it all full circle: the radio show that inspired a comic book that inspired a TV series that inspired a radio show.

Tales from the Crypt was a pretty spooky television show, but was it the scariest program ever to hit the airwaves? In my humble opinion, nope. So what is? We’ll get into that next time. Till then, thanks for tuning in!

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