MAY / JUNE 2017: BY RACHEL KOVACINY
“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.”
Cue sinister chuckling.
That’s how the radio version of The Shadow began. Not with a cheerful, “Hi, folks, are you ready to hear the latest adventure of your favorite crime-fighting hero?” Not with a triumphant fanfare. Not with a reminder what you’re about to hear is a true story, with the names changed to protect the innocent. No cheer, no triumph, no innocence. Only evil lurking and the Shadow knowing. With that distinctly unpleasant laugh added, you have yourself a distinctive, memorable, and rather creepy flavor for your show.
The Shadow is the crime-fighting alter-ego of wealthy man-about-town Lamont Cranston. He’s rich, he’s suave, he’s brilliant—he’s a lot like later superheroes such as Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark. Cranston works to stop criminals and extract justice where the police cannot. He doesn’t do this by creating imaginative weapons and suits of armor, or by beating them up with spiffy martial arts skills. Lamont Cranston has a different power entirely: the power to cloud men’s minds.
Cranston spent time travelling in Asia, where he learned to control the minds of others. How is never specified, it’s simply a mysterious power he picked up in The Orient. He uses it to prevent other people from seeing him whenever he wishes. Because he believes most criminals are superstitious and easily frightened, he uses this power to get confessions, stop crimes, and even convince some not-so-bad villains to reform.
The show ran from 1931 to 1954, an impressive length for a weekly radio show. There was also a pulp magazine featuring the character, and later a comic strip and comic books. There were film shorts about The Shadow in the 1930s, a serial and three B-movies in the 1940s, a movie in the 1950s, and a 1994 film starring Alec Baldwin. Not only that, but Bob Kane specifically named the character as one of his chief inspirations when he created the superhero Batman. (In the 1970s, there was even a comic book series that had Batman and the Shadow teaming up to fight crime.) The character first appeared as a narrator for a different radio show, and he proved so popular that soon he had his own pulp magazine, which in turn spawned the long-running radio show. The original voice for the hero of the eponymous show was none other than Orson Welles, and he lent a marvelous gravitas to the character.
But what is it that made this character so lastingly intriguing? His voice? His cool name? His wealth? His charm? I think it’s a combination of the mysterious powers he possesses and that initial statement about the nature of people.
The East has long fascinated people in the western world. It’s the epitome of Otherness — so different, so exotic, so unknowable. Many, many superheroes either gain their powers in The East, or learn to control them there — think of Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins and Dr. Stephen Strange in Doctor Strange, for example. If a writer wants to endow a character with mysterious, inexplicable abilities, it’s very easy to say, “They learned this in The East.” Western audiences accept that. They like believing that there are, as Shakespeare put it, more things in heaven and earth than they can dream of.
But do people like to believe that evil lurks in the hearts of men?
As a Christian, I find this statement agrees with what the Bible says about original sin, that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and that “there is none who does good, no, not one” (Psalm 14:3). Since Adam and Eve caused sin to enter the world, evil has lurked in the hearts of everyone.
But many people want to believe that humans are basically good, that we are born pure but become corrupted by outside influences. And yet, that’s not what we witness in the world, is it? Evil is within all of us, and we cannot subdue it by trying hard to be good. The Shadow doesn’t actually know what specific evil lurks in the hearts of specific men — he just knows it’s there. But God does know all the secret desires and hatreds and longings and plans of every single person. We might not be comfortable with the idea of anyone, be it God or the fictional Shadow, being able to read our hearts. But I think many of us like the idea of someone being able to bring other people to task for the evil within them. And I think that is what has made The Shadow so popular for so long — we want someone, anyone to know what’s going on in the hearts and minds of bad guys so we can be protected from them.