Rediscovering the Twilight Zone
14 March 2019
Like many people my age, I grew up with pieces of The Twilight Zone embedded in my imagination like sharp, shiny stones. Regularly occurring television show reruns and marathons deposited layer upon layer of dreams and nightmares and lessons that years later would be almost indistinguishable from the dreams and nightmares and lessons that reality supplied. It all matters the same, no matter where it came from. Stories are as real as anything and they last for a reason.
A few months ago, I discovered that four of the original seasons of The Twilight Zone were streaming on Netflix¹, so I created my own marathon of revival and revisitation. It’s been a delight. The Twilight Zone is great television show. Consistently well-written and well-acted, efficient in storytelling and uncompromising in its point of view. And, yes, full of still-relevant reminders about what it means to live in a modern world with our fellow human beings.
As I finish the final season, I realize I’ve had roughly three different kinds of experience when rewatching The Twilight Zone: the first, the reencounter with those embedded pieces that I almost forgot were there; the second, picking up on the quieter notes of those pieces that mean something different to me now as an adult; and the third, discovering episodes that I never saw or that didn’t impress at all upon my younger mind.
I enjoyed the old favorites and the new layers of meaning that age had applied to them. Episodes like “Living Doll,” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You,” “The Eye of the Beholder,” “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” and “The Masks” are the ones that crystallized as touchstones when I was young, and they hold up all these years later. There are others that I remember just as clearly but now see nuances I missed. “Time Enough for Last” strikes me as so much sadder than the simple tale of irony I had once thought it was. I vividly remembered the little fortune telling box William Shatner is bewitched by in “Nick of Time,” but it’s only now I comprehend the anxiety of adulthood that would lead someone to waste their life wishing for certainty. And “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” strikes with even more somber consequence when it’s no longer an abstract fable but informed by the easy cruelty and panicked self-preservation you’ve seen adults actually engage in.
But the several episodes that I had either never seen before or, more likely, never registered properly before, were the most interesting result of the rewatch. Quite a few of them revolved around women—a segment of the population which, as Rod Serling defensively explained at the opening of one of the episodes, he had been accused of neglecting in his storytelling. Evidently he took the criticism to heart, however, given the amount of women-centric stories I found worthwhile. Beyond that, the episodes that stuck out for me this time around were about individuals facing the past, lost memories, unrealized wishes, an unstable existence or the threat of obsolescence. More than one brings the protagonist face-to-face with death itself. It seems that they all reckon with what it means to have grown up and to go on alone. In one way or another.
(Spoilers ahead. Read accordingly.)
(Season 1, Episode 16)
Young professional Nan Adams is on a cross-country road trip when she pulls into a service station after a minor accident and asks the mechanic to fix her tire. Before she leaves she spots a hitch-hiker at the side of the road. And spots the same hitch-hiker again in another state, and again and again. Convinced that the man is trying to kill her, and frustrated by the fact that no one else that she encounters sees him, Nan grows increasingly panicked. She finally calls her mother, only to hear that her mother has been hospitalized with a nervous breakdown after the sudden death of the daughter, in a car accident—the same accident, as it turns out, that Nan did not survive after all. She realizes the hitch-hiker is not a threat to her but a sign she’s now on a very different journey.
This is one of the more chilling episodes of the series, not in the least because it resonates with the fear most women know from traveling alone and being followed by a man. The fear, however, dissipates into acceptance at the end. It’s not the hitch-hiker’s fault Nan runs and panics. We tend to react to death that way at first. It’s really quite decent of him to give her enough time to comprehend, struggle and finally let go.
"The After Hours"
(Season 1, Episode 34)
Marsha White is shopping at a department store for thimble as a gift for her mother. She’s directed to the ninth floor and deposited there by the elevator operator, but the ninth floor turns out to be entirely empty. Empty, except for one slightly odd saleslady, who produces just the gold thimble Marsha wanted. After a strange interaction, Marsha buys the thimble and leaves. She then discovers the thimble is dented and scratched, so she pursues a replacement with the department store staff. The staff is bewildered by her story, however, because the store has no ninth floor. Marsha tries to bring the saleslady in to support her version of events—but what she thought was the saleslady is actually a mannequin that looks exactly like the woman on the ninth floor. Marsha faints, and, after recovering in an office, finds she is locked inside the store after its close. She hears voices and begins to see the mannequins move. Finally, she remembers that she is in fact one of the mannequins, who all take turns spending a month as a human before they come back to being on display in the department store. Marsha enjoyed her time as a human so much she forgot she wasn’t one and came back late. Dejectedly, she resumes her spot, and, when the department store opens the next morning, Marsha is again performing her duty as a still, silent mannequin.
I am terrified of mannequins, on the same principle that I’m scared of dolls, or anything else designed to approximate a human with some degree of accuracy. So I loved this episode because of its initial creepiness but also because it then turned the perspective completely around. Poor mannequins. Now instead of fearing they’ll come alive to kill me, I can pity them for being trapped in a possibly very boring existence.
"Nightmare as a Child"
(Season 1, Episode 29)
On the steps of her apartment building, schoolteacher Helen Foley encounters a little girl, Markie, who speaks familiarly to Helen, despite the fact that Helen doesn’t know her. Markie tries to jog Helen’s memory about a man Helen saw earlier that day. Later, that man, named Selden, shows up at Helen’s door, claiming to have worked for Helen’s mother when Helen was a child. Helen’s mother had been murdered, an event that Helen has no memory of even though she apparently witnessed it. The man shows Helen a photograph of herself as a child, and it’s the image of Markie. Markie later returns to Helen to convince her to remember what happened to her mother. The resurfaced memories reveal that Selden had killed Helen’s mother and had visited Helen to determine how much she knew. Selden returns to kill Helen, but Helen manages to fight him off and throw him down the stairs. Now that Helen has reintegrated her memories and made peace with her past, Markie has disappeared for good.
At the heart of The Twilight Zone is its ability to manifest a literal situation from a psychological one, and “Nightmare as a Child” is an excellent example of that, and of how the catharsis of a fiction can exorcise a mental demon. It ends with a positive resolution, a punctuation mark on the functional point of telling stories like these in the first place.
"A Stop at Willoughby"
(Season 1, Episode 30)
Advertising executive Gart Williams is beleaguered everywhere he turns. His boss pushes for more results and his wife demands he be more ambitious. He is stressed out and unable to sleep at night, so he drifts off for a nap on the train commute from his office to his home. He dreams of a place called Willoughby, frozen in an idealized recent past, where life is sunny, friendly and simple. When awakened, he asks the conductor where Willoughby is, but he’s told there is no such stop on the train line. After another couple rounds of disappointing human interactions, he has a dream of Willoughby where he is welcomed by the residents and invited to stay. Back in the current time, the conductor stands over Williams’s body, where it landed after he threw himself from the train.
This episode is one of the darkest statements the series makes about the downside of imagination and wish fulfillment. It’s not a topic The Twilight Zone ever shies away from, but here it results in not in mere disillusionment or disappointment, but suicide. Just in case we thought maybe he was magically safe and happy elsewhere, we see that the hearse that carries Williams away is printed with “Willoughby and Son.” It was always all in William’s own mind. One of the series’s favorite lessons is that the monsters aren’t always external.
“A World of Difference”
(Season 1, Episode 23)
Arthur Curtis is a successful, happy businessman in the middle of planning a vacation with his wife—or is he an actor named Gerald Raigan playing the role of Arthur Curtis but living a life of acrimonious divorce, an alcohol addiction and declining career? He thinks the former, the world believes the latter. After trying unsuccessfully to convince everyone around him he is actually Arthur Curtis, Gerald Raigan disappears, and all that is left are the remnants of the movie set he left behind and a script where Arthur Curtis flies away with his wife.
This episode so cleverly plays with the line between screen and reality that it’s essentially a commentary on itself. The Twilight Zone is always self-aware—after all. Mr. Serling faces you at the beginning of each tale and his voice returns at the end of each tale, bookending your experience so that you have a clear entrance and exit. We wouldn’t want to get stuck there, after all. “A World of Difference” posits that you can get stuck there, and there might not always be a helpful Mr. Serling to show you how to get out. It might seem more attractive sometimes. But, as in “A Stop at Willoughby,” we usually fail to calculate the cost to escape reality.
(Season 1, Episode 21)
Millicent Barnes is waiting in the station for a bus that will carry her to a new town and job. She asks the station agent when the bus will arrive, but the agent complains this is the third time she’s asked that. Confused, she then spots a suitcase exactly like hers behind the counter, which the agent says is hers. She turns to realize the suitcase she had left beside her bench is now gone. She goes to the restroom and she’s another version of herself sitting back on the bench she had recently vacated. After the bus finally arrives, she sees herself seated on it as the bus pulls away again and faints. As she recovers, she connects with another waiting passenger, Paul, who tries to convince her that her doppelgänger sightings are just an odd coincidence and not evidence of malice—although privately he suspects her sanity is unraveling and calls the police to take her away. After they’ve gone, he notices his own suitcase is missing … and a man who looks just like him is running away from the station.
“Mirror Image” is not one that is often mentioned in lists of the best The Twilight Zone episodes, but it made a strong impression on me. Perhaps because it’s one of the most subtle and most unexplained. There is no moral to draw out here, nothing you can use to say, “Well, I would never do that, so I would be fine.” It’s a sinister and visceral story about what would happen if we lost the one thing we think we possess entirely: our self. Maybe it could just split away from us without our knowledge, through no fault of our own, and take off without us. The episode also hits on the strangeness of transitory places like bus stations, airports and the like. We might begin a trip as one version of ourselves and end as another, but then who are we in between?
(Season 2, Episode 15)
An older woman is living alone in a rustic cabin, seemingly at some point in the recent past, when a saucer lands on her roof and tiny space invaders start spilling out to attack her. Despite their small size, their weapons burn her and she’s forced to fight back. After she kills one of the creatures, she follows the rest to the saucer on her roof and destroys it. Before it’s gone completely, a desperate radio call in English reveals that the invaders are in fact regular humans who have landed on a planet of more primitive giants.
Agnes Moorehead is the greatest of the under-appreciated screen actors—under-appreciated probably because she was so rarely on screen and her most well-known role (as Endora on Betwitched) hardly exposed her talent. But when she gets the chance, she’s electric. She gives this simple story, performed almost entirely without words, epic proportions. No pun intended.
(Season 5, Episode 2)
In an alternate universe 1974, boxing has been outlawed and boxers have been replaced on circuit by robots. Former boxer Steel Kelly and his business partner Pole are struggling to get by with a decrepit robot they can’t afford to upgrade. They manage to score a spot in a match when another robot is damaged and unable to fight. However, they’ve used the last of their money to get there, so when a part on their robot breaks suddenly, there’s no cash to fix it. Instead, Kelly decides to pretend to be the robot himself so that they can receive the money for participating in the match. The ploy works, but Kelly is pummeled by the modern robot so thoroughly that he barely makes it back to the locker room, where he collapses on the floor.
“Steel” is heartbreaking. The wonderful Lee Marvin plays a man faced with being overlooked and left out twice: first as a player in a sport so physically destructive that it was outlawed and second as the failing manager of an outdated proxy player in the evolution of that same sport. He’s so desperate that he puts his own life on the line—not to win, because he seems to know that this is no longer a possibility for him, but just to be in the fight again, to gather some of the scraps of self-respect he once had as a boxer. The episode ends with the implication that desperation might have actually killed him. He’s been destroyed from the inside out.
The point of the story is supposed to be that while the replacement of men by machine in boxing was intended to preserve men, it ends up taking at least one of them apart—but he fights valiantly, stubbornly, humanly, until the absolute end. But it’s also true that here “men” is very narrowly defined, and arguably to men’s detriment. What was once this man’s identity, livelihood and dignity is also what precludes any other skill, quality or value that might have saved him. I doubt this episode’s writer, Richard Matheson, had any idea that he could be writing a treatise on toxic masculinity and the devilish deals it forces men to make, but, in retrospect from our more enlightened times, that’s essentially what he might have done.
“Little Girl Lost”
(Season 3, Episode 26)
A couple is awakened in the middle of the night by their daughter’s crying. But they can’t find her. Her bed is empty and she’s not hidden in any other part of the house. They can still hear her cries, but she’s nowhere to be found. The father calls his physicist friend, who works out that there’s a portal to another dimension behind the girl’s bed. They slip through the portal with just enough time to rescue the girl and return before the portal closes.
This episode sounds almost silly when recounting its details, but it needs a content warning for parents. The idea that you could hear your child near you but not see or find them anywhere is devastating. It’s a little too pat that the parents here have a physicist friend on call who instantly guesses the little girl is in another dimension, but the emotion is significant enough to keep the story vital and genuinely frightening. This is also another one where there’s no moral lesson to be learned. The universe is inexplicable and unpredictable, and sometimes it swallows us whole. That’s it, that’s all there is. Sweet dreams!
“Nothing in the Dark”
(Season 3, Episode 16)
Wanda Dunn has worked for years to keep death at bay. She’s grown old alone in a basement apartment that she refuses to allow anyone else inside, lest they prove to be Death himself. When a police officer is shot outside her home and begs to be allowed in, she resists until he convinces her he is real, and she brings him inside to recover, where he slowly gains her trust. Another man comes to the door with the message that the building Wanda lives in is going to be demolished and she needs to vacate it immediately. To assuage his guilt about forcing an old woman out of her home, he insists that it’s the cycle of life, the destruction of the old to build the new. Oddly, however, the man doesn’t see Wanda’s patient. After the demolition man leaves to bring the authorities, Wanda realizes her patient is not real after all and is in fact one she’s always feared. But he assures her that her fear is misplaced. He’s nothing to be scared of, just a natural part of life. He takes her hand and leads her outside, leaving her body behind.
“Nothing in the Dark” is the counterpart to “The Hitch-Hiker,” where Death comes to lead a woman to what comes next. Here, Death (a young Robert Redford) is gentle and kind. He doesn’t force Wanda to her end but helps her come to terms with it herself. His methods are warmer than the hitch-hiker’s. It’s one of the more profound moments of The Twilight Zone’s sweet and light side—which it does have. It’s not a side that always makes the strongest impression, but it’s always there. Which is another lesson all in itself.
(Season 4, Episode 8)
Charley Parkes is a shy, quiet young man (who, incidentally looks exactly like a Robert Duvall), who escapes from the pressure of his office environment and his overbearing mother by taking solitary walks in a museum. He becomes obsessed with an exquisite miniature house after he spies the miniature house residents moving as real people. He is fixated on the young woman miniature, especially after he witnesses violence against her by her miniature husband. To save her, Charley breaks into the house, which lands him in a psychiatric hospital. He appears to meekly submit to treatment and emerges cured and contrite. But as soon as he is released, he goes back to the museum and disappears. The miniature museum house is revealed to have a new, tiny resident.
I am fascinated by miniatures and miniature houses or rooms. Since I spend an inordinate amount of time looking at the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago, and gravitate to museums in general as a place of solitude, I have a lot of empathy for Charley. I’m also fascinated by why we’re fascinated with miniatures. Is it a desire to have a little finite world we can control? Is it an impulse to demonstrate power over something smaller than we are? Or is it a need to slip away from a world that is too big, too rough, too confusing? We see a perfectly appointed space and move ourselves into it—we do it mentally while Charley does it literally—and, presumably, in its precise order and limited safety we will be happy. And maybe we will be.
“The New Exhibit”
(Season 4, Episode 13)
Martin Senescu is a devoted caretaker of a wax figure museum. When the museum’s owner informs him that the museum will be sold and torn down, Martin tries to save a collection of wax figures depicting historical murderers by removing them to his home’s basement. Martin’s wife is less than thrilled with this development, especially after the air conditioning bills start to pile up and very especially after Martin shows less interest in finding a new owner for the figures than in keeping them indefinitely and talking about them as real people. One night, Martin’s wife slips down to the basement to shut off the air conditioner, but the Jack the Ripper figure animates to kill her. When Martin finds his wife’s body, he realizes no one will believe the wax figure did it, so he buries her in the basement himself. A similar situation repeats when his brother-in-law comes around to investigate. Finally, the museum owner visits to report a buyer has been found for the wax figures. The figures, however, have other ideas. One kills the museum owner and they all advance on Martin. The scene gives way to a view of the figures set up again in a new museum, with the addition of a figure of Martin, described in the display as a murderer who killed three people.
The fourth season of The Twilight Zone is uneven at best: it moved to an hour-long episode format and had limited involvement from Rod Serling. Despite strong performances and intriguing ideas, it lost some of the sharpness that previous seasons enjoyed. My favorite episodes from this season (this and the previous one) are tales that revolve around topics I was already interested in. Like miniatures, I enjoy the concept of the wax museum. I’m also drawn to tales of people drawn to darkness. Martin is like a modern-day true crime aficionado who goes so far down the rabbit hole of his interest that he morphs into an example of it. There’s a lot of loneliness tinged with obsession in this season. Where Charley finds something of a happy ending at the end of his obsession, a home and companionship in miniature form, Martin’s absorption into the objects of his desire is more horrifying. Lonely obsession walks a knife edge. There’s no telling which side on which you’ll end up.