As the 1950s approached their close, successful television writer Rod Serling began formulating his idea for an anthology show that would encapsulate his philosophy as a liberal-minded student of both high and low American culture. A Jewish man in a fledgling medium, he had a certain outsider’s perspective, and he was jointly perplexed and amused by the contradictions of the American experience. On one hand, there was the omnipresent pressure of conformity and consumerism from coast to coast, which was fueled by catastrophic dangers from the outside world such as communism and atomic devastation.
Within the cloak of science-fiction, Serling would address all of these issues and apply them to our past, present and future in ways both hopeful and, more often, pessimistic to an unprecedented degree.
More importantly, with his new show – (first called The Time Element before becoming The Twilight Zone), Serling would incorporate European philosophies in art, science, and politics into an idiosyncratic personal vision that formed what could be called an American Surrealism.
Beyond its influence on painting, what Surrealism was especially concerned with was unlocking the hidden potential in the human mind to reconcile all kinds of opposing concepts – such as the past and the future, the savage and the civilized, science and religion, even life and death. Led by Andre Breton, the best way the Surrealist movement could see to jog the mind into this state was to encourage alarming juxtapositions that made one rethink the labels and purposes of things and ideas. The exploration of dreams and madness, furthermore, offered uncensored, revealing glimpses into the human psyche and could uncover clues for attaining true mental balance. The purpose was not for art to be “weird” for its own sake, as some anti-abstractionists charged, but to liberate the mind and body from the unnatural constraints placed upon them by governments, ideologies, religions, and scientific trends.
Serling astutely understood that he would have to keep the true nature of his show to himself and his closest collaborators, as the sponsors and press he would have to deal with were, usually by their own admission, hopelessly clueless about art and philosophy. In promotional films to potential sponsors, Serling sold his new series as popcorn science-fiction for kids, while to Mike Wallace he compared it to his sober, socially-relevant dramas for which he had won multiple Emmys during the 50s.
Once he was given a qualified green-light by CBS, Serling set about collecting a team of producers, directors, cinematographers, composers, and increasingly, writers, who would set the tone for the series for the next five years. The crews would change frequently from season to season, but they always conformed to the tone set by Serling himself during the first few months. Mostly writing the scripts himself, he soon realized that entrusting the duty to others periodically would allow him to focus energies on other aspects of production, the most conspicuous of which was hosting the show.
The image of the urbane, chain-smoking, intellectual/entertainer turning up to introduce the show every weak became one of the most recognizable and popular aspects of The Twilight Zone. It is ironic that he was extremely reluctant to take up the job at first, considering himself neither handsome nor well-spoken; (he wanted Orson Welles for the job until he was told that the budget would not allow it). In the first seasons’ shows, only his voice was heard reading the prologues and epilogues, but after that, he appeared at the beginning of each show in person.
His persona was in perfect harmony with the articulate, dapper playboy character that was so particular to the late 50’s and early 60’s. Others of the type were John F. Kennedy, Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack, Peter Sellers, Johnny Carson, Hugh Hefner, and Ian Fleming’s James Bond. The type was a little too young for 50’s conservatism and a little too old for 60’s liberalism; in other words, ideally suited to this strange transitional period, or twilight zone, between the 50s and 60s that the show encapsulated.
Serling’s most valued collaborators included writers Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, and directors John Brahm and Douglas Heyes. Heyes managed to transform certain episodes, such as And When the Sky was Opened, The Howling Man, and The After Hours, into quality short films in and of themselves, and he was often brought in especially to deal with a particular challenge a story posed; such as in Nervous Man in a Four-Dollar Room, (which takes place entirely in one room, with a man talking to his own reflection in a mirror), and The Eye of the Beholder, (in which none of the characters’ faces could be seen until the last moments of the show).
Music was also an important ingredient from the very beginning. Eschewing the typical practice of using only stock music from the studio’s library, Serling insisted on original scores. It was not logistically possible to score every episode individually on a weekly schedule, but when stock music was used, it came from the scores previously recorded for other Twilight Zone shows.
The composer hired by Serling to help create the mood of the show was the great Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann was currently involved in two important associations in feature films with Alfred Hitchcock and Ray Harryhausen, and was clearly at the height of his abilities when he began composing for The Twilight Zone. He wrote the title music that was used during the first season, (before it was replaced by Marius Constant’s iconic and more famous “insanity” theme), as well as full scores for the crucial pilot show and six other episodes. He also donated to the show some unused stock music he had written for CBS a couple years earlier. While seven episodes may sound few compared to the many that were finally produced, Herrmann’s cues can be recognized in a great many shows, and the other composers who wrote for the show often followed the lead set by Herrmann.
After Herrmann, a then little-known Jerry Goldsmith also composed a great deal of music for the show throughout its run. While Herrmann’s music was more ethereal and brooding, Goldsmith provided the crude, jazz edge – using small combos with flutes and bongos, etc. – that also became so characteristic of the show.
The model Twilight Zone shows were made during its first two seasons, from the fall of 1959 to the spring of 1961. The episodes of these two years, while containing their share of misfires, (usually the comedies), were striking and hard-boiled, and found a middle ground between the visceral and the philosophical. They addressed all the main themes that Rod Serling and his writers were concerned with – from war and prejudice to worries about America’s pioneer forays into outer space and the use of atomic energy.
The fourth season marked a distinct break in the show’s course. It was comprised entirely of one-hour episodes. While the expanded time frame was intended to bring greater flexibility, depth, and prestige to the show, only a few of the season’s episodes were effective or memorable. Since the power of The Twilight Zone lied in its concise exposition of a single idea or situation, the attempt to broaden it also weakened it. For the fifth and last season, 1963-64, the half-hour format was resumed, and with this final season’s emphasis on all-out horror, it produced some of the most popular shows of all, such as Living Doll and Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.
Although the show was not CBS’s biggest hit, it did not face threats of cancellation due to its aesthetic prestige – evidenced by its annual Emmy wins. By 1964, however, Rod Serling ended it of his own accord, feeling that it had run its course and had expressed everything he wanted to say. After The Twilight Zone, Serling turned to screenwriting for features – including such timely films as Seven Days in May (1964) and Planet of the Apes (1968) – and continued to publish anthologies of sci-fi/fantasy stories. He began another series, Night Gallery, in 1969, focusing more on horror and the macabre, but still with his trademark ironic twist endings.
Serling passed away in 1975, a victim of his smoking habit. He was eulogized as a pioneer of television writing alongside Paddy Cheyefsky, Reginald Rose, Abby Mann, etc., but his name will forever be synonymous with The Twilight Zone. The show, which has rarely, if ever, left syndication on some station or another, inspired a feature film in 1982, and has been revived for TV in new incarnations at least twice – in the late-80s and in 2002.
The influence of the show on our culture is expansive. In the 60s and beyond, certain movies often seemed like elongated Twilight Zone episodes, such as Seconds (1966), (the Serling-scripted) Planet of the Apes, Westworld (1973), The Stepford Wives (1975), and many others. The term “twilight zone” became a popular euphemism for any bizarre or inexplicable occurrence – almost to the point of becoming the thinking man’s form of ironic superstition. The famous repetitive two-note introductory riff from Marius Constant’s theme is invoked whenever something or someone warrants being labeled crazy or odd.
The span of the show, 1959 to 1964, allowed it to chronicle, below the surface of its stories, the transition of the 50s into the 60s. This was a brief but unique period during which the slightest variations in the cultural mood seemed like the most radical changes – and this was true in fields ranging from politics and media to music and science. During this conversion, conservatism gave way to liberalism, jazz gave way to rock ‘n roll, abstract expressionism to pop art, black and white to color, paranoia to satire, and scraggly beatnik culture to vivid pop iconography.
Stressing the idea of transition, and being caught between two worlds – one literal and one illusory, were Serling’s poetic introductions during the main titles of every episode. These preambles were adjusted each season, but the point was always the same; a warning that we were about to enter a dimension just slightly different than our own, an alternate world. The words of the first season’s weekly opening typified Serling’s style, and it clearly draws from the Surrealists’ obsession with reconciling opposing concepts. Over images of parting fog and an eyeball being intersected by a horizontal line (a classic Surreal image taken from Dali and Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou), we hear Serling intone:
There is a fifth dimension,
beyond that which is known to man.
It is a dimension as vast as space,
and as timeless as infinity.
It is the middle ground between light and shadow,
between science and superstition,
and it lies between the pit of man’s fears,
and the summit of his knowledge.
This is the dimension of imagination.
It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.
The introductory narration used in later seasons was similar, but also stressed the idea of traveling on a sign-posted road that led to a land whose “boundaries are that of imagination.” This is the opening used in both the fourth and fifth seasons:
You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension. A dimension of sound. A dimension of sight. A dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into The Twilight Zone.
Whether the objects floating through the title sequence were a clock with its hands spinning out of control, a toy astronaut, a smashed window, or Einstein’s E=MC2 formula, they always remind us of mankind’s simultaneous potential for brilliance and for ignorance. Symbolizing the “pit of man’s fears” and the “summit of his knowledge” in the first season’s opening is a painting of a dark cave superimposed by a tilt upwards towards space.
There were many episodes written by Serling that directly address the dilemma of modern Americans who felt stuck between extremes, being neither here nor there, as they tried to resolve the government’s and media’s predictions of doom with the promise of a consumer society’s utopia. On one hand they were being told that everything was wonderful and getting better, but at the same time that they could be obliterated at any moment by Soviet nuclear weapons. This anxious feeling of living comfortably but as though on borrowed time is often credited by historians with provoking the speeded up counter-culture of the 60s, which naturally appealed to people who did not want to ground themselves in material things if it could all be so easily taken away at the push of a button by some power-mad politician.
The quintessential Twilight Zone environments were 1) the jazz and neon-filled nightlife of a metropolitan city, usually New York; 2) urban tenements, also usually New York; or 3) a complete wasteland, whether it be a desert, a far-away planet, or a post-nuclear war zone. The sterile interior of a rocket or space capsule is also a frequently recurring setting. So, although the premises of the many shows varied widely, there was always an anchor of familiarity for the viewers. They saw either a world they knew all too well as a source of both comfort and angst, or a completely bleak and forlorn world, the embodiment of their worst fears about life outside of their protective social structure.
If the “fifth dimension” was ever intended to be a literal place, The Twilight Zone only visited it once – in Richard Matheson’s Little Girl Lost, in which a child falls into this region through a portal behind her bed. As Serling stressed in advertising the series before it ever aired, it was never fair to call it strictly horror, fantasy or science-fiction. It was always more centered in Surrealism than any actual genre, much like the film fantastique of Marcel Carné.
Often, the situations that seemed so incredible and terrifying in The Twilight Zone were inspired by real events. This is in keeping with the Surrealist attitude that life is full of the unexplainable and momentarily mystifying, without there having to be the contingency of the supernatural. For example, there is a moment in Where is Everybody? when the main character is trapped inside a phone booth before realizing that he is simply pushing the door the wrong way. This actually happened to Rod Serling in an airport and it symbolized to him the irrational, primal sense of dread that sets in when ordinary things suddenly do something other than what you expect. The premise of Little Girl Lost, furthermore, came from the Matheson family’s experience of losing their daughter in their own home. Due to some unusual acoustics in the house, they could hear her voice but could not find her anywhere. Only after much searching did they find her crouched very close to the wall underneath her bed, out of view.
The show’s pilot episode, Where is Everybody?, crystallized right off the bat many of Serling’s concerns that would reappear throughout the next few years. His introduction is one that could easily apply to many different episodes:
"The place is here, the time is now, and the journey into the shadows that we’re about to watch could be our journey."
An Air Force pilot (Earl Holliman) wanders into an empty town, where it appears as though everyone has just recently vanished. Loneliness, combined with a lack of memory, drives him to near insanity. In true Surrealist fashion, he even briefly mistakes some mannequins for real people. Finally, we learn that he is hallucinating due to a government experiment to test the effects of seclusion on their space cadets.
Another early show, called The Lonely, uses a character’s isolation as a metaphor for the separation everyday people feel from their community and the world. Sentenced to a life of solitary confinement on a deserted asteroid, a convict (Jack Warden) wishes for only one thing; (not freedom, interestingly, but companionship). Out of humane but hypocritical pity, his captors give him a beautiful robot woman, and he is faced with a struggle between living a blissful fantasy or accepting the reality of his fate as still the only human on the planet.
There are many tales of isolation in The Twilight Zone. The woman in The Hitch-Hiker, the astronaut in People Are Alike All Over, the two post-apocalypse survivors in Two, and many others, all find themselves removed from their environments and separated from companions; forced to adjust to new situations and rules. Skeptical about the reliability of people and institutions to help us through life, Serling forces his characters to grapple with their challenges alone.
Quandaries over personal identity, conformity, and role reversals are also among the most prominent recurring themes in the show. In Serling’s view, the 50s enthusiasm for a huge middle-class of model citizens, an American bourgeoisie, and the blind trust in demagogic politicians, pointed to more problems than benefits for human individuality.
In Nervous Man in a Four-Dollar Room, a small-time crook (Joe Mantell), on the verge of accepting money to commit murder, faces his own reflection in a mirror, which talks to him as his own subconscious. At the end of the episode, a reversal occurs, with the stronger half of the man taking over and leaving the weakling trapped inside the mirror. In this case, the “double” is explicitly seen as a symbolic half of the same person, but more often, Serling confirms rather than assuages his characters’ terrors of being replaced by look-alikes.
Serling, who once saw a man in a train station who looked very similar to him and wondered what he would do if the man turned around and really was him, wrote Mirror Image, in which a woman (Vera Miles) speculates aloud if a parallel universe could really exist, in which everyone has a doppelganger who could potentially reach into our world and replace us whenever they wanted. She keeps seeing a woman in a bus depot who looks exactly like her, and this is the only conclusion she can come to. Serling’s question seems to be; have we allowed ourselves to become so homogenized into a thoughtless mass that no one would really know the difference if we were suddenly swapped?
In The Four of Us Are Dying, a con-artist named Arch Hammer – lodging at a place called the Hotel Rea” – has the ability to change his face into that of anyone he sees or can think of clearly. Alternating identities several times during the show, he finds that he has lost all touch with his original personality; hence, his easy adaptability to crime. The consequences of toying with others’ identities catch up with him when he runs into someone out to kill his latest persona. This episode is archetypal Twilight Zone because it is set in an exaggeratedly garish cityscape, full of neon, jazz, bars and gangsters, even down to the languid torch singer in a smoke-filled night-club crooning ”One for My Baby”.
The issue of conformity was of special concern in the 50s. It is easy to look back at the period, as nostalgia merchants would often have us do, as being exclusively about sock-hops, poodle-skirts, Elvis, Marilyn, and James Dean. However, this was also a time when one’s entire career could be ruined if he was thought to associate with the wrong people, or have the wrong sympathies. The United States was certainly never a tyrannical police-state, but there was a successful campaign waged against the dangers of difference. To Serling, political differences were one thing, but importance attached to differences in appearance or ideas was something even more troubling.
In The Trade-Ins, an elderly couple, more horrified by having to live in a youth-oriented society than with actually aging, patronize a service that will place their minds into young, virile bodies. In the futuristic fascist world of The Obsolete Man, people are placed on trial and punished for being outdated by ideas, age and talents. The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, in which neighbors accuse each other of being an alien spy, is a ghoulish parody of McCarthyite hysteria in small-town America; Norman Rockwell gone haywire. For these patriotic citizens, the slightest peculiarity on anyone’s part is cause enough to consider them the enemy, or worse, the enemy’s agent. In Serling’s world, Americans may not have progressed as far as they like to imagine from their witch-hunting ancestors back in Salem.
Probably Serling’s most dramatic confrontation of the matter of conformity is The Eye of the Beholder, a tale of a woman undergoing massive plastic surgery to make her appearance acceptable to society. The doctors and therapists speak of a commune where people with her affliction have all been collected, away from the normal people. A totalitarian political leader of some kind appears on television screens haranguing about the virtues of “a single norm, a single purpose!” etc.
One of the most common, and easiest, ways for Serling to make his points was the use of the trick ending, which at the last moment informs us that everything is actually the opposite of what we thought it was. This happens in so many episodes that it would be pointless to list them all. A handful of the most powerful examples occur, however, in The Invaders, where the alien trespassers turn out to be American astronauts; the woman (Inger Stevens) in the Hitch-Hiker who turns out to be dead; the woman (Anne Francis) in The After-Hours who turns out to be a mannequin come to life; the sympathetic prisoner in The Howling Man who turns out to be the devil; the conquering astronaut in People Are Alike All Over who ends up a prisoner himself, etc., etc.
This technique of Serling’s is more than just a dramatic conceit, however; it is his way of exteriorizing an idea of role reversals, which is key to his study of the fragility of identity in our culture. For him, it is crucial to put people into the shoes of others, especially those about whom they may have misconceptions or fears. Like the characters in The Masks whose faces are made to reflect their true natures, and like the American World War II soldier (Dean Stockwell) turned into his Japanese enemy in A Quality of Mercy, dozens of Serling’s characters are given opportunities to see both themselves and others as they really are – equally human, and sometimes inhuman.
If the general theme of The Twilight Zone could be reduced to one word, it would probably have to be fear. The characters created by Serling, Matheson and Beaumont are all forced to face their worst fears, or else are overcome by fear itself, warranted or not. They are punished for irrational fears and for instilling fear in others, and occasionally, they are healed of their slavery to fear by having their perspectives enlarged. According to Serling, the fear of the unknown is the most common of all fears, but specifically, in The Twilight Zone, the pathological dread of death and dying is oppressively ubiquitous. For these characters, death is the ultimate unknown.
The man in Escape Clause sells his soul to the devil in exchange for immortality. The elderly folks in Kick the Can and The Trade-Ins find rebirth into youth and thus escape death, if only temporarily. The old woman in Nothing in the Dark (Gladys Cooper) is so mortally afraid of death catching up with her that she locks herself in her apartment for fear that any external stimuli will bring about her demise. When Death finally does come to claim her, it is not the violent, horrible demon she expects, but a handsome young Robert Redford.
The hero of Perchance to Dream is convinced that his nightmares will bring about a lethal heart attack, and, in typical hypochondriac fashion, also worries that the strain of staying awake to avoid his dreams will kill him too. A man facing death in the electric chair in Shadow Play is similarly positive that his experience is only a dream, from which he will soon awake. In Perchance to Dream, The Hitch-Hiker, and Death Ship, characters are in such denial about their own mortality that they seem to be experiencing self-imposed delusions that allow them to postpone the acknowledgement of death, but not death itself. For them, the limbo space between life and death – whether it consists of years or seconds – is a literal twilight zone.
Alternately representing both death and the opportunity of escaping death is the character of the Devil, who appears in at least a dozen episodes – (including Escape Clause, The Howling Man, Of Late I Think of Cliffordville, Printer’s Devil, etc.) This quasi-religiosity on the part of Serling and The Twilight Zone is an increasingly noticeable phenomenon in the show. Though informed by Judeo-Christian morals, the show nevertheless depicts a universe where God appears to have no all-encompassing control – what with its parallel dimensions, time travel, extrasensory powers, and alien conquerors. Although heavenly angels do appear sporadically – (as in A Passage for Trumpet and A Game of Pool) – they are fleeting messengers and guides, often filling the escort-into-death role that the Devil is also made to play, and any God himself is continually absent or silent.
In any case, it is certainly a secularized version of the Devil we are given throughout The Twilight Zone, made to seem more a symbolic, fanciful character like Santa Claus than an actual evil spirit. In meting out poetic justice and ironic punishments, instead of tempting people to do wrong, he seems to be doing God’s job most of the time anyway. In the most serious uses of the Devil character, he is presented as the symbol of man’s most insecure superstitions. In The Howling Man, he is the inflated epitome of the traditional devil caricature – complete with horns, pointed ears and a hook nose – (only the pitch fork and tail are missing). The most obvious example of the Devil as a mythical character is in Nick of Time, which offers only his bobbling toy visage on a fortune-telling machine. Here, he has no literal power over anyone except what the human characters hand over to him through their own fears.
Recalling the show’s opening line about the zone “between science and superstition,” we are provided many examples of men and women being rebuked and penalized for believing too much in either. Science is the bringer of war and machinery, which drains people of their individuality if not their very existence. Superstition is the refuge of the closed, prejudiced, fearful mind. Since both extremes are the source of so much trouble, Serling appears to argue for a balance, perhaps even the “middle ground” that The Twilight Zone insistently brings to light.
The series’ most overwhelming case study in superstition is found in Nick of Time, in which a newlywed couple find themselves in a diner with fortune-telling machines on all the table tops. Wanting to start their new life together on the right foot, the husband (William Shatner), who carries a rabbit’s foot and a four-leaf clover on his key chain, decides to consult the machine on all his major concerns. The answers given by the devil-headed novelty are, of course, all generic and could apply to any yes or no questions. The man’s sensible bride even points this out, but to no avail, as he is soon completely obsessed with the machine, believing it to be especially gifted and deliberately taunting him. Eventually, these two free themselves from the burden of superstition, but the cycle of self-deception is universal, as evidenced by another frazzled couple who come into the diner seeking the advice of the fortune-teller. The episode is a rarity among The Twilight Zone’s stories because it contains nothing in it that is clearly unnatural or supernatural, proving that the twilight zone is located as much in the mind as anywhere physical.
The episode Time Enough at Last is one of Serling’s most merciless condemnations of personal selfishness, in which he exacts a terrible price on one man for his vice, namely, the destruction of the entire world. A meek bank teller (Burgess Meredith) wants nothing more than to read his books in peace, and we are led to sympathize with him, as he seems an honest, friendly, harmless fellow. When the world around him is reduced to rubble by an atomic bomb, (which he survives by falling asleep in his bank’s vault), he is momentarily horrified, but then pleased enough to have nothing but time in which to read everything he’s always wanted. In the end, however, he breaks his glasses, leaving him completely unable to fulfill his wish. Though we pity the poor man, we also realize Serling’s point that a passion for something other than real life is dangerous, and that the desire to be completely isolated from everyone else is at best unhealthy, and certainly unworthy of being fulfilled without a catch. “That’s not fair at all,” he mumbles to himself pitifully, reminding us that, indeed, life is not fair, in or out of the Twilight Zone.
As apparently concerned with fantasy as the show was, The Twilight Zone was extremely conscious of the real world’s problems, perhaps more so than any other dramatic program on the air at that time. A show that dealt straightly with issues like racism, war, and politics would never have been sponsored or produced.
The Second World War was hardly ancient history in the late 50s, and the disturbing issues it raised in the global consciousness were very much fresh in the mind when Serling brought his show to the television screens of America. There are so many episodes that depict the nuclear devastation of the world, or a nightmarish fascist utopia, or the consequences of persecution based on ethnicity, faith, or mere appearance, that it is fair to say that The Twilight Zone would not be what it was without the legacy of the war behind it.
More important than Serling’s Jewishness is the fact that he actually fought in the war, not in Europe but in the Pacific against the Japanese, and experienced its horrors first-hand. He saw not only violence between nationalities but the crises of conscience endured by members of platoons on the same side, a conflict between the gung-ho’s and those who were reluctant to kill.
Serling’s war experiences find their way into several episodes of The Twilight Zone, especially in A Quality of Mercy and The Purple Testament, which deal with actual combat scenarios. But the war is also addressed in Judgment Night and Death’s-Head Revisited, where German military leaders get their comeuppance for their war crimes through cosmic justice, which intervenes after the real world fails to settle the score. The U-Boat commander in Judgment Night is forced to experience over and over again what his victims on other boats endured when torpedoed by him, and the concentration camp commandant in Death’s-Head Revisited is brought back to the scene of his crimes by the spirits of his victims to face trial and judgment.
The Purple Testament is one of Serling’s most melancholy, mature and insightful scripts. In it, a young soldier begins to realize that he can foretell which of his fellow soldiers will not survive the day’s battles. The “look of death” manifests itself on his comrades’ faces, looking like a ghostly radiance. This premise boldly addresses the morbidity that some soldiers understandably develop in war when they attempt to anticipate who will be next, or when exactly it will be their turn to die. No explanation is given for the bestowal of this gift on the soldier in The Purple Testament, and the show ends when he looks into a mirror and recognizes the tell-tale warning in his own reflection. Accepting death peacefully now, like the heroine at the end of The Hitch-Hiker, he drives off to meet his fate.
The uninhibited exploration of the philosophical “what-if” questions finds a loving home on The Twilight Zone. What if someone who thought he or she was human turned out to be a robot? What if we each had an evil double, or a good double, somewhere in the world? What if we encountered an alien race? What if dolls could think and talk? What if our whole existence was merely a dream?
In an age when space travel was not a reality but seemingly imminent, the fears about what this new space age would bring were extremely fertile ground for Serling; hence the many stories dealing with space probes and alien worlds. In People Are Alike All Over, an astronaut explorer (Roddy McDowell) spends half the episode overcoming his irrational fears, only to find them completely validated when he is put in a zoo by the Martians he has come to observe. What if space travel has an effect on things and people that we could not anticipate? In And When the Sky was Opened, three astronauts return to earth only to find themselves disappearing one by one, along with all recollections by others of their existence. What if we turn out to be what we claim to detest, easily defeated mindless attackers? This happens in The Invaders, with its mute farm woman (Agnes Moorehead) fighting off tiny, aggressive U.S. astronauts single-handedly.
Going hand in hand with worries about the real world was Serling’s Surrealist interest in all things unexplainable, ranging from the paranormal to the workings of the mind. The world of dreams was obviously something of immense fascination to Serling and his chief writers, and they deliberately addressed many questions about what dreams are and could be.
In Shadow Play, the idea is expressed that everything we know is just in the imagination of one man (Dennis Weaver) during one dream. His endless nightmare is that he is on death row awaiting execution. At the moment of his death, the dream starts over again with him in court being sentenced. Is he just experiencing dream after dream during a single night of sleep, or is he, like so many other Twilight Zone characters, locked in a limbo area of denial regarding the acceptance of his own death?
In Where is Everybody?, we see that dreams can be externally induced hallucinations. In Perchance to Dream, it is tantalizingly suggested that we can dream in episodes and return to a developing story in each dream. In this episode, a man (Richard Conte) sees a psychiatrist because he believes someone is stalking him in his dreams and he is sure that if he sleeps again, he will die.
The extension of dreams and fantasies beyond control – seeming to reach into the real world – is madness, and madness is certainly the leitmotif of The Twilight Zone. The quintessential Twilight Zone moment is the striking, huge black-and-white close-up of a character’s face, covered in sweat and eyes wide in horror, in a state of complete, uncontrolled hysteria. This moment when psychological and physical strain reaches the point of total exhaustion and breakdown is the moment upon which The Twilight Zone most hinges. It is the brink between reality and illusion, madness and sanity; the signpost of warning that one state of existence is dissolving into another. As in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass or Surrealist filmmaker Jean Cocteau’s films, it is the moment of passing through a mirror; hence, into oneself if not into another dimension entirely.
As the black-and-white 50s transformed into the Technicolor 60s, American media and culture themselves became a twilight zone where the impossible and outrageous could easily happen. In other words, we no longer needed the prodding of Surrealism or science-fiction to find startling contrasts and horrific images.
In the decade following The Twilight Zone’s first three seasons one president was assassinated, another was forced to resign, men had been to the moon, a war of dubious validity was claiming the lives of millions, and a variety of revolutionary subcultures, fueled by the new rock music, had emerged to combat the status-quo. Media professor Marshall McLuhan defined this period with his declaration that the medium was now the message more than the message itself. Art became self-reflexive and self-aware. As seen in Andy Warhol’s work, it was now okay to criticize America’s consumer culture while also wallowing in it; deliberately enjoying the best, or worst, of both worlds.
In many ways, Rod Serling is a primary inventor of what was eventually labeled “pop culture.” In this new sensibility, forms of entertainment – like comic books, pop music, B-movies, and TV shows – could attain the status of art and be discussed just as seriously as classical music, literature and painting. Pop culture is the culture of the middle-class, largely informed by television over any other media; not too refined to be above enjoying comic books and exploitation films, but not too unenlightened to appreciate the irony in doing so.
Serling, a closet aficionado of E.C. Comics and science-fiction films of the early and mid-50s, achieved this new sensibility in The Twilight Zone by uniting his personal cultural hobbies and his serious concerns about politics and history. The result was a fusion of science and surrealism, a unification of high and low culture, and the creation of a limbo region where both were acceptable.
Time Enough at Last
The Four of Us Are Dying
The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street
Where is Everybody?
Perchance to Dream
The Howling Man
The Eye of the Beholder
Mr. Denton on Doomsday
The After Hours
Five Characters in Search of an Exit
And When the Sky Was Opened
Nick of Time
The Purple Testament
Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room
People Are Alike All Over
A Passage for Trumpet
Little Girl Lost
The Hitch Hiker
King Nine Will Not Return
It's a Good Life
The Bewitchin Pool
The Changing of the Guard