This month is the 60th anniversary of The Twilight Zone, the eerie anthology series created by Rod Serling, which made its debut on October 2, 1959 with the episode “Where Is Everybody?” With Halloween right around the corner, this felt like a good opportunity to briefly look at some of my favorite horror-themed episodes of the show.
Keep in mind, The Twilight Zone was not a horror series. Serling was a writer who was very interested in addressing political & social injustice in his works. He endured a significant amount of pushback and censorship from the conservative television networks of the 1950s. Serling hit upon the idea of creating a sci-fi / supernatural anthology as a vehicle for addressing social issues through allegory. It was a remarkably successful experiment.
If there was a regular type of horror present throughout the series’ five seasons, it was an unnerving sense of existential horror, of how sanity & existence & identity were often all-too-fleeting concepts. Nevertheless, on occasion Serling and the writers working with him did delve into full-throttled horror, producing several episodes that were genuinely terrifying.
This is not any kind of “best of list” on my part. There are several episodes of The Twilight Zone that I like a lot more than some of these. This is merely my list of five(ish) episodes of the series that I found spooky.
I am going to try to avoid spoilers. Yes, I know, a lot of these episodes have been rerun endlessly in syndication. But I’m sure that at least a few people haven’t seen them, and I want to try to preserve some of the surprises.
1) Perchance to Dream – Adapted by Charles Beaumont from his own short story, and directed by Robert Florey, this episode was broadcast on November 27, 1959.
Richard Conte plays Edward Hall, a man with a weak heart who dreams in sequence. His latest series of dreams have taken place in an eerie, twisted carnival, where he meets the mysterious, seductive Maya, played by Suzanne Lloyd. The beautiful Maya lures Edward onto the roller coaster, a ride that in his real, waking life he would never dare board. Edward is now terrified of falling asleep again, because right before he awoke Maya was attempting to push him off the moving rollercoaster. Edward believes that if he goes to sleep his dream will resume from that point, and because of his weak heart the shock of falling in the dream will kill him in real life.
I remember watching a rerun of this on television when I was a kid. It really did scare the hell out of me. The direction by Florey imbues the dream carnival with a twisted, ominous air, a palpable atmosphere of fear. Lloyd’s performance of Maya oozes with equal parts sexuality and menace. The twist ending is genuinely clever.
2) Mirror Image – Written by Rod Serling and directed by John Brahm, it first aired on February 26, 1960.
Vera Miles portrays Millicent Barnes, a young secretary waiting at a bus depot on a dark rainy night for an overdue bus to Cortland. Millicent is unsettled when the employees at the depot act as if they have seen her before, when she knows she has never set foot on the premises until a few minutes before. She spots a suitcase behind luggage check-in that looks just like hers, and is further disturbed when her own suitcase disappears. Retiring to the washroom to try to clear her head, Millicent is shocked to see in the bathroom mirror the image of a woman identical to her sitting out in the bus depot. Millicent begins to suspect that she is being stalked by a malevolent doppelganger.
Serling’s script and the direction by Brahm combine to create an atmosphere of tense fear & suspense. The scene with the double in the mirror is expertly executed by Brahm.
Miles does a fine job of portraying Millicent, an unnerved woman who at first begins to doubt her sanity, and who once she seemingly confirms the existence of her double is nearly overwhelmed by the horror of her situation. Of course everyone else believes Millicent is off her rocker… at least until the episode’s final striking sequence.
3) Twenty-Two – Adapted by Rod Serling from a short story from the 1944 anthology Famous Ghost Stories, this was directed by Jack Smight, and broadcast on February 10, 1961.
Liz Powell, a young dancer played by Barbara Nichols with a Noo Yawk accent that would make Harley Quinn proud, has been hospitalized for exhaustion & nervous fatigue. Each night Liz has the same nightmare, wherein she is compelled to leave her bed and take the elevator down to the hospital basement, to walk to Room 22, the hospital morgue. And each night the doors of the morgue swing open, and a coldly beautiful nurse emerges to menacingly tell her “Room for one more, honey.” A pre-Lost In Space Jonathan Harris plays a doctor who very much needs to brush up on his bedside manner, as he condescendingly writes off Liz’s dreams as simple hysteria. Of course, we then get to the twist ending, and everything shockingly, horrifyingly falls into place.
“Twenty-Two” was one of a handful of episodes from the second season that were recorded on videotape in an attempt by CBS to curb costs. Unfortunately the episodes shot on video ended up looking cheap, and the actual savings were negligible, so CBS quickly ended the practice and went back to film. Regrettably all these decades later “Twenty-Two” and the five other videotaped shows have a very poor visual quality. That’s a shame, because Smight does a superb job at directing this episode. Even on videotape there is a mood of fear & tension. The sinister morgue nurse is effectively portrayed by Arlene Martel, who with just one short line of dialogue and a sinister expression creates a palpable presence of menace.
Yes, it’s another episode involving dreams. And, yes, on subsequent viewings it does seem that Serling had to pad out the story to reach the required runtime. But, honestly, the first time I saw this one it really creeped me out, and the ending felt like a genuine gut punch.
4) Death Ship – Adapted by Richard Matheson from his own short story, this was directed by Don Medford. It was broadcast on February 7, 1963.
During the fourth season, the network mandated hour-long episodes, much to Serling’s chagrin as he believed, probably quite rightly, that the half hour format was the ideal length. Indeed, most of the season four episodes contain a significant amount of padding. Watching several of them, you get the feeling that these could have been really good, strong 25 minute episodes, but at 50 minutes there’s nowhere enough material to carry the stories.
“Death Ship” is probably the most notable exception. Matheson utilized the longer runtime to expand upon his short story, effectively fleshing out both the characters and themes.
In the far-off future year of, ahem, 1997 the Earth spaceship E-89 is searching for inhabitable planets for humanity to colonize. Orbiting an unexplored world, the three man crew glimpses something metallic on the surface. Landing, they are horrified to discover the wreck of their own spaceship, their dead bodies within. The bullheaded Captain Ross, played by Jack Klugman, insists there must be a perfectly logical explanation. Perhaps they have somehow slipped forward in time and glimpsed a possible future in which they crash & die? Or perhaps this is an elaborate hallucination created by aliens to drive them off? Or perhaps…
This is another episode that really unnerved me as a kid. There are some eerie scenes in this one. The ending, as we realize exactly what is going on, is genuinely horrifying.
5) Nightmare at 20,000 Feet – Richard Matheson adapted his short story of the same name. The episode was directed by Richard Donner, then only 33 years old. It was broadcast on October 11, 1963.
Now this is the one everybody remembers. Even if you’ve never seen it, you’ve undoubtedly heard of it. It’s been remade twice, and has been referenced and parodied numerous times in popular culture. Someone once opined that most of the really great episodes of The Twilight Zone are the ones that you can describe in a single short sentence. Well, this is “the one with the monster on the airplane wing.” And, setting aside all the hype, it really is a good, solid, scary episode.
A young William Shatner plays Robert Wilson, a man with a severe fear of flying who is recovering from a nervous breakdown. While flying home from the sanitarium with his wife aboard a commercial airliner, Robert sees a creature on the wing of the airplane. As a horrified Robert watches, the creature, a gremlin (a pre-Joe Dante incarnation, of course), pulls up the panels on the wing and begins mucking about with the wiring. Robert, realizing that if the gremlin isn’t stopped the plane will crash, desperately tries to get both his wife and the flight crew to believe him, but because of his recent mental illness they all think he is hallucinating. And the gremlin, grasping what is going on, begins to taunt Robert, each time gliding out of sight before anyone else can spot it.
As I previously wrote when discussing the work of Richard Matheson, I read the short story “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” a few years before I saw the episode. Visualizing the gremlin in my mind, I imagined something horrifically twisted & evil. The imagination is unbound by any budgetary considerations. The Twilight Zone, however, was a television series made in the early 1960s, so between a small budget and primitive special effects there was only so much that could be done. Nevertheless, even though the gremlin has a more-than-passing resemblance to a panda bear, it was still rather effective. The moment where Shatner yanks back the curtains to find the gremlin’s face pressed against the window leering at him is genuinely chilling. Shatner’s frantic performance, Donner’s solid direction, a very realistic airplane set, and very believable rain & wind effects all come together to create one of the most frightening television episodes ever created.
Honorable Mention: The Arrival – Written by Rod Serling and directed by Boris Sagal, this episode was broadcast on September 22, 1961.
During its five season run, The Twilight Zone recycled more than a few concepts, plots and themes. The show had only a small pool of regular writers, with Serling himself writing or co-writing 92 of the show’s 152 episodes. Given such an insane workload, it’s not surprising that from time to time Serling revisited old material.
“The Arrival” was the second episode of the third season, and some people regard it as the point where the show first began to blatantly recycle itself. Serling’s script contains elements from a few episodes from the first two seasons. It also has at least one significant plot hole. Nevertheless, “The Arrival” is in my estimation an eerie, atmospheric episode.
As the episode opens, a Douglas DC-3 passenger plane, Flight 107 from Buffalo, touches down in New York. The landing is perfect. However once the plane taxis down the runway and comes to a stop, the ground crew is shocked to discover that the plane is empty: no pilot or co-pilot, no crew, no passengers, no luggage. How could a plane that departed normally from Buffalo a few hours before arrive completely empty? How could everyone aboard have vanished into thin air?
FAA Inspector Grant Sheckly, played by Harold J. Stone, is determined to get to the bottom of this mystery. Touting his flawless 22 year record of closing cases, Sheckly is certain there must be an answer. At last he hits on a wild, incredible theory, one he is convinced must be the answer. Indeed, it appears that he is correct… until a moment later when the episode completely pulls the rug out from underneath him.
In spite of its flaws, I really like “The Arrival.” It is legitimately unsettling, and I totally did not see the twist ending coming. What really sells it is Stone’s devastating performance. During the episode’s 25 minute runtime we witness Sheckly believably, and tragically, go from a supremely confident figure of authority to a broken shell of a human being. Serling once again taps into that existential terror, the horror that at any moment all that we know & believe in might collapse around us.
There are many examples of television from the mid 20th Century that have aged very poorly, that have not stood the test of time. The Twilight Zone is not one of these. There are a number of episodes that are just as relevant in 2019 as they were in the early 1960s, if not more so.
Serling was one of those writers who tapped into the nature of the human condition, who wanted to understand what made us who we are, what drives us to do what we do, good and bad. His plots often held a universal appeal, one that transcended culture and decade. He also possessed a genuine gift for dialogue, for the use of words, for the crafting of intelligent & insightful scripts. And finally, as these episodes demonstrate, he had a genuine gift for tapping into human fears, and scarring the hell out of his audience.