The Twilight Zone

A Dark Reflection of Society’s Past, Present, and Future

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Words || Jodie Ramodien

“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.”

So were the words of the indomitable Rod Serling when the first episode of The Twilight Zone aired in 1959. In the 60 years following the show’s tumultuous run, Serling’s seminal work continues to be one of the most influential TV shows of all time. Countless books, films, and TV shows have been inspired by it and have continued its legacy. The curious mix of uncanny horror, speculative themes, and an underlying sense of didacticism, are what created this fascinating and original show. 

A typical episode of The Twilight Zone would proceed as follows. Serling, the show’s creator, is impeccably dressed in a suit, staring into your soul through the camera lens with a forgotten cigarette smoking from between his fingers, and narrating the story of a character who is most likely about to have an unfortunate encounter with The Twilight Zone. One of the things I love about Serling is his deeply ironic twist-endings, something the show was famous for. Amongst his disillusionment with humanity and criticism of our many faults would be a shocking revelation at the end, leaving us astounded or horrified by its discovery. 

Almost all of the show’s most famous episodes begin and end in this manor: ‘Time Enough at Last,’ ‘Eye of the Beholder,’ ‘The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,’ ‘It’s a Good Life,’ ‘Five Characters in Search of an Exit,’ ‘To Serve Man,’ ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,’ ‘Living Doll,’ ‘Mirror Image,’ ‘Perchance to Dream,’ and ‘The Hitch-Hiker.’ 

‘The Time Element’ was the unofficial pilot episode of The Twilight Zone. It aired as part of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball’s Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, and was about a man who believed he had travelled back in time to 1941 to the Pearl Harbour attack. Each rendition of the show highlights a deep fascination with the concept of time. Whether it’s rewinding, stopped, shortened, infinite, or repetitive, The Twilight Zone allows characters to tamper with time and yet they rarely come to understand it, or to use it wisely.

Many of the episodes themselves had literary inspirations. The ‘Time Enough at Last’ episode was adapted from Lynn Venable’s 1953 short story of the same title, as was the iconic episode, ‘It’s a Good Life,’ which was adapted from a story written by Jerome Bixby. While Serling was creating groundbreaking content in pace with the rise of television, many pioneers of the genre like Ray Bradbury, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Richard Matheson, were already testing the boundaries of what sci-fi could do, and what it could reveal to audiences. 

Many prominent sci-fi and horror writers and directors throughout the years got to have their hand in the creative process in the original Twilight Zone and in reboots of the show. Bradbury, Matheson, Charles Beaumont, and George R.R. Martin, wrote scripts for the show while Steven Spielberg, Wes Craven (Scream), and Joe Dante (Gremlins), had a part in directing the movie adaption. Yet despite the show’s cult success, it never lasted long. The original series was cancelled three times with two revivals. The ensuing reboots were each plagued with unforeseen complications, among which included a horrific helicopter accident which killed three members of the cast, including two child actors. While many high profile actors, directors, and writers, were drawn to the show, it was a ratings failure, and never managed to recapture the genius of Serling’s original work. 

Serling thrived on the growing appeal of television as a form of entertainment alongside the already established literary scene and the dwindling age of radio dramas. Television was invented in 1927 by Philo Farnsworth and was met with instant success when it was commercially released in America a decade later in 1938. For thirteen wondrous years TV remained commercial free. July 1st 1941 saw the first ever commercial broadcast occur in America. It lasted 10 seconds, advertised Bulova watches, and aired on NBC. By 1958, 45,000 subscribers were using 525 cable TV systems. CBS stated that “Free television as we know it cannot survive alongside pay television,” and thus TV, commercials, and product placement became forever intertwined. 

Rod Serling directly felt the effects of this shift. Censorship and the badgering of marketers with their distaste for controversy threatened the potential artistry in shows like The Twilight Zone. However, as Serling hosted all 156 episodes of the original series, and wrote scripts for 92 of those episodes, he exercised almost complete creative control. The show reflected his political views, criticising the hypocrisy and delusions of mid-century America; its racism, bigotry, and Mccarthyist attitudes. Tragic events like the abduction and murder of 14-year-old Emmet Till in 1955 during a time characterised by its intense racial tensions and the horrific practice of ‘lynching’ predominantly in the South, and the assassination of JFK during the show’s run, greatly influenced Serling’s scripts. In his own words, Serling commented that “The writer’s role is to be a menacer of the public’s conscience… He must see the arts as a vehicle of social criticism and he must focus [on the] the issues of his time.”

Jordan Peele, director of Get Out and Us, is currently at the helm of the latest reboot, with its newly released 10-episode run this year. Peele has kept The Twilight Zone’s socially conscious spirit alive with this latest reimaging of the show. 

From a pop-culture standpoint, it is a testament to the legacy The Twilight Zone has left in that I came into contact with shows like The Simpsons, Futurama, and South Park, that parodied The Twilight Zone, before ever really watching the show myself. Having now seen more of it, it has become evident that countless shows, including Black Mirror and Strangers Things, have drawn inspiration from it. 

Those who grew up in The Simpsons golden age of reruns from around 2006-2009 might remember the themed ‘Treehouse of Horror’ episodes. In the lead-up to Halloween my favourite yellow nuclear family would be thrown into deeply unpleasant and sinister scenarios. I loved these episodes without even grasping that many of them were parodies of The Twilight Zone. One of the more iconic episodes was ‘Terror at 5 ½ feet.’ In it Bart is riding the school bus when he notices a blue gremlin shredding holes in the side of the bus. Each time he desperately attempts to show the other school kids and the bus driver the gremlin, it disappears, causing him to quickly decline into perceived madness. This adaption closely mirrors the original, ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,’ whereby a man, played by a pre-Star Trek William Shatner, observes a strange creature ⁠— who in this ⁠⁠rendition simply looks like a furry on a night out — outside of his plane window. 

Peele also chooses this episode to reimagine, renaming it ‘Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.’ His version points to a racial prejudice that is often accentuated in airports, in particular racial and religious biases towards what a terrorist might look like. Peele takes Serling’s original story and imbues it with his own timely infusion of societal misconceptions. In this new story, journalist Justin Sanderson finds a podcast, presumably from the future, that retells the story of the present day, and the infamous crash of the plane he is on: Thereby giving him the opportunity to change the course of events. Throughout the episode he suspiciously investigates several people including two Sikh men who are using the plane’s wifi to broadcast sports and a man who he believes is potentially from the Russian mafia. Yet all these suspects are innocent. He never suspects the terrorist to be like himself, a white educated American male who he quickly befriends. The story points to Sanderson’s inaccurate and subconcious racial profiling. 

Shows as recent and popular as Stranger Things also continue to reflect The Twilight Zone’s influence. In particular Matt and Ross Duffer’s conceptualisation of the ‘Upside Down,’ an eerie liminal space that coincides with the world as we know it, but which is that which we cannot fully grasp or understand, much like The Twilight Zone itself. 

Black Mirror exhibits its influence in a more structural capacity. From the isolated stories within episodes, to the incisive critiques on our flawed society and shocking endings.

Futurama interprets the show in a more humorous light. When Fry, Leela, Bender, and the rest of the Planet Express crew aren’t watching the HYPNOTOAD — ALL GLORY TO THE HYPNOTOAD —  they occasionally have on a show called ‘The Scary Door,’ a Twilight Zone parody. The Scary Door begins with its own dramatically vague and unnecessarily existential opening: “You are entering the vicinity of an area adjacent to a location. The kind of place where there might be a monster or some kind of weird mirror. These are just examples, it could also be something much better. Prepare to enter The Scary Door.” 

Whether rebooted, readapted, or reimagined, The Twilight Zone continues to admit unsuspecting viewers into its realm of mystery and moral righteousness.