When you have the beginning of a cold, nothing sparkly to wear and you really hate New Year’s, you watch television. If a certain station runs a marathon of vintage Twilight Zone episodes, your choice is made from the moment you hear “doo dee da doo, doo dee da doo” coming from what you think is your flat screen, but could, in fact, originate from another planetary system.
So I spent most of the last holiday weekend glued to the portal between reality and fact, science and suggestion, comfort and creeping horror. And I loved it.
I was about 12 when I first viewed “The Eye of the Beholder,” the famous episode where a beautiful woman screams in horror as she realizes that she looks different from everyone else. Everyone else, of course, sports swine-like faces with prominent snouts and hooded eyes. To see her reduced to paroxysms of grief because she doesn’t look like them begs the question: is beauty an absolute, or is it measured in relation to society’s standards?
Another memorable episode was “Walking Distance,” in which Gig Young played a man who was magically transported back to his boyhood home. There was an incredible amount of poignance when an adult confronts his mortality and the unappreciated joys of an unencumbered childhood. Watching the show today, the melancholy of the character melds with the actor’s own personal demons, which led him to take his own life.
There are so many exceptional episodes from the classic series, including several that have become a part of popular culture: “It’s A Good Life,” where a young boy is able to make people who anger him disappear “into the cornfield.” “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” where William Shatner sees a demon on the wing of a plane, and can’t convince anyone that he’s not having a mental breakdown. “Deaths Head Revisited” where a former SS officer returns to Dachau and finds himself put on trial by the ghosts of the prisoners he tortured. “The Hitch-Hiker” where Inger Stevens frantically tries to avoid a man she keeps seeing by the side of the road, seeking a ride, only to realize at the end that she has actually died.
As I watched these episodes, completely enthralled for hours on end and forgetting that I was in 2023, an unpleasant sensation began to creep over me.
When I saw Billy Mummy order people into oblivion, it reminded me of the MeToo movement, the Black Lives Matter Movement, Twitter, Facebook, the removal of statues and the erasure of murals, and the destruction of lives because someone didn’t like them.
Rod Serling’s petulant and vengeful little boy presaged an entire society that could no longer tolerate certain people, certain beliefs, certain traditions, values or moral precepts. And instead of making space for them in the marketplace of ideas, they were sent to the cornfield, where they have disappeared into the windswept stalks of grain.
Watching “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” it reminded me that people who are often telling the truth and trying to communicate danger to the rest of us are considered mentally ill, or worse. Parents who have sounded the alarm about the way their adolescent children are allowed to morph into gender fluid creatures, receiving irreversible medical treatment before they are able to reason through their sexual confusion, are called bigots, ignorant, or in some cases, criminal.
It’s like William Shatner trying to tell us that there is something there on the plane, and it’s threatening to take us all down with it, and we laugh and call him a fool.
Seeing Inger Stevens in agony as she realizes that her entire life has been lived in service to her parents, people who wanted a “child” to fill their emptiness but who programmed the “perfect” machine, reminded me of the way that people have begun to talk about abortion.
Women, who are horrified that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, have begun to use the language that would have fit right into a Twilight Zone episode: “reproductive autonomy,” “bodily integrity,” “my rights,” “unsustainable life,” “anti-choice villains.”
I understand that we live in a quite different world from the one that watched the original Twilight Zone episodes. We accept things now that were unthinkable then, and that’s a function of society. Things, inevitably, change.
But some things manage to remain the same. Our sense of decency, humanity, righteousness, compassion and dignity don’t change simply because the years advance. And watching Rod Serling’s mini masterpieces reminds me that the past is prologue, and we might have been living all along in a world that is slowly drifting into twilight.