1. There’s a perfectly logical explanation for all this.
In October 1959—50 years ago this month—renowned TV writer Rod Serling introduced his new fantasy anthology series The Twilight Zone with the episode “Where Is Everybody?”, starring Earl Holliman as a man who wanders through a recently abandoned town until he flips out, driven mad by loneliness. What weird juju caused the population of the Earth to vanish? Actually, no juju at all. It turns out that Holliman is an astronaut-trainee who hallucinated the empty town while in an isolation booth for a training exercise. For his first Twilight Zone, Serling started with the bizarre, then ended with the plausible—a trick he pulled a few more times over the course of the series’ five-year run. For example, in “Nick Of Time” (written by Richard Matheson), William Shatner plays a newlywed who becomes convinced that a roadside diner’s table-top fortune-telling machine is guiding his destiny, until his wife persuades him—rightly—that the machine is only guiding him because he believes it is. And in Serling’s “The Shelter,” a group of once-friendly neighbors reveal their true colors when a false warning of imminent nuclear attack leads them to storm the bomb shelter of a man they’d been honoring earlier that evening. The Twilight Zone never shied away from stories of the supernatural, but the most unnerving episodes suggested that the human capacity for superstition and paranoia could be more powerful than any magic spell or alien invasion.
2. Time is a closed loop.
In the season-one standout “Walking Distance,” Gig Young plays a man transported back to his own past, and given the opportunity to talk to himself as a boy. Instead, he frightens his younger self, and inadvertently causes an accident that leaves the boy with a limp… the same limp Young has to this day! Again and again on The Twilight Zone, characters traveled through time, only to instigate a change that would turn out to be no change at all. This happens most memorably in season five’s “The 7th Is Made Up Of Phantoms,” in which a tank driver leads his men back through time to the battle of Little Big Horn, while in the present day, their CO discovers that the names of his missing men have been engraved on the Custer Battlefield National Monument. What we do is what we have always done, even if we don’t know we’ve done it.
3. Lay down your burdens.
Serling could be cruel to his characters, even when they didn’t deserve it, but he also enjoyed giving stressed-out folks a moment of well-earned peace. In “Mr. Denton On Doomsday,” Serling tells the story of two Old West gunslingers who wound each other’s hands so that neither will ever have to take up arms again. In Matheson’s “A World Of Difference,” a movie character is lost in the reality of the actor who plays him, though he’s able to scramble back to the set before his existence is snuffed out for good. And in Serling’s sweet “The Changing Of The Guard,” a professor played by Donald Pleasence is surrounded by the ghosts of his former students, who convince him that he did enough good in his career to retire contentedly.
4. Karma is a killer.
Of course, just as good things happen to good people on The Twilight Zone, so bad things afflict the bad. Two of the best examples of this are season one’s “Judgment Night,” in which a former German U-boat captain relives his sinking of a freighter from the victims’ side for all eternity, and season three’s “The Little People,” in which an astronaut intends to toy with a miniature civilization he finds, until he’s crushed by astronauts even bigger than he is. Karma also undoes the title character of “The Self-Improvement Of Salvadore Ross,” a mean bastard who acquires the power to trade abstract goods, and uses it to steal the compassion from the father of the woman he loves—only to then get shot by that father, who no longer has a heart. And in “The Mirror”—one of the weirdest “karma is a killer” episodes in Twilight Zone’s run, and one of Serling’s occasional forays into Commie-bashing social commentary—Peter Falk plays a Castro-like dictator who inherits a mirror that lets him see his enemies, including his greatest enemy, himself!
5. When it’s time to die, it’s time to die.
No matter what crazy machinations Twilight Zone characters go through to avoid the man Serling often dubbed “Mr. Death,” the reaper always gets his due in the end. In Matheson’s “The Last Flight,” a World War I deserter travels through time to escape getting shot down, but when he realizes that the man he left behind is destined to be a great leader, he flies back to meet his own fate. In Serling’s “Execution” (from a story by George Clayton Johnson), two murderers from different time periods switch places and end up facing the deadly end meant for their opposite numbers. Whether Mr. Death comes as a creepy drifter (as in “The Hitch-Hiker”) or as Robert Redford (as in “Nothing In The Dark”), he always leaves satisfied.
6. Whoops, irony!
Ask people to recall a Twilight Zone episode, and odds are they’ll all cough up “Time Enough At Last,” adapted by Serling from Lynn Venable’s short story about a henpecked bookworm who survives an apocalypse and would have all the time to read he wants… if only he hadn’t broken his glasses. Serling would later repeat that sad-trombone ending in “A Kind Of A Stopwatch,” from a Michael D. Rosenthal story about a man who acquires a device that freezes time and lets him steal anything he wants, but then he breaks the device and has no one to impress with his wealth. The irreversible mistake is a Twilight Zone staple because it delivers such a good closing punch. A man slashes his vocal cords to win a bet that he’ll keep silent for a year… then finds out the other guy is broke. Survivors of an apocalypse freak out when they realize they’ve been taking the advice of a computer… so they stop following its advice, and die. Time-travelers kill each other over their cache of gold… not realizing that in the future, gold is no longer valuable. Whoops, irony!
7. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.
Yes, those aliens really do want to eat you—hence the name of their cookbook, To Serve Man. Yes, there really is a gremlin on the wing of the airplane in “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet.” Yes, the Martians in “People Are Alike All Over” are every bit as callous as human beings, which is why they stick us in zoos. Yes, our doppelgängers from a mirror universe can take over our lives, as they do in “Mirror Image.” The Twilight Zone was so committed to suggesting that the crazies might be right that Serling even snuck that message into an episode often cited for its condemnation of foolish human prejudice. “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” is about how neighbors turn against neighbors when a power outage leads them to suspect an alien invasion. Yet at the end of episode, after showing how average Americans can become rioting fiends based on little more than conjecture, Serling reveals that the frenzy was, in fact, orchestrated by space aliens. Hmmmm.
8. It was Earth all along. (Or “Oh, I get it, they’re astronauts!”)
Serling was so jazzed by the idea of depicting Earth as an alien planet that The Twilight Zone actually aired back-to-back episodes in season one with that very twist. In “Third From The Sun” (adapted by Serling from a Matheson story), scientists flee a doomed planet that viewers are led to believe is Earth, when in fact the scientists are headed to Earth. Then, in “I Shot An Arrow Into The Air” (adapted by Serling from a Madelon Champion story), three astronauts believe themselves to be stranded on a desert planet and subsequently panic and kill each other, not realizing they’ve actually crash-landed just outside Las Vegas. Serling returned to this gag in season five’s “Probe 7, Over And Out,” in which a lost astronaut meets a primitive woman on a primitive planet and introduces himself as “Adam.” She, naturally, is “Eve,” and he decides to call their new home “Earth.” Matheson, meanwhile, flipped the script brilliantly in “The Invaders,” in which Agnes Moorehead plays a mute woman who fights off a tiny flying saucer… an American flying saucer.
9. Be careful what you wish for.
The Twilight Zone never aired an official adaptation of “The Monkey’s Paw,” but a couple times per season, Serling and his writers came up with an episode that illustrated how wishes can contain curses. In “A Nice Place To Visit,” a dead criminal discovers that living in a place where he can have anything he wants turns out to be his version of hell, not heaven. In “Mr. Bevis,” an iconoclast’s guardian angel shows him that he can only become a success if he loses his quirks—which the iconoclast refuses to do. In “The Man In The Bottle,” a man wishes for power and wakes up as Hitler. In “The Mind And The Matter,” a misanthrope creates a world filled with versions of himself, then realizes he hates himself. And on and on.
10. With great power come a lot of hassles.
As a corollary to the “be careful what you wish for” plot, The Twilight Zone frequently trafficked in episodes where people were gifted with powers beyond their capacity to control. Sometimes the results were comic, as in “A Penny For Your Thoughts,” a George Clayton Johnson-written episode about a man who gains telepathic powers, but has trouble interpreting what he “hears.” And sometimes the results were more horrific, as in the infamous “It’s A Good Life” (written by Rod Serling from a Jerome Bixby story), about a 6-year-old boy who can make his every awful, capricious wish come true. But, um… it’s good that he can do that. Very, very good.
11. Down is up.
For a classic example of how The Twilight Zone threw reversals at its audience, consider “Eye Of The Beholder,” in which an “ugly” young woman awaits the results of plastic surgery designed to make her look “normal.” At the end of the episode, after the truth has been carefully hidden from us for nearly 20 minutes, we discover that “normal” faces in this world resemble cubist swine masks. Yikes! An even better “down is up” episode is the relatively unsung Charles Beaumont-penned episode “Person Or Persons Unknown,” in which Richard Long dreams that he’s in a world where no one recognizes him, then wakes up in a world where he doesn’t recognize anyone. Serling didn’t go to the “down is up” well too often, because it’s a tough gimmick to pull off. But it’s great when it works.
12. Be the doll (or fear the doll).
The Twilight Zone had a serious jones for automatons of all shapes and sizes, be they robots or playthings. In “The Lateness Of The Hour,” a young woman resents her family’s android servants, unaware that she’s an android. In “Five Characters In Search Of An Exit,” the five characters in question are stuck in a featureless tub… because they’re dolls. In the touching “Miniature,” Robert Duvall plays a misfit who becomes so obsessed with a doll he watches at a museum that he becomes a doll himself, so neither of them will have to be lonely. Then of course there’s the well-known “Living Doll,” in which a young girl’s talking toy torments her father until he dies. Dolls, man. They’re freaky and tragic.
13. The inheritance blues.
Want that money that your nasty old relative has been teasing with you for your whole miserable life? Well, it ain’t gonna be easy. Your Uncle Simon might stick you with a robot version of himself when he dies. Or your elderly husband might drink too much from a fountain of youth and get turned into a baby that you’ll have to raise. Or if you’re a bit of a jerk yourself, your rich father might force you to wear a hideous mask that will permanently deform your face. There’s no money for nothing in The Twilight Zone.
14. We have to go back!
Serling revealed a sentimental streak to rival Walt Disney’s in several Twilight Zone episodes, most notably in the season-one classic “A Stop At Willoughby,” in which James Daly plays a wrung-out New York ad-man who pines for the classic small-town Americana of Willoughby, a place he often dreams about while commuting home by train. Finally, he moves to Willoughby for good, in mind and body: His mind wanders off to the idyll, while his body leaps to its death and gets loaded into a hearse owned by Willoughby & Son Funeral Home. Leave it to the more puckish Matheson, though, to take Serling’s romanticizing of the past and twist it into a bitter mockery. In the Matheson-penned season-three episode “Young Man’s Fancy,” a mama’s boy visits the house of his late mother, and reverts to childhood right in front of his new wife’s eyes. Welcome to Creepyville.