This week marks the 55th anniversary of The Twilight Zone series. I have obsessively watched this chilling anthology of the supernatural, the paranormal, and the bizarre since I can remember, and have no plans for stopping. As an adult, I'm even more in love with the series now because I pick up on the social and cultural commentary that I missed the first time around. In my eyes, Rod Serling has grown from creepy story writer to a visionary who wrote 55 years ago on topics that are surprisingly relevant today.
The Twilight Zone terrified me when I was a kid, and still does today. It's not easy to pick from my favorite TZ episodes, but if carnivorous Martians landed on earth and forced me to choose under threat of human extinction, I'd have to name these:
The 10 Greatest Twilight Zone episodes guaranteed to give you chills:
A frightening example of the plot twists TZ was known for. We begin with a young woman traveling alone cross country trip. She blows a tire and when she takes her car in for repairs, we get a hint that something is amiss when the mechanic tells her she should have called a hearse, not a car repair service. She drives on, but keeps seeing a man hitchhiking, no matter how far she drives. Shaken, she finally stops and calls her mother, only to be told that her mother had a nervous breakdown when her daughter was killed in a car accident six days ago. She is in disbelief, but returns to her car, where the hitchhiker awaits her. She realizes that the hitchhiker is death. What I see now that I didn't see then, you can't outrun fate.
There is a TZ episode I can directly blame for each of my phobias and "After Hours" is
responsible for my fear of mannequins. In a department store, there is a 9th floor for no one else, but the store's mannequins. Once a month, they take turns living as humans in the real world. When their time is up, they return to the 9th floor, except for the day that Mannequin Marcy decides she likes being human too much, and is not going back. My wiser take on it now, a taste of honey is worse than none at all.
"The Midnight Sun"
Straight from the files of "it was all just a bad dream." Earth has become a boiling planet as the sun draws closer. Water is running out, people are dying, and of those left, we find ourselves with a young woman and her aging landlady. They swelter and sweat in the heat, and just when their skin looks as if it will melt off their faces, we see our starlet awaken, fluttering back to consciousness and being told she had a fever. Then we hear on the radio that Earth is entering an ice age, as the sun pulls farther away from us. I ask myself now, how could Rod Serling have known of global warming??
"It's a Good Life"
One of the three most frightening TZ episodes just for its images. Billy Mumy stars as a six-year-old boy who terrorizes his town with his power to destroy, create, disfigure, and kill anyone who doesn't praise and placate him. The nightmares I had when I saw what Billy Mumy did to a man who refused to kowtow to him lasted for weeks. You have to see it for yourself to believe it. My modern takeaway, we create monsters when we constantly praise and give our children everything.
"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"
The most popular TZ episode ever, and the one that made my heart jump in my throat. William Shatner plays a young executive recently released after a nervous breakdown. He needs to travel again for business, but still feels unstable. Though apprehensive, he goes anyway. The plane enters a turbulent storm and as Shatner looks out the window, he sees a creature dismantling the plane's engine. No one believes him, he has a second nervous breakdown, and as they walk him off the plane, we the audience see fire damage and evidence of tampering on the plane's wings. What scares me to this day about that is how real things can seem, even when they're not.
"Long Distance Call"
This episode frightened me so much that I promised myself I would never see it again. After a grandmother dies, a little boy (Billy Mumy again) is mysteriously given a phone. On this phone, only calls from his deceased grandmother come through. She tries to convince Little Billy to kill himself to join her. And so he tries, several times in several ways. I can say without a doubt that today, this storyline encouraging childhood suicide would never be allowed to be aired.
One of the reasons the horror movie Chucky never scared me is that it is a pale imitation to this TZ episode, "Living Doll." Because of the doll named Talking Tina, I never wanted a doll as a gift my entire childhood. That's what happens when you watch a two foot tall plastic toy with dead eyes and nylon hair push an evil stepfather down a dark flight of stairs, saying, "I am Talking Tina, and I am going to kill you."
"The Howling Man"
Any time there is a story about man versus the devil, the hair on the back of my neck stands. The devil embodies evil, and the possibility of the dark inside all of us. This episode is no exception. On a stormy night, Mr. Ellington, stumbles upon a castle for shelter. He enters, but hears howling from the cellar. He finds a bedraggled but eloquent man chained in a cell. The man claims to be a prisoner of an insane religious order, locked up for kissing his girlfriend in public. The order explains that the prisoner is not a man, but the devil himself, who has been locked up since he came to the village to corrupt it. Ellington is skeptical and creeps down to the cell and releases the prisoner. The prisoner pins Ellington to the floor and changes into the devil. We flash forward years and we find Ellington has finally captured the devil and has him chained in a closet and plans on returning him to the religious order. He is explaining this story to a hotel maid and warns her but the skeptical housekeeper hears a disturbing howl and releases the man in the closet when Ellington goes to make his final preparations. The moral, man's inability to recognize evil will always be our greatest weakness.
"Young Man's Fancy"
This episode cements Rod Serling's specialty of psychological thrillers. The question here is what determines reality? Believing in something can make it real for that person. Newlyweds Alex and Virginia have dated for 12 years. In that time, Virginia has waited patiently for Alex to leave his mother's side. When she passes away, they marry, and are ready to leave his childhood home for their own, but Alex doesn't want to leave. Virginia sees a picture of Alex's deceased mother, and hisses at her, "He's mine now!" We see Virginia run up to the bedroom to see where Alex is and suddenly at the top of the stairs, stands Alex's dead mother. Virginia calls out for Alex, and screams at the mother to leave them alone. The mother answers, "He wants me here." We then see Alex emerge from his bedroom, 12 years old, beckoning to his mother for a day at the park, and the zoo, and then for some ice cream. Horrified Virginia runs from the house screaming.
"The Bewitchin' Pool"
The most unforgettable of all the TZ episodes. A young girl and her little brother live in a
beautiful home, complete with a large swimming pool. Their parents are cold, short tempered,
and forever bickering in front of their children. One day, a boy pops up from the deep end of their pool and invites them to follow him. The children follow by diving underwater and surface in a beautiful countryside. It is simple, and plain, and unlike their opulent home. There are no adults, except for a kindly woman who bakes desserts, and offers kind words. The children go back home through the swimming pool, they are worried that their parents have missed them. They break through the water to find that their neglectful parents haven't even noticed that they were gone. The children return again to the idyllic countryside by diving through the pool, and this time, they stay. Their parents search for them in the pool, but never find them. The children remain happily ever after, cared for and loved, in this paradise. It wasn't until I watched this episode as an adult, that I saw that it had been written of childhood suicide as a response to bad parenting and a child's wish for escapism.
If you haven't had a nightmare for awhile, and hope to keep it that way, you may want to watch these only during the light of day. But, definitely, enjoy the thrill of a good scare this Halloween, with the The Twilight Zone.