Twilight’s gleaming

Twilight Zone

Rod Serling – Twilight Zone Button. Tony AlterCC BY

“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.” 

– Season One opening narration, The Twilight Zone television series (1959-1964)

What’s your Fourth of July tradition, fellow Americans?

For my family, it’s watching The Twilight Zone marathon on Syfy.

I have to ask myself: Why do I love this series? Why is it so addictive? After all, special effects have advanced light-years since these shows were filmed; some of the outer space/alien/futuristic costumes and settings are primitive, even laughable. Rod Serling, garbed in dress jacket and skinny tie, strolls out of inconspicuous places – other rooms in houses, offices, or even the woods – to comment on the rising action and the characters,  occasionally smoking a cigarette in true ’60s vogue.

Part of the fun is seeing famous people when they were heartrendingly young, when their stars were still on the rise: Carol Burnett, Telly Savalas, Elizabeth Montgomery, William Shatner (THE Captain Kirk, before the inception of Star Trek). There’s Burgess Meredith, the best of the best character actors, Mickey Rooney beautifully playing an angry drunk. The furniture and props in many episodes, some fashionably chic, some commonplace, are now vintage, nostalgic slices of a bygone era. Something must also be said for the show’s camera work, the strategic zooms, the compelling close-ups. In truth, between some captivating characterizations and the cinematography, there’s a great bit of artistry in The Twlight Zone.

But all that’s just part of it. What really draws the viewer, ultimately, is the story.

The Twilight Zone breaks the dimensions of time and space, to be sure – it takes us away from Earth, brings us to an Earth we don’t recognize, allows us to step into the past and sometimes into a future that isn’t future anymore (I just saw a calendar on the wall of a restaurant in  one futuristic episode: 1974. Geez.). Statues come to life;  a warm, vibrant grandmother is really a custom robot; dolls talk, wreaking havoc and destruction. People down on their luck find good fortune; people lose fortunes; people are at the mercy of forces greater than themselves; people possess supernatural powers that are often abused or taken advantage of by others.

The most haunting thing about The Twilight Zone isn’t the supernatural, however. It’s the journey within, the recognition of the worst parts of ourselves. Selfishness and greed are common themes, with catastrophic consequences – not that the Zone is didactic. In the spirit of the best short stories, with O. Henry-esque twists at the end, The Twilight Zone follows the dark convolutions of the human psyche. Endings are intriguing, but not always happy.

My favorite episode is “A Stop at Willoughby.” A man is locked into a job he hates by a demanding, socialite wife; a hardcore boss berates him for his ineptitude and lack of drive. He’s miserable; he can’t please anyone, least of all himself. On the train commute between home and work, he falls asleep and dreams of a stop that isn’t on the line – a back-in-time place, where women carry parasols and children go fishing and men ride penny-farthing bicycles (the ones with the huge front wheel). The vision of this place, Willoughby, is so real and inviting that the man thinks about getting off there in his dream.  He wakes to the ongoing pressures of his life, but yearns more and more for the slower, contented pace of Willoughby. His wife mocks him for wanting to be Huckleberry Finn, then turns her back on him just as he caves from the pressures at work. On the train, he dreams of Willoughby once more, and this time he gets off, where the townspeople greet him cheerfully by name, as if they’ve always known him, as if he belongs there.

The story doesn’t quite end here; there’s a final scene with a big final twist, but I would be the ultimate spoiler if I told it here. The episode – all the episodes – are meant to be experiences for the viewer. Here’s part of the closing narration: “Willoughby? Whatever it is, it comes with sunlight and serenity and is part of The Twilight Zone.”

Perhaps that’s the pull of the Zone – that beyond the darkness, horror, oppression, bad choices, fears, the worst of humanity, there lies something better, that’s worth the pain of overcoming. Where morbid fascinations, bystander mentalities, selfish desires and regrets melt away. A place of healing, of peace, of freedom – where the best of humanity thrives, has a voice that’s heard. It’s not a place to be merely maintained, but is always being actively created.

What does that sound like to you? What would a Magic 8-Ball say?

Utopia? Very doubtful.

America? Most likely.

The Twilight Zone? Yes definitely.

So celebrate.

Cherish. Savor. Digest. Mull.

Not just food, but your tradition, your story. Yours as well as others’.

And see beyond.

 

12 thoughts on “Twilight’s gleaming

  1. I sense a subtext to your post, one that subtly reminds us that we live in uncertain times and are locked in uncertain times as we traverse from stop to stop. We have faith in what lies beyond the twilight zone. I also sense that you might be struggling w/ some of the same uncertainty I feel this July 4.

    I watched “The Twilight Zone” religiously long ago. It’s time to revisit that place.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope you will revisit the Zone; ever how dated, its messages are timeless, partly because human nature doesn’t change. I wrote primarily out of a sheer appreciation for the pull of the series, to explore the “why” of it – but when we write, our subconscious bleeds into our conscious. Think how many of those episodes reflect Cold War mentality and uncertainty – so many. There’s just a timelessness that outweighs the datedness. Thanks so much for this deep, insightful response.

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  2. I can hear Rod Sterling’s voice as I read this. What great memories. I am now wanting to go back and listen and watch again. I sense I would see The Twilight Zone differently now.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My husband was watching an episode a couple of days ago and my son thought it was ridiculous. Yes, I can see his point. However, he needs to see a few classic episodes. The themes are universal and I think you’ve hit on the lasting appeal of the series quite well. You should consider posting this on another platform… Medium, etc. Thorough, compelling post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alas, your son does have a point! Much of the series will seem stagier or hokier to this generation that’s accustomed to stunning graphics. You’re right, however, that he should see some of the finer episodes, ones where the story will pull him, in spite of himself. The Zone has that power. Thanks so much for reading, responding, and for the sharing suggestion – I will check it out!

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  4. I’ll ever forget that episode with Burgess Meredith and all the books he finally has time to read. Then his thick glasses shatter. Thanks for the reminder about this series and your special insight into its relevance today.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That episode, “Time Enough at Last,” aired late last night. No matter how many times you see it, Meredith is extraordinary in the role. Those broken glasses at the end are one of the most gripping moments on film – so many people talk about this episode. I am glad you enjoyed the post – thank you for commenting.

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  5. Now I want to watch the Twilight Zone, too! I never watched all the episodes, but you have hit on why it’s so compelling — not just the actors and the excellent writing, but the exploration of what it means to be human.

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    • Some episodes are much more compelling than others – I am glad you feel inspired to watch more! I so look forward to the marathon on the 4th and New Year’s. It fascinates me how much of human psychology is captured in thirty-minute segments. Thank you for your reply.

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  6. What a cool family tradition! I confess I am not a sci-fi fan and have never watched the Twilight Zone, but you may have persuaded me to at least try a few. This might be an intriguing thing to do with students: getting them to pull from the episode whatever they can learn about human nature, and how timeless those insights are. I am a Margaret Atwood fan…but her stuff tends to be quite dark. I can only read her once in a while. We have a series of films we watch together faithfully over the Christmas holidays. They are usually comedies, but nonetheless they remind us of the foible of human nature and how families have their own traditions. It’s a nice way to spend a holiday and something we look forward to after all the noise has died down. Thanks for a great post!

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    • Thanks so much for your response! I had been thinking that it would be interesting to use some episodes with students – thirty minutes packed with character motivation, cause and effect, etc. There’s even one episode on what’s perceived as beautiful (“The Eye of the Beholder”) and one about a stranded bus where everyone takes refuge in a diner where they feel safe until police show up and say they are looking for an alien that crashed a UFO – suddenly the bus riders realize that there’s seven of them now instead of six; they can’t recall exactly which six were on the bus. This one’s great for how we make excuses and for how quickly suspicious we can become (“Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”). Anyway – do explore! Some episodes are more fantasy or psych thriller rather than sci-fi. Forgive some of the rudimentary costuming, makeup & settings, and you’ll find the experience worthwhile. I would love to hear about it!

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