–By Sam Hendrian–
“You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension—a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into: THE TWILIGHT ZONE.”
This opening narration of Rod Serling’s classic anthology series The Twilight Zone stands as a monument to both the light and darkness found in the human imagination. Originally aired from 1959 to 1964, Serling’s show employs elements from the horror and sci-fi genres to convey poignant and sometimes horrifying fables of human nature. Though Jordan Peele has recently rebooted the show in an attempt to give it modern-day relevance, the original series is indelibly timeless in its own way. Here are five classic episodes that do a particularly effective job of commenting on the human condition.
1. “Time Enough at Last” (Season 1, Episode 8)
This early entry in the series was one of Rod Serling’s personal favorite episodes. It tells the story of a bespectacled bank teller named Henry Bemis (played by the great Burgess Meredith) who is literally obsessed with reading books. This causes much vexation to his wife and to his co-workers, but he does not really care.
One day at work, he sneaks into a bank vault so that he can read in peace and later emerges to learn that the world has been devastated by a nuclear holocaust. Horrified, he is about to kill himself when he spots the ruins of a library in the distance, filled with all the books he could ever read. Realizing that there is now no one around to stop him from reading, he flocks to the library and is about to pick up a book when his glasses fall off and shatter. Is this a fateful consequence for putting books before people in his lifetime? We may never know for sure, but the symbolism of this shocking twist is certainly thought-provoking.
2. “A Passage for Trumpet” (Season 1, Episode 32)
One of the more optimistic Twilight Zone episodes, “A Passage for Trumpet” depicts the redemption of a suicidal trumpet player who is taken to an alternate universe where nobody can see or hear him, with the exception of a fellow trumpet player named “Gabe.” Gabe convinces him that life is worth living even when despair is at its zenith, so he returns to the real world with newfound hope in his soul. At its crux, this is a wonderfully simple fable about the bright spots behind hopelessness and the quietly powerful presence of guardian angels in our lives.
3. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (Season 5, Episode 3)
Starring William Shatner as an anxiety-ridden airplane passenger named Robert Wilson, this iconic episode is scary less because of the humorously ape-like gremlin on the wing of the plane and more because of the haunting question it poses: If one of us were to see something dangerous but seemingly impossible, would anybody believe us?
Every parent tells their child that there are no monsters hiding under the bed. But what if such monsters did exist, and the parents did nothing to stop them because of their skepticism? There are many variations of this troubling question, some of them deeply spiritual, and The Twilight Zone does a terrific job of putting them under the microscope.
4. “Twenty Two” (Season 2, Episode 17)
Unforgettably terrifying, this episode tells the story of a burlesque dancer named Liz Powell who is spending some time in a hospital to recover from over-exhaustion. She starts having a dream every night in which she gets out of bed and walks downstairs to “Room 22”—the hospital morgue. A nurse steps outside of the morgue and creepily says, “Room for one more, honey.”
Liz is convinced that her dream has some aspect of reality to it, but her doctor and talent agent patronizingly reject this possibility. When she finally departs the hospital, she is about to board a flight to Miami when the same nurse from her nightmare emerges in a stewardess uniform and says, “Room for one more, honey.” Horrified, Liz runs in the other direction and soon witnesses the plane explode during takeoff. She trusted her instincts and survived because of it. But in our often overpowering desire not to be ridiculed by others, do we always do the same?
5.“Walking Distance” (Season 1, Episode 5)
One of The Twilight Zone’s most poetic episodes, “Walking Distance” tells the story of a stressed businessman named Martin Sloan who dreams of returning to the carefree days of his childhood. Revisiting his hometown one day, he is amazed to discover that he has been transported back in time to 1934. He soon encounters his eleven-year-old self and tries to communicate with him, but this scares the boy. Suddenly seized with a determination to literally reclaim his lost childhood, he continues trying to talk to his young self and to his parents, but he is met with fear and rejection. He eventually realizes that no person can ever return to his youth, and he resigns to continue living as an adult in the present-day.
A profoundly relatable commentary on the fleeting joys of childhood innocence and the potentially dangerous allure of nostalgia, this sad but ultimately hopeful fable is undeniably a crowning moment of The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling’s closing narration is so beautiful that it must be reprinted:
“Martin Sloan, age thirty-six, vice-president in charge of media. Successful in most things but not in the one effort that all men try at some time in their lives—trying to go home again. And also like all men perhaps there’ll be an occasion, maybe a summer night sometime, when he’ll look up from what he’s doing and listen to the distant music of a calliope, and hear the voices and the laughter of the people and the places of his past. And perhaps across his mind there’ll flit a little errant wish, that a man might not have to become old, never outgrow the parks and the merry-go-rounds of his youth. And he’ll smile then too because he’ll know it is just an errant wish, some wisp of memory not too important really, some laughing ghosts that cross a man’s mind, that are a part of the Twilight Zone.”
Well, that’s all, folks! What are some of your favorite Twilight Zone episodes?
About the Author
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing an emphasis in Directing.
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