The Orris: A Cultural Journal

Revisiting “The Twilight Zone”


“There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. 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.” – Rod Sterling

       I remember watching The Twilight Zone with my mom in the darkened living room. Late night reruns on TV Land.  We’re both quiet. I’m slightly terrified, mostly curious. What is this eerie feeling?   The black and white, shadows and glare. The flawless complexion of the heroine; her eyes lit up in horror.  That strange feeling that remains after the show is over, lying alert in bed.  Afraid that I may have entered the Twilight Zone.

       I’ve just started watching the series from start to finish.  Netflix offers it now on instant streaming, making it way too easy to watch one 25-minute episode after the other in a fantastic stream of procrastination.  The Twilight Zone, an American television series created by Rob Sterling, ran for five seasons from 1959-1964. Under the direction of Sterling, the series was a collaborative effort, drawing the talents of Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, and many others. The series brings you into the lives of ordinary people whose worlds have been disrupted by some fantastic, uncanny, or supernatural experience. Tales of time stopped still, of alter-egos and parallel universes, of astronauts whose ships veer off the radar, accidently landing on unchartered lands, of death and the infinite beyond. As I reconsider The Twilight Zone in 2011, I notice surprising connections between its futurist storytelling and the present realities of the 21st century.  In light of work in the contemporary fields of string theory and neuroscience, The Twilight Zone’s fantastic depictions of parallel universes and the complex inner workings of the human mind now seem eerily prescient. Did the writers know these fantasies were possible? Or, did the television show help Americans imagine such possibilities, inspiring researchers and theorists to search beyond conventional knowledge and explore the great beyond?  The series takes on a new valence in 2011, making viewers puzzle in wonderment as we compare the show’s fantasies with our current reality

       156 episodes in total, The Twilight Zone’s breadth is far reaching. A successor to earlier sci-fi TV shows, like Tales from Tomorrow, and popular radio series, it was also heavily influenced by dystopian novels, science fiction, and surrealist literature. The series utilizes a fantastic approach to develop the suspense and mood of its stories.  In his study of the fantastic in literature, Tzvetan Todorov claims the fantasy genre relies on the reader’s (or viewer’s) confusion of illusion and reality.  If we witness a strange and fantastic event, we must decide whether we are “the victim of an illusion of the senses, of a product of the imagination–and the laws of the world then remain what they are; or else the event has indeed taken place, it is an integral part of reality–but then this reality is controlled by laws unknown to us” [1]. In short, fantasy in literature and TV challenges our accepted notions of reality, making us question the nature of what appears before us. The Twilight Zone dramatizes this state of reality confusion through its fantastic stories.  Its central claim is that there are more unknown forces in the universe than we can ever imagine.  As we watch the series we must also wonder, is The Twilight Zone pure fiction, or were the writers really trying to suggest something more about the nature of reality?

Danger in Deep Space - Louis Glazman (1953)

       As the backdrop to its fantastic narrative, The Twilight Zone brings viewers into a distinct era in American history. It settles you in the midst of the Cold War, an atmosphere tense with the nerves of the Nuclear Age and the trauma of WWI lingers. It’s a time when psychoanalysis breaks through the normalized barriers of shame, and the unconscious begins to see the light of day. It’s an age when technology is speeding up its mechanical advance, making communication with distant strangers and strange lands ever more possible.  It’s a universe that is not as it seems, where scientists are exploring the atomistic and celestial mysteries of the universe and coming up more puzzled than before. In an age of advertised certainty, The Twilight Zone reveals the chaos and unexplainable amongst the ordinary lives of these men and women.

        Though over 50 years old, The Twilight Zone still works.  Made before the age of CGI, the show uses few special effects, relying on editing to create an atmosphere of suspense and the surreal.  Our eyes follow the pans, close ups, fades and superimpositions as the camera builds the strange world of the story. The monsters of the show are built out of the audience’s own fears and imagination, making them timeless unlike the already dated CGI graphics of last year’s blockbusters.  The Twilight Zone transports you to another time, another place where the world was recorded in black and white, shadows and lights.  But the real strength lies in the actors and the brilliantly written scripts.  Rod Sterling and his team of writers bring realism to the fantasy, depicting ordinary men and women in situations often just banal enough to be disquieting. Their imaginative storytelling influenced generations of speculative fiction series like Star Trek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Six Feet Under, and Fringe.

       The show settles you into the ordinary lives in 1960s America. But unlike many mainstream shows of its time, it does not play polite. Sneaking innocently in, seen as ‘mere science fiction,’ The Twilight Zone was able to uniquely critique the McCarthyian fears and nuclear nightmares of America. It delivers this critique through the lens of the fantasy.   In season one’s “Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” a quiet small town neighborhood grows paranoid of one another when they suspect that creatures from another planet may be residing amongst them. The situation may be fantastic, but the mob mentality that takes over feels all too familiar and possible.  By making the strange familiar, The Twilight Zone is able to discretely address the problems of war, greed, irrationality, racism, and hatred that continue to plague us.

       The Twilight Zone challenges our accepted understanding of the human mind. The show acknowledges that the whole of human knowledge is merely our partial and limited understanding of the universe, and that there is more to know than we can ever account for. While Freudian psychology introduced the notion of alternative selves, or egos, The Twilight Zone shows what would happen if those alter-egos appeared before us. In “Mirror Image,” Millicent Barnes encounters her doppelganger, a version of herself from a parallel universe.  The episode leaves you wondering: is Millicent simply insane, hallucinating her own image into existence, or has she stumbled upon a fold in the universe where parallel universes collide?

       Considering The Twilight Zone in 2011 makes its depictions of multiple dimensions of time and space no longer seem as fantastic as they once were.  In light of recent work in quantum physics and string theory, these different dimensions seem strangely possible.  Physicist Brain Greene believes that mathematics suggests that the “scope of reality is so much bigger than we once thought.”  In his latest book Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos (2011), Greene advances the idea that reality is multiple, parallel, relative, and ever changing.

Galaxies Collide - NASA Public Domain

       The Twilight Zone dramatized this same possibility nearly 50 years ago in episodes like “Mirror Image,” “The Parallel,” and “And When the Sky Opened Up.” The scientific community now increasingly accepts The Twilight Zone’s fantasies of parallel universes as plausible realities. Making me wonder, can art inspire future scientific inquiry and discovery?  The Twilight Zone helps us imagine the seemingly impossible, a necessary activity for researchers and theorists looking to advance human knowledge.  As the visionary poet William Blake once said, “What is now proved was once only imagined.”  The path to future possibility seems to lay in the imagination, and The Twilight Zone helps lead you in,

“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.”

– Season 4 – 5 Opening Narration

       By using science fiction and fantastic storytelling methods, the show distances itself enough from reality for the audience to imagine new possibilities that they may not have accepted otherwise. Like the dystopian literature of Orwell, Huxley, and Zamyatin, or the science fiction of Wells, Heinlein, or Bradbury, the series estranges the audience’s perspective, making them see their world in a new light by showing how things imaginatively could be.  Framing the fantastic in a familiar narrative, televised in crisp black and white, we begin to accept the show’s strange projections as future possibilities. It teaches us to expand our notion of what’s possible. It trains us to examine our lives with a fresh critical perspective, newly aware of the obscured forces and realities amongst us.

       Through its fantastic approach, The Twilight Zone seeks to challenge our very sense of reality, an immense feat for a TV show.  As we watch the series, it implores us to continually test the “summit of [our] knowledge” by providing an imaginative space to explore the boundaries of the known and unknown. The Twilight Zone shifts our perception of what is possible by showing us the fantastic, uncanny and the strange amidst our ordinary lives. As an art form, the show inspires us to imagine future possibilities, a valuable ability that helps us advance human knowledge, inspiring humankind to continue “sending his tiny groping fingers into the unknown. —Lana Cook

Reference:

[1] Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. London: Case Western Reserve University Press, 1973. Print.

Image Credits:

Glanzman, Louis. Danger in Deep Space. Project Gutenberg.Zorger.com. 1 Sept 2011.

NASA. Galaxies Collide. Great Images in NASA Collection. Arspublik.com. 1 Sept 2011.

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