“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.”
So spake Rod Serling, during the season 4 and 5 intros to his now-classic television series. Although the SyFy channel gives viewers a marathon of the show every new year’s eve and new year’s day, and American viewers get a marathon on the fourth of July, a decade ago SyFy also treated viewers to a marathon of the show on the most appropriate holiday of all for its content, Halloween. With the popularity of ghost hunting shows taking the limelight around that time, they got the holiday marathon spot, and broke the tradition. Fortunately, with the show easily accessible on Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and DVD formats, it isn’t that hard to make your own marathon.
Why watch it on Halloween, you may ask? What interest might you have in a show whose original run ended in 1964? The Twilight Zone consisted of half hour to hour-long episodes (with commercials) of individual dramas that are known for their twists. Rod Serling, the snappy host, wrote many of the episodes and often sought to produce commentaries on current events and social climates. Still, he did drift into real horror–mostly of the fridge horror variety–from time to time and produced some memorable tales. Why not try doing as Golden Earring has done before you, and step into the Twilight Zone this Halloween?
“Death Ship” (1963)
A spaceship crew of three lands on a new planet only to discover an identical ship has already crashed there, with their broken bodies sprawled out inside. The men are shaken by what they see, and as they try to figure out what could be going on, they begin to dream feverishly of their loved ones left behind on earth. Captain Ross is convinced that telepathic aliens are messing with the crew’s minds, but the rest of the crew understands what they have already seen. Ross refuses to see the truth of the matter, and insists on repeating his actions again and again, until he figures out an alternative: mind over matter, for eternity, regardless of the wishes of those around him.
This episode was written by Richard Matheson, best known for his novel I am Legend. He also wrote several other Twilight Zone episodes, such as “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “Nick of Time,” and “The Invaders,” the latter two episodes also appearing on this list. This episode is based on Matheson’s short story of the same name.
“Death Ship” originally aired as an hourly episode, but the edited half-hour version plays much better.
“The Hitchhiker” (1960)
A young woman driving from New York to Los Angeles has a bad accident, and the mechanic that helps her out expresses surprise that she survived at all. When she’s with her mechanic, she notices a mysterious hitchhiker who the mechanic just doesn’t seem to see. As the continues on her trip, she keeps on seeing the same man in different states who remains unseen to all those around her, and she grows increasingly paranoid, even trying to hit him with her car at one point so she won’t have to see him again. Finally she stops and calls her mother, and then begins to unravel the mystery herself, recalling the mechanic’s words.
This episode was based on a radio play of the same name by Lucille Fletcher, and has also been adapted as a stage play.
“The Howling Man” (1960)
What would you do if you found a man trapped against his will in a Medieval dungeon of a hermitage, who can do nothing but scream all day? David Ellington finds just this in “The Howling Man.” The man in the cell says he was imprisoned by a religious zealot because he kissed a woman in public, the leader of the hermitage says that the imprisoned man is the devil incarnate. Ellington decides to free the man, thinking that the hermitage leader is insane, only realizing how misguided his goodwill was after the fact. Then there is a flash forward to Ellington giving the same warning to his maid, who is left alone to make her own choice about the man locked in Ellington’s closet.
Rod Serling was a devout Christian, and sometimes his episodes with religious themes can be heavy-handed. Fortunately, this episode isn’t one of them, possibly because it was based on a short story of the same name by Charles Beaumont.
“The Invaders” (1961)
This episode is unique in The Twilight Zone‘s library for its almost complete lack of dialogue, and the fact that its main character, played by Agnes Moorehead, gives an almost totally solo performance.
A lone farm woman is wrapping up her day and making her dinner in her rustic home. After hearing some strange noises on the roof, miniature spacemen begin tormenting her. She fights back, and eventually climbs up to the roof and gets a good look at the flying saucer that had landed up there. She understands enough to know to destroy it as the last surviving astronaut transmits a warning message about her planet. She doesn’t understand much of what has transpired, but the earthlings watching at home may feel a little queasy afterwards.
“It’s a Good Life” (1961)
A rural town in the US is run by a telepathic little boy named Anthony. Cut off from the rest of the world, all residents defer to him, and think only good thoughts around him, lest they be punished. Unhappy thoughts can land people in the “cornfield,” or as monstrosities that are better off banished. Some of the adults have reached their breaking points, and on the night of a birthday party, the scene is set for someone to take a stand. This episode is often cited as the best or most memorable in the series, with good reason.
A new Twilight Zone series from the early 2000s offered up a sequel episode called “It’s Still a Good Life,” about Anthony’s daughter using the powers she inherited. Rod Serling had been working on a full-length film version of the episode before his death in 1975, and an updated and reasonable version of the story made it into the ill-fated 1983 Twilight Zone: The Movie.
This episode was adapted by Rod Serling from a short story of the same name by Jerome Bixby. Ironically, it can be found in the Alfred Hitchcock anthology Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories for Late at Night, where Hitchcock introduces the story as one of many in the collection that he enjoys, but isn’t sure how to go about adapting for television.
“Living Doll” (1963)
Readers who are scared of dolls: forget it. Just skip this one. This is basically the original “killer doll” feature, and for what it’s worth, it’s creepier than the Chuckies of the horror genre. A dysfunctional family unit’s troubles are exacerbated when the daughter brings home Talky Tina, who immediately tells her owner’s stepfather that she doesn’t like him very much. The stepfather believes his wife is playing some sort of vengeful practical joke because she doesn’t like the way he treats his stepdaughter. He decides to get rid of Talky Tina, who doesn’t stay gone for very long. Eventually the stepfather gives up on his useless attempts to destroy Tina, but she’s not the sort who forgives and forgets.
Talky Tina was inspired by the then-popular Chatty Cathy dolls, and was even voiced by the same actress that gave Cathy her voice. That would be June Foray–you know, Rocky from Rocky and Bullwinkle, Granny from Loony Tunes, Cindy Lou Who from the animated How the Grinch Stole Christmas…
“Nick of Time” (1960)
Wiiliam Shatner–um, Don Carter–and his new wife Pat’s car breaks down in Ridgefield, Ohio, a town “on the outskirts of the Twilight Zone.” They stop in a diner and their table has a “mystic seer,” a penny fortune-teller machine. They begin to find that the answers the seer gives to their questions are relevant to their situation–Pat holding out that it is just coincidence, as Don becomes fascinated by the seer’s apparent powers. As their drama fizzles out, a second, older couple enters the diner and begins to entreat the seer.
“Printer’s Devil” (1963)
Burgess Meredith is usually characterized as little more than his hapless banker character on another Twilight Zone episode, “Time Enough at Last.” However, Meredith plays villainy just as well as anything else, and it’s hard to believe the reporter who can twist fate to suit his paper’s sensationalist needs is even remotely related to the banker who just wants to have some time alone to read. Meredith is eventually done in by his own tricks, but the viewer is left uneasy, as is has been more than implied that Meredith’s character is more than a mere man, and Rod Serling’s closing narration suggests that it “wouldn’t be like him” to be gone for good.
This is one of the few hour-long episodes that holds up well in its extended time slot. It was also adapted from the short story “The Devil, You Say” for the screen by the story’s author himself, Charles Beaumont.
“A Stop at Willoughby” (1960)
Rod Serling’s favorite episode of the show’s first season is about an overworked businessman named Gart Williams. Riding home on the train from New York City to Connecticut, he falls asleep and wakes up in a nineteenth-century train car. He sees an idyllic town called Willoughby out of the likes of a Mark Twain novel (as his wife so venomously dismisses it, when he tells her about it that night) and continues to see it during his next few commutes. Despite being told there is no Willoughby stop, he finally decides to get off there and abandon his old life for his dream world.
“To Serve Man” (1962)
This is one of those episodes that is a part of pop culture eternally; when you hear the climactic revelation you’ll be saying, “That’s where that line comes from?” It has been quoted in The Simpsons, in the first Madagascar movie, Futurama… And so on. Benevolent telepathic aliens touch down upon earth and make it a paradise for mankind. Weapons are discarded, war has ended, crops are plentiful… but the aliens have left behind a book, and translators are wracking their brains over it. If only they could figure out what the importance of the book is… Of course, they do, and even the most benevolent acts from earlier take on a sinister tone. The revelation isn’t even the most frightening part of the episode: Facing one of the aliens afterwards and knowing the narrator’s inescapable fate is the most frightening part.
This episode is based on the short Damon Knight story of the same name. Nineties kids, if the story sounds vaguely familiar to you, you probably read it in elementary school in Bruce Coville’s Book of Aliens: Tales to Warp Your Mind.
The run of the original Twilight Zone series ran for 156 episodes, and these episodes are really the “must-haves” of a Halloween marathon. There are even more scary episodes, like “The Dummy” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which didn’t make it on this list because they haven’t aged well, or the themes have become popular in years since and have been done much better, even when parodied by The Simpsons. (Watch both parts, and imagine you’re about six when you do so.) This list is just meant to start you off.
There are even more episodes that are comedic, straight mysteries, political and social commentary, and optimistic tales that are meant to celebrate the triumph of man’s spirit. If you enjoyed these episodes, it’s worth checking some of the others out, though like any other show, there are a few clunkers scattered here and there. If you want to modernize things a little, Twilight Zone: The Movie is actually pretty good, and even the eighties television show has a few standout episodes, although the old television marathons only ever covered the original series.
So why not sit back, relax, and take a visit to the fifth dimension, the middle ground between light and shadow, science and superstition, located between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge, this Halloween?