Fifty-eight years after The Twilight Zone was first introduced to viewers in the United States, it remains something so thoroughly bound into our cultural imaginary that it almost escapes notice. How often do you hear yourself or someone near you respond to the odd or the eerie with that famous, atonal “doohdoo-doohdoo-doohdoo-doohdoo”? The show fundamentally changed the science fiction genre and used a still-novel platform to disseminate lessons in morality wrapped in stories of the bizarre, improbable, and of the perfectly, terrifyingly, believable. Take “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” for instance: in a short twenty-five minutes, Rod Serling (the show’s creator, lead writer, and narrator) used his platform to indict the very worst of humanity, illustrating our terrifying ability to tear ourselves apart in our desperate attempts to place blame and make sense of things we don’t understand. The show ends with the following narration:
“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill, and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own for the children, and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.”
May 11th has been set aside—by whom, no one seems to know—as a designated day to celebrate that seminal television series and its later big and small screen iterations. And, with a dash of the bizarreness and absurdity that is perfectly befitting a celebration of The Twilight Zone, May 11th has no real identifiable significance to the anthology series. It just a thing that …is.
The Twilight Zone is one of the first shows I was ever exposed to that managed to combine compelling storytelling, consistent moral and/or ethical lessons, while also offering substantive critiques of modern society: the show’s stories integrated Serling’s thoughts on war, on compassion, on beauty standards, on selfishness and greed, on the dangers of paranoia and nationalism, and so on. Serling was often hamstringed—by way of sponsor censorship—from being able to offer all the commentary on race that he wanted to give. And though there are some elements of the show that I’d be fine with leaving in the past (like all other art, it is a product of its time and place), the fifty-eight-year-old show has aged remarkably well—especially in the case of the show’s case studies of the complexity and, sometimes, danger of being a member of this often violent, paranoid, and self-doubting species we call “human.” Over the course show’s initial run and its subsequent revivals, the show stretched the bounds of conventional television storytelling, did a far better job of accurately portraying irony than Alanis Morissette did, and it helped to launch the careers of so many well-known actors: Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Julie Newmar, Robert Duvall, George Takei, James Doohan, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Charles Bronson, Dennis Hopper, Martin Landau, Jack Klugman… the list goes on.
So, let’s take this seemingly random day to celebrate Rod Serling’s masterpiece and all of the ways it has impacted the we ways in which we collectively think about and understand things. We can play some trivia, watch the 1983 film, or even watch the original anthology (CBS.com has all one hundred and fifty-six episodes available online). If you enjoy Easter eggs and intertextuality like I do, you can celebrate The Twilight Zone’s continuing, golden influence on the landscape of our popular culture by sitting down with some of the serial “offenders” of Twilight Zone referencing: the “Tree House of Horror” episodes from the The Simpsons and a number of Futurama episodes. Above all else, though, let’s appreciate the “dimension of imagination” that occupies the space between shadow and light, “between the pit of [human’s] fears and the summit of [humanity’s] knowledge.” Let’s cross over into The Twilight Zone
Yeah, but maybe let’s shoot for just “bizarre dreams” rather than nightmares. Cool? Cool.
I wish you a very interesting Twilight Zone Day!