As I pour through the archives of The Twilight Zone Podcast, I’m constantly faced with the question: What is it about the Twilight Zone that has made it such an iconic, lasting, and ground breaking series? Is it Buck Houghton‘s direction? Is it the format of the anthology series paired with a fantasy background? Is it Rod Serling– from his vision, to his award winning writing style, to his opening and closing narrations?
Yes, I think it’s all of that and more. But, going through a series of episodes on a long drive with my wife yesterday it struck me that the truth of the Twilight Zone’s power is in how it deals with one subject: “loss”.
Of course, not all Twilight Zones are about loss, but I would argue the best are. Here’s a very short list:
- Eye of the Beholder– loss of dignity and individuality
- Nightmare at 20,000 Feet– loss of rationality and courage
- The Hitch-hiker– loss of direction in life (or death) and certainty
- The Monsters are Due on Maple Street– loss of trust in your neighbours and community
- The Lonely– loss of hope and love
- The Obsolete Man– loss of faith in your government and place in the world
- Walking Distance– loss of childhood hopes and dreams
And the list could go on and on, as could the details of the loss for the protagonists. Loss is the key element to a powerful Twilight Zone; even when the episode ends badly for the protagonist. Rod Serling wrote two kinds of main characters- those who deserved a chance, and those who deserved a comeuppance. The difference in those resolutions are usually based on how the protagonists deal with loss. If the hero of the episode is running from their humanity towards selfishness and greed, they will- more often than not- end badly. Yet if they are genuinely good people who need a simple reminder of what’s important, the Twilight Zone provides a second chance.
So where is the Twilight Zone? It is an elsewhere place, a dimensional portal or wall that bumps in to all parallel worlds…
The Twilight Zone transcends faith, religion, and science. It knows of human frailty and its promise. It judges based on the hearts and actions of those within. Whether a natural mechanism or a religious force, the Twilight Zone certainly is focused on the “soul” within us all.
Or maybe the Twilight Zone is the ultimate Deus ex Machina for story. The representation of an ultimate test for humanity that writers can manifest?
In the essay, Innocence and Terror- the Heart of Horror, Robert R. McCammon identifies A Christmas Carol as a horror story that accepts both the “meaty” and the “brainy.” He writes: “I’m a writer of tales of terror. To me, the beauty and power of horror fiction is that every tale is a reinvention of the struggle between good and evil.”
And where better to pit that struggle that than “the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition… the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge…
The Twilight Zone. Lost and found.