Charles Beaumont’s first episode for “the Twilight Zone” explores the power of the imagination. It’s main question: “Could someone imagine him- or herself to death?”
The mind is undoubtedly powerful. It creates much of our
reality. Self-fulfilling prophecies, the placebo effect, the law of attraction,
“If you can dream it, you can do it…” These are the ways the mind bends
When the psychiatrist’s new patient shows up in his office,
the patient is concerned and facing a catch-22. If he goes to sleep, his dreams
will deliver him a shock his heart can’t withstand; if he stays awake much
longer, his heart will give out. He tells the doctor that the doctor won’t be
able to help him. The patient has already made up his mind, all that’s left is
for his body to figure out how to fulfill the reality the patient sees.
The same is true in our lives. How we think of something is
what it becomes, and we can imagine both good and bad things. When someone
doesn’t call you, do you imagine something like a car wreck or do you think his
or her phone has run out of battery power? If it’s the first, they may not be
in an accident, but your body reacts in the same way as if that person had
experienced something terrible. You face worry and stress even if nothing has
happened. Removing worry from the equation is hard, but if you can achieve it
and face reality as it comes, you’ll be healthier and happier.
This classic and much-lauded episode features acclaimed
actor Burgess Meredith as Henry Bemis, a man who loves to read in a world where
readers aren’t welcomed. His boss derides him for being a reader who isn’t
dedicated to his job and instructs Bemis to stop reading at work and at lunch.
His wife is worse. She scribbles on every page of a poetry book Bemis hid in
his chair. When he tries to read it to her, at her request, he sees the
vandalism. She then snatches the book and tears out the pages – one by one.
This world is not for him, much like the gunslinger world wasn’t for Mr.
When everything is blown up, Bemis survives. He has plenty
of food, but the isolation and the lack of entertainment start to get to him.
Bemis finds his salvation in a destroyed public library where he is able to
pile up books sorted by month and year. Then the unthinkable happens.
What Bemis did to deserve his fate is unclear – except for
his last phrase. That’s not fair. It’s not fair. And so it isn’t, because life
isn’t always fair, and this may be how Rod Serling reminds us that not all
villains get their come-uppance and not all good men get what they long for.
In the not-too-distant future, humanity is going to have to
decide what it should do with artificial intelligence. As much as human beings
have a fear of playing God, there’s going to be a time when artificial
intelligence is indistinguishable from human intelligence. At that point, it
will need to be called intelligence or people will face the problems associated
with slavery, its consequences and what it means in relationship to being
Unfortunately, people aren’t yet equipped to understand when
the change will take place. What separates the artificial from the organic? The
programmed from the born? Especially when so many people are programmed through
their culture, their religion, and their media choices.
In “The Lonely,” the captain of the rescue ship, who also
happened to bring the robot in the ship has no moral dilemma. He knows who is
real and who is not, and he makes his decision accordingly. But for the
prisoner, the robot was a living being with emotions who saved his humanity and
kept him from isolation-related madness (something addressed in “Where Is
Everybody?” and “Time Enough at Last” and, to a lesser extent “Sixteen
What happens when a machine saves a man from loneliness and
madness? What happens when our phones and computers do the same?
When the Devil comes calling, regardless of the name he’s using and what he looks like, turn him down flat. Unless your name’s Johnny, you can’t beat the Devil. In ‘Escape Clause,’ the Devil offers hypochondriac and professional worrier Walter Bedecker immortality, invincibility and the retention of his current physical attributes, more or less, in exchange for Bedecker’s soul. Bedecker tries to find the Devil’s loophole. After all, if he Bedecker lives forever, he doesn’t need a soul. Finding none, the Faustian bargain is struck.
The problem is that immortality and invincibility make life
dull. Bedecker does everything to find a thrill to get the sense of living
again. Drinking poison, getting hit by a bus and a subway, and everything else
fails. Without the possibility of death or harm, life becomes unlivable and
Mortality is what gives humanity its edge. The adrenaline
rush that shows we’re still alive accompanied with the compassion knowing that
others are just as likely to die as we are help us create a world where people
are able to live up to their potential if they choose to. Sickness contrasts
with health. Happiness contrast with sadness. These contradictions are what
allow a person to have a full life.
Enjoy the good times, and bless the hard times. Each of them
together are the stuff that life is made from.
You can’t go home again. People try to return home, to their
past, to their roots, but life doesn’t work that way. Sometimes, however, you
do have to find its memory to improve your life today. Martin Sloan arrives
near his home town and walks right into “the Twilight Zone” and his 11th
summer. Once he realizes when he is, he tries to find his younger self, Marty,
and reconnect with his mother and father.
The consequences are drastic and enervating, but his father
comes to Martin to return his wallet. Dad knows who the older Martin is, but he
urges Martin to leave. There’s only one summer per customer and this summer
belongs to Marty, who shouldn’t have to share it.
Dad hypothesizes that Martin is wrong. Maybe, there are
calliopes and merry-go-rounds near Martin, but he hasn’t been able to see them
because he’s been too focused on the past and looking backwards. Dad says that
Martin needs to start looking forward in his current life to enjoy his future.
Like Martin, we need to live in the present to enjoy the
future. We can look to the past to draw strength, but it would be foolish to
attempt to go back there… because you can’t go home again, even in “the
When faced with the reality of aging and the passage of time 20 to 25 years after her last big movie, Barbara Jean Trenton retreats in to her study. Curtains drawn, she sits in a chair watching her old movies and drinking – day after day, week after week. While she would welcome a starring role as a leading lady, she cannot accept that her star has faded in Hollywood.
When reality finally catches up with her, she rejects it and
claims her home as a sanctuary returned to the 1930s. She escapes into the
past, watching her movies and wishing for a better day, one that probably never
existed but looked sweeter with time. When she returns to the past, it’s
two-dimensional, but it fits her because she herself is shallow. She values
looks over substance, and status over possibility.
Barbara Jean Trenton gets her wish and is seemingly none the
worse for wear, but the days past aren’t always what they a cracked up to be.
Should we move backward toward the comfort of our nostalgia, or should we look
forward to a better tomorrow? A theme that the Twilight Zone explores further
in “Walking Distance.”
Town drunk Al Denton is more than he seems. The other men in
town abuse him, make fun of him and make him sing for his drinks. When Fate
steps in, Denton is forced to come to grips with his gunslinger past.
Formerly, Denton was the fastest gunslinger in the area.
Every day men would come in to challenge him to a duel. Every day he would
start drinking earlier in the day. One day he killed a 16-year old; that’s when
he put up his guns.
Denton lives in a time that is contrary to his nature. He
doesn’t want to kill people, even if he’s good at it, because he realizes that
one day he won’t be fast enough. He’ll be the one dead in the street.
Unfortunately, word gets out that he has quit drinking and he has bested the
fastest gun in town. Denton receives warning that another gunfighter is coming
to challenge him.
Denton couldn’t forgive himself for killing the 16-year old
because there was no point in doing so. If he had been able to, someone would
have shown up the next day and the day after that. Denton would’ve kept having
to fight men and boys who thought they were fast with a gun. Forgiveness can
only happen when the behavior that has brought on the need for forgiveness has
ended, and Denton had no control over ending the behavior without dropping into
the bottom of a bottle.
It’s not until Fate steps in and lends a, uh, hand that
Denton is blessed to be able to live a life free from the threat of his times.
He is redeemed, and he his able to forgive himself. Some people aren’t able to
free themselves of a situation because their times don’t allow it; they need
help from someone or the luck of Fate. If you can get yourself out of whatever
situation is keeping yourself from forgiveness, do it.
Death comes in with a gentle kindness though obtuse in his
assertions. Maybe, he needs people to recognize that their time is up, or he is
unable to tell them outright. He is firm in his proposition but explains the
ways out that Lou Bookman could take. The last one suits Bookman’s purposes: he
never got to make a big picture, one that opened the skies. Death grants
bookman a reprieve and asks him when he thinks the pitch will be made. Bookman
shuts the door on Death and shouts that he is done pitching.
Death follows Bookman pleading with him to reconsider and
telling him there are consequences to his actions. Bookman refuses to listen
until he hears squealing tires and one of his neighbor children is hit by a
truck. Death had to take someone if Bookman wasn’t going to come willingly.
Death will arrive for the girl at midnight, leaving Bookman to consider what
has happened and what he can do to stop Death, who will no longer listen to
Bookman has two things in his heart. He has really wanted to
make a big pitch and never gotten to, and he loved the children in his
neighborhood. No one has to fear death who accomplishes in this life his or her
heart’s desires and loves children. That’s true of Bookman, who has his last
wish fulfilled and saves a little girl in the process. If there is something
that you want to accomplish go out there and do it, but do it with kindness.
When people are isolated, they get depressed and go crazy. In real life, babies fail to thrive if they are denied human touch. In the middle ages, banishment was an equivalent punishment to death. It denied people access to their homes, their friends, and their support systems. For many, it was a literal death sentence without an executioner. In its first episode, Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” openly addresses the need people have for human contact. It’s the moral of the story, but it isn’t the entire story.
The main character opens the story on a dusty road headed toward a diner that has hot coffee on the stove but is deserted. He doesn’t know who he is. There’s no one in the diner to help him or to help identify him. This character’s identity is missing because he doesn’t have anyone to measure himself against. He doesn’t have people who reflect him and tell him who he is. He has no context.
The first identifier he remembers is his nationality. He’s
American. People draw a strong identity from their country and their
birthplace. When abroad, Americans find each other and ask where the other one
is from. It’s often the first question before what one does for a living. His
job is the second thing He remembers. He’s in the Air Force.
But this character is still missing his identity. What’s his name? Who is his family? Why is he in a deserted town? Was a bomb dropped? He doesn’t know, and it’s not until he’s back among his Air Force command that he remembers everything that happened before the town. He has people to help him remember who he is. It takes a strong sense of identity to withstand isolation for any length of time. It takes others to remind us who we are, especially when we lose ourselves.