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Rhetorical Messages in the Uncanny Valley
Because uncanny spaces are inherently useful for removing viewers from their comfort zones while keeping the content eerily recognizable, the show was ideal for its writers to convey social commentary. Ambiguity was a potent rhetorical device during a time period dominated by absolutes and strict binaries – American versus un-American, whites versus people of color, men versus women, and heroes versus villains. To complicate social and political assumptions, conversations had to take place in a locale free of those perceived certainties. The Zone is the pinnacle of this freedom in practice.
The rhetorical strength of The Twilight Zone lies in its rare but striking deviations from expectation. Just as a line in a strictly metered poem draws attention when it defies the established meter, thus garnering a stronger reaction from its reader, episodes of The Twilight Zone that seem to consciously reach outside of its established space have an increased potential for impact. The episode “Shadow Play” flirts with this technique in its closing narration:
But who ever thought that reality could be a dream? We exist, of course, but how, in what way? As we believe, as flesh and blood human beings, or are we simply parts of someone's feverish, complicated nightmare? Think about it, and then ask yourself do you live here, in this country, in this world, or do you live instead in the Twilight Zone? (Serling)
With this inquiry, Serling not only acknowledges the viewer but also dispels any notions that the Zone is distinct and removed from our reality. Audiences are encouraged to contemplate the Twilight Zone’s relationship to the world we consider home. This subtly places the events of the series in a different context, raising additional questions as to whether other episodes – perhaps the political allegories – could be reflecting or illuminating aspects of the non-Zone world as well.
Hints like the one “Shadow Play” pave the way for complications of ideology and ethics by complicating perceptions of reality. Once the viewer has begun to critically contemplate the gray areas of spatiality and cognition, they may be more receptive to the problematizing of other topics, even controversial ones. The episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” an analogy for Red Scare hysteria and its toll on American communities, ends with another, more targeted narrative statement:
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. (Serling)
A number of unexpected elements are working together to achieve Serling’s desired effect here. Though the residents of Maple Street voice their anxieties in ways clearly reflective of McCarthy and Cold War-era ideologies, no mention of – or even allusion to – nuclear weaponry is made until the closing narration. Characters are accused of spending late hours staring up at the stars or working on mysterious radios in their basements, all bearing implications of allegiance to extraterrestrial forces, but not to the Communist Party. The social commentary, then, comes not purely from allegorical parallels but from the creators of the show themselves.
In a rare instance, the Zone itself is secondary to the behaviors of its inhabitants. Though otherworldly invaders are revealed to be the perpetrators of the electrical anomalies, this is merely an afterthought, suggesting that the characters could have descended into frightened commotion even in the absence of an intercession from outside forces. The audience understands, then, that this was not a story that needed to take place within the Twilight Zone in order to be plausible, but perhaps is one that belonged to this space nonetheless because of its contentiousness. Serling is communicating that we should not allow personal prejudice and uninformed paranoia to eclipse our sense of humanity and empathy, a sentiment that – no matter how gently worded – could easily have resulted in accusations of communist sympathizing for Serling’s writing staff. Behind the veneer of generality and analogy, though, the episode aired successfully and became one of the most studied and iconic installments in the series.
Possibly the most outspoken message delivered within the uncanny bounds of the Twilight Zone appears in “I Am the Night, Color Me Black.” In this episode, a man is scheduled to be hanged at dawn for the murder of a bigoted neighbor. The townspeople are eager to deliver what they believe to be justice, and the condemned man is still seething with hatred despite the fact that the act was committed in self-defense. On the morning of his execution, however, the sun fails to rise. The town is trapped in darkness and though they carry out the hanging, the preacher speculates that the darkness is the physical manifestation of their mutual hatred: the townspeople’s vengeful bloodlust and the lack of repentance on behalf of the hanged man both. A radio transmission at the end reveals that the same darkness has descended upon other violently divided areas of the world, followed up by Serling’s monologue:
A sickness known as hate; not a virus, not a microbe, not a germ – but a sickness nonetheless, highly contagious, deadly in its effects. Don't look for it in the Twilight Zone – look for it in a mirror. Look for it before the light goes out altogether. (Serling)
With this closing imperative, Serling denies the audience the impersonality of allegory or the uncertainty of hypotheticals. Instead he delivers a plea that, once more, moves our understanding of the episode entirely beyond the Zone.
These events had to take place within the supernatural Twilight Zone in order for the darkness to become corporeal and thus communicate a foreboding warning, but the question of the rhetorical “so what?” still lingers once the twist has been revealed, and Serling’s narration answers it. This isn’t a generalization about all forms of hate, nor is it specifically refined to the characters in the episode. The audience is asked to apply the lessons vicariously learned to themselves, which simultaneously expands and specifies the proposed moral. By calling upon viewers to reflect critically upon their personal behaviors and predispositions, Serling is allowing individual interpretations of “hate” to guide their conclusion-making processes. At the same time, this also results in more relevant contemplations of social and political ethics, thus narrowing the scope of “hate” addressed, and making it more potent.
Although these episodes stand out as deviations from the show’s established structure, sometimes making the Zone itself conceptually secondary in order to achieve the desired effect, the setting of the show still plays a critical role in the delivery of rhetorical messages. The Zone is capable of providing a sense of security through vagueness at times, and cutting through the conceptual fog to reveal cultural criticism at others. As Masahiro Mori describes a figurative hiker traversing the uncanny valley, so must The Twilight Zone’s viewers be willing to expose themselves to the intimately unsettling depths of the valley in order to hopefully arrive at some summit of truth. This is fitting enough, considering that in the show’s opening, Serling informs us that the Zone “lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge” – or in other words, somewhere along the incline of a valley.