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Uncanniness in Storytelling
In order to assess the rhetoric present in specific installments of The Twilight Zone, one must first consider the role of the Zone as a location. The fictional Twilight Zone is a memorably unique and flexible setting, understood less as a fixed locale and more as a changed quality of the familiar, existing world. While most television shows either take place in actual areas that can be travelled to or fictional ones that remain obediently in the realm of make-believe, the Twilight Zone fails to fall neatly into either category. One could utter the phrase, “I think we’ve just entered the Twilight Zone” without ever moving from, for example, a booth in a diner. This would be understood by many Americans – even those unfamiliar with the program – not as a statement of actual motion, but rather to mean that something odd, inexplicable, or unnerving had occurred or was ongoing. Just humming or whistling the iconic four notes of the show’s theme song is often sufficient in communicating that something weird is going on.
The fact that the Zone can overlap our daily lives does not, however, rob it of its spatial significance; characters are described as entering and exiting the Zone, and terms used to refer to it range from “dimension” in the introduction to “shadowland,” “territory,” and “region,” depending on the episode. Rather, its applicability to the known world (and thus its ambiguity) is what Rod Serling and the other screenwriters use to safely and effectively communicate social commentary. The Twilight Zone itself can be almost limitlessly interpreted, allowing for a great deal of flexibility within its scripting.
One popular theory is that the Zone is a spatial manifestation of human fear and hysteria. As the introductory narration states, it “lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge” (Serling). Numerous episodes feature paranoid characters, stripped of their empathy by fear and mob psychology. The drawback of this theory, though, is that it fails to account for episodes that are more whimsical than threatening, like “The Bewitchin’ Pool,” in which a pair of siblings escape from their squabbling parents into a magical otherworld where a woman called “Aunt T” cares for them. “A Stop at Willoughby,” about a man yearning to visit an idyllic town outside of time, also does not conform to this understanding, its tone mostly wistful and nostalgic despite its macabre twist ending.
The episode “Jess-Belle” implies that the Zone might be a place for the culmination of folklore, superstition, and paranormal anomalies, when Serling says that it “has existed in many lands, in many times. It has roots in history, in something that happened long, long ago, and got told about and handed down from one generation of folk to the other.” This would explain how the impossible becomes possible once one has crossed over into the Zone. It may be a land of another kind of anomaly, though. Egregious acts of inhumanity, made outliers by their extremity, seem to appear throughout the series. In “Death’s Head Revisited,” an episode in which a Nazi general returns to a concentration camp that he oversaw, Serling reveals that “a place like Dachau cannot exist only in Bavaria. By its nature, by its very nature, it must be one of the populated areas of the Twilight Zone.” The series seems to be working heavily with the relationship between the supernatural, or unexplained, and observable human evils.
Many of these narrations provide information about the relationship between the Zone and the world we know. As a dimension, it can exist concurrently with ours and add a new spectrum of possibility. In “I Dream of Genie,” Serling makes reference to a “personal Twilight Zone,” implying that the Zone can be initiated by an individual and experienced internally, like a sensation or thought process. The passage regarding Dachau, though, makes perhaps the strongest connection between the physical world and the Zone by implying that characteristics of certain locations can make them more susceptible to the Twilight Zone. The common theme between each interpretation is the capacity of the Zone to lie “between” two points, thus inhabiting both and neither simultaneously. This is what allows it to conform to Sigmund Freud’s definition of uncanniness, which requires the subject to have qualities both intimately familiar and jarringly unfamiliar that evoke a conflicted fear response. This uncanniness of the setting as well as uncanny elements in individual episodes succeed in creating a sense of unease; this is partially why the sci-fi, horror, and fantasy show is often misremembered as an exclusively horror program, when few of the storylines are actually outright frightening.
By drawing the viewer into an uncanny territory, the program bypasses several barriers that would otherwise obstruct the communication of its message. This enables The Twilight Zone to tell stories using two dominant techniques: allegory and hypothetical conjecture. In a reality clearly distinguished from our own in that it violates our known laws, the actions of and relationships between characters can represent – without directly reflecting – actions and relationships in our society through analogy. In the episodes that seem to be set in a time and place not unlike our own, the events are clarified as hypothetical, played out within the Zone just as they are played out as threats and abstract anxieties in the realm of the unknown and imagined.
A prime example of allegorical storytelling in The Twilight Zone is the well-known episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” in which a bizarre power outage befalls a suburban neighborhood. When a young boy suggests that extraterrestrials are the culprit, distrust begins to build among neighbors. Mob psychology and paranoia cause the group to rapidly deteriorate and turn on one another in chaos. By associating the Twilight Zone with fantasy and otherworldliness, its creators made it possible for stories like this one to initially be perceived as science fiction, speculating on less politically charged conversations – in this case, alien life. Taking into account Serling’s addition at the end, though, as well as the historical context, it is clear that this episode is driven by overtones of the Red Scare, a period of heightened anxiety about the rise of communism.
While Serling never suggests that our future may hold unnamed extraterrestrials that toy with our electricity to incite discord within our communities, other episodes are stationed much closer to home. “The Shelter” follows a well-respected doctor whose home bomb shelter becomes highly sought after when an atomic bomb warning is issued. As family friends compete for inclusion in his already cramped shelter, bonds are broken and trust destroyed. Once it is announced that the bomb scare has been dismissed as a satellite and civility returns to the crowd, the mortified doctor wonders aloud whether something truly was lost, even in the absence of an attack. The “Twilight Zone” quality of this episode, then, comes not from the plausibility of its events but rather from the ambiguous space in which they occur. Serling clarifies, “It is not meant to be prophetic, it need not happen. It's the fervent and urgent prayer of all men of goodwill that it never shall happen. But in this place, in this moment, it does happen.” In this case the message is delivered hypothetically. Though fully possible, it is a story that must be told in the Zone in order for this aspect of human nature to be shown in all its dimensions without an immediate recoil from the audience.
The dystopian plotline of “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You” manages to employ both a hypothetical and allegorical structure. An eighteen year old girl is having reservations about a near-mandatory medical procedure that everyone undergoes when they turn nineteen. The procedure, which makes its patients identical to a model body of their choice and prolongs their lifespan, seems to be what drove her father to take his own life. The girl passionately advocates for individuality and the value of intellect, but everyone around her tries to persuade her with promises of happiness and beauty. The operation, the head doctor argues, eliminates inequality by establishing physical homogeny. While Serling’s narration hypothesizes that “in an age of plastic surgery, body building and an infinity of cosmetics” this operation does not seem completely impossible, this episode’s commentary is not exclusively on beauty standards. The German-accented head doctor (who appears mostly in shadows) evokes associations with the rhetoric of the Third Reich, which promised cultural purification through creation of a single Aryan race. Once this connection is made, the episode can be understood as an entreaty for diversity of all kinds, especially in the qualities that lead us to make prejudgments.
The Twilight Zone, as a setting, is highly compatible with indirect storytelling like analogies and speculations on a potentiality. This compatibility rises from its status as an uncanny space and enabled the show’s writers to communicate controversial, progressive ideas without completely becoming social pariahs. When something needed to be said but most forms of entertainment encouraged stagnation and a resistance to new ideas, the Twilight Zone was the platform which – through a necessary suspension of audience disbelief – made it audible.