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Though the The Twilight Zone was a pioneer of the medium in many ways, it was not the first to fit definitions of Freud’s “uncanny,” however unwittingly. In fact, many American TV shows in the late 1950s and early 60s unintentionally became uncanny in their atmospheres, at least in retrospect. In the midst of seemingly constant, palpable anxieties about communism, the Cold War, and nuclear weapons, family-centric sitcoms came to the forefront of American entertainment. Programs like Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (Schwartz 407) presented viewers with safe, idyllic versions of the American household so far displaced from reality that they almost seem to take place in another dimension entirely. This era of television is now practically synonymous with sugary characters and low-stakes plotlines, while unscripted American life was rife with nuclear explosion drills and the paranoia of an ongoing communist witch hunt.
However eerie it may be to watch carefree families navigate hardships to such extremes as a broken headlight or a son’s poor grades in physics, seemingly oblivious to political tensions and social inequality, there are several relatively simple explanations for this dissonance. For one thing, television programs followed in the footsteps of their radio predecessors by allowing corporations to associate their merchandise with any episode they sponsored. The result of this was some fairly blatant product placement and a symbiotic, but restrictive relationship between companies and TV writers; products sold best when featured alongside smiling, affluent families, not nuclear threats and social unrest. Perhaps even more influential was the perceived responsibility of entertainment media to avoid representations of a fearful or divided America, lest national postwar morale be compromised. Similarly, writing that was in any way critical of the United States was at risk of having its author deemed a communist sympathizer (Boulton 1230). Individuals bearing such accusations in the era of McCarthyism were often blacklisted by Hollywood executives, and even those who were able to prove their innocence were stuck with tarnished reputations long after.
In understanding the popularity of these types of shows, we must also consider the predictable appeal of the fantasy that they presented. One could argue that the writing style of the innocuous family sitcom was less a form of deception or denial and more the deliberate creation of a coping mechanism for the masses. What better way to escape from threats of communism and nuclear annihilation than by closely following the hijinks of a family for whom those threats didn’t exist? No matter the motive, though, the effect is the same: these shows feel uneasy and artificial to many of us now, recognizable as 50s and 60s households, but exempt from the contextual truths that defined the era.
The Twilight Zone’s journey into uncanniness was a much more calculated one. Rod Serling, a staunch liberal and political activist, intended for the show to draw attention to social prejudices and various other evils of human nature. However, sandwiched between ideologically sanitized family comedies, game shows, and ever-popular and numerous westerns (Hand 41) – not to mention paid advertisements – Serling and his co-writers found that this was not a task easily achieved. His wife, Carol Serling, recalls the effect of sponsors’ interests on the show’s content:
You couldn’t deal with gas for a certain episode about the Holocaust because the gas company was sponsoring the show! … He wrote a script about a young black man that was killed in the south. He felt very strongly about this, the sponsors got hold of it and told him he had to change the locale, the time of the script, etc. By the time the script went on, it was placed in the 1880s instead of 1950, in the southwest, and the victim was a Mexican kid. The whole thing was totally changed, and Rod said that by the time the script got on the air, the script had turned to dust. (Qtd. in Hand 41)Between federal censorship, commanding corporate sponsors, and a target audience that had otherwise been coddled by its clean-scrubbed family programming, cultural criticism in the entertainment sphere seemed nearly impossible. From this challenge rose a need for a different creative space, one that reflected modern society enough to allow for relevant commentary but was also inventive enough to work primarily through analogy. Serling had to make statements within a territory that was ambiguous enough to lure viewers into a sense of security; it could not disturb their preconceptions that the program was purely a work of fiction dealing with the otherworldly. Luckily, the conceptual Twilight Zone itself was already a fertile breeding ground for these kinds of narratives.
Though outside forces interceded before the show could properly address the lynching death of Emmett Till, The Twilight Zone still had the potential to touch on broader issues, provided that they were approached from a less direct angle. Rod Serling was well aware of this. For the most part, the show stayed within the bounds of sci-fi and fantasy, frequently dealing with time and space travel, dystopias, and supernatural anomalies. Social commentary, however, remained central to nearly every episode. In simple terms, Serling himself explains how this was achievable: “A Martian can say things that a Republican or Democrat can’t” (qtd. in Murray). Descriptive introductions of the Zone as a “shadowland” and “middle ground” were fully realized as the show dealt almost exclusively in metaphor. Even the storylines set dangerously close to home – like “The Shelter,” an episode about neighbors descending into selfish hysteria at the threat of atomic annihilation – are clarified as being fully hypothetical, played out only in the Zone.
Techniques like this – drawing real-world issues into analogy in order to avoid controversy – were not unique to The Twilight Zone, though Serling’s approach was certainly an innovative one. The rise of “creature features” also took place largely during this time period; swamp monsters, distorted humans, and boogeymen from outer space allowed for Cold War subtexts, personifying the anxieties of the political and scientific unknown with less risk of damage to creative reputations (Schwartz 407). The Twilight Zone was just the most flexible and sustained implementation of subtext. Supposedly, it was not the Earth we know, but a “dimension” that overlapped it and could be entered, traversed, and exited. In “The Passersby,” the Zone is “a strange province that knows neither north nor south.” In “Valley of the Shadow,” it is “a strange new world too incredible to be real, too real to be a dream.” It became an optimal gray area in which to negotiate ethical issues that were usually dealt with in black and white. The Twilight Zone told stories within the shadows, whether that meant areas of moral uncertainty, events that defied the laws of nature, or literal darkness or obscurity in the cinematography.
Physical shadows play a critical role in one of The Twilight Zone’s most popular and well-known episodes, “The Eye of the Beholder.” This installment follows a woman whose head is wrapped entirely in medical gauze as doctors and nurses with shadowed faces check up on her, occasionally slipping away to quietly discuss with one another the severity of her deformity. It develops that she has undergone a state-ordained cosmetic procedure intended to make her look normal. There are shots of television screens in the hospital showing a dictator-like figure (referenced only as “Leader”) giving a speech, espousing “glorious conformity” and a “unified society.” When the patient’s bandages are removed, it is revealed that she is a conventionally beautiful white woman with blonde hair. The hospital staff, however, have distorted features: sunken eyes, upturned noses, and contorted lips. The woman’s appearance is regarded with horror and revulsion, and not long after, Leader is revealed to have the same facial structure as the staff. The patient flees, coincidentally ending up in a room where a representative is waiting to take her to a secluded village to live out her days with others of “her kind.” The representative, too, is a conventionally handsome white man with chiseled features. He advises her to remember that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” before the episode comes to a close.
Erik Mortenson, author of “A journey into the shadows: The Twilight Zone's visual critique of the Cold War,” breaks down the visual style of this episode, making connections to McCarthyism and racial segregation. He argues that by depriving the audience of the characters’ physical appearance as most of the narrative development is taking place, Serling is creating a sterile environment in which judgments can be made free of prejudice. Rhetorically, this urges viewers to reevaluate their existing judgment systems and consider the toxicity of anti-minority societies. “Shadows not only conceal” Mortenson writes, “but also create a space for an unbiased encounter in the dénouement” (70).
The film techniques of “The Eye of the Beholder” achieve what the series as a whole strives for in its setting, which is an atmosphere close enough to home to have a communicable message, but foreign enough to bypass preconceptions. This is what gives it an uncanny quality. The social and political climate of the 50s and 60s did not necessarily create a popular demand for a show like The Twilight Zone, but it certainly enabled its conception. The Zone was an all-bets-off dimension overlapping our familiar territory, permitting the discussion – if through subtext and symbolism – of issues that otherwise would have gone largely unspoken.