The Twilight Zone wasn’t just weird. It was a warning.

Rod Serling at a diner table.

Editor’s Introduction: On January 20, 2017, a Scottish newspaper’s TV listing jokingly categorized the inauguration of Donald Trump as an episode of The Twilight Zone. This was not the first time that the ascension of an openly racist, misogynist, (and so many other “ists” we can’t possibly list them all), Twitter addicted reality TV star to the US’s highest office has been compared to the iconic mid-century television show. And, considering his administration’s steadfast commitment to “alternative facts,” we have no doubt it won’t be the last. These constant references made us want to know more about the actual series. We are very grateful to visual artist Tyler Snazelle for taking us on a return trip to the Twilight Zone and exploring its terrain. What she discovered is that, for Rod Serling, the series was never about “somewhere else.” For all its images of doors and windows in the opening credits, The Twilight Zone was always meant to be a mirror.

 

Image of Rod Serling with text that reads Every Superstate has one iron rule: Logic is an enemy and the truth is a menace.

Rod Serling (December 25, 1924 – June 28, 1975) was an American screenwriter and playwright who was best known for creating, writing, and narrating the Twilight Zone.  

The show famously opened with the iconic intro:

Image of Rod Serling with text from the opening of the Twilight Zone

The Twilight Zone aired for five seasons from 1959 to 1964. There were 156 episodes 92 of which Rod wrote. The show, which aired on CBS, is considered the first adult science-fiction anthology on television. 

Rod was a drama writer, and he tirelessly fought to bring real social issues into television. He believed in the power of media. Television was still young at this time, and he fought censorship because he knew if he could deliver hard topics via television, a medium that had quickly inserted itself into almost every American home, he could get people in households to discuss things like racism, sexism, narcissism, the cold war, the fear of nuclear destruction etc. Serling understood that the root of bigotry was ignorance. He desperately wanted to hold the mirror up for us as a culture so we could then change the ugly parts we saw in the reflection.

Serling and the Censors

Rod Serling sitting next to awards. Smoking.

In 1951, Rod decided to become a freelance television writer. In his previous job writing for a Cincinnati television station doing testimonials, he was hardly making money, and he had a family to support.
After moving to New York he worked his way up through the very beginning days of television to find success writing for a popular drama called PlayHouse 90. He won three Emmys for the show, which touched on sensitive issues – but not with out backlash and censorship by networks and sponsors. For example, in an interview given in 1959, he discusses how he wrote a piece called Noon on Doomsday which depicted the aftermath of the story of Emett Till, an African American teenager who was lynched in Mississippi at the age of 14 after being falsely accused of flirting with a white woman. The screenplay was changed by networks to suggest Till as an unnamed foreigner first, then it was moved to new England and finally to Alaska until the true message became a lukewarm idea, abstracted from operating in its truthful form.

In one form or another, censorship has always influenced media, since the very beginning of television. Capitalism follows consumerism, and it’s important to remember that television was designed as a product to be consumed. The shows viewers watched “for free” were primarily there to draw attention to commercials. This made network television an especially challenging medium for conveying subversive or politically charged ideas.

Much of the time censorship did a fine job of bastardizing the true potential of media as message or place for social conversation. When I think about what Rod Serling wanted in television drama it makes me dream of what that tool would look like with half the censorship.

1950s TV ad. Family of four watches television. Text reads TV adds so much family happiness.

CENSORSHIP KEY PLAYERS

  1. THE NETWORK
  2. THE SPONSORS/AGENCY
  3. THE AUDIENCE THEMSELVES (what problems people are willing to face)

Rod also believed in the dangers of pre-censorship, which works by having the prior knowledge of the red tape, so one avoids difficult topics before even approaching them. Tired of battling for creative integrity, and in the time of Communist witch-hunts and finger-pointing, it was difficult to present objectively the flaws in American culture without putting oneself at risk.

Protesters in 1950 demanding the release of the “Hollywood Ten”who were blacklisted and incarcerated for refusing to refusing to testify before HUAC.

The risks weren’t theoretical. Serling embarked on his television career during the height of the McCarthy era. In 1950, three former FBI agents and a right-wing television producer published a pamphlet called Red Channels listing the names of 151 writers, directors and performers claimed to have been members of communist organizations. As a result of their actions, many of them were jailed and all lost their jobs. The blacklist eventually grew to over 320 names, including Leonard Bernstein, Charlie Chaplin, Aaron Copland, Arthur Miller, and Orson Welles. Many others were fired without being on the blacklist simply as a result of being called to testify before HUAC (The House Un-American Activities Committee).*

Rod knew that he would have to turn to mythology, and mask complex truths under heavy metaphors to present important topics in drama. On the surface, he “renounced” the battle of fighting for factual truth in television, all the while masquerading The Twilight Zone as simple science fiction. Understanding the show’s true agenda required viewers to take a closer look. In a time when situation comedies and game shows dominated the air waves, Twilight Zone stood out as an example not only of the artistic potential of television in terms of writing and special effects, but also of the power television had as social commentary and a thought-provoking medium.

The Eye of the Beholder

Screenshot from Twilight Zone. Two pig-faced nurses restrain a blonde woman.
Janet has undergone her eleventh treatment (the maximum number legally allowed) in an attempt to look “normal”.The doctor becomes displeased and questions why Janet or anyone must be judged on their outer beauty. The nurse warns him not to speak so as it is considered treason.

Had it not been for the show’s skill at masking its real life focus with fiction, it would likely have been forbidden from making its way into living rooms. Among the many societal issues addressed by the show were the topics of racism, warfare and government corruption. Upon its release The Twilight Zone caused audiences to think about the world around them. And as a result it became enormously popular. It also contained an unpredictable mixture of fantasy, drama, science fiction, suspense and horror. Always with Rod introducing and narrating the film. Unlike the standard television fare, Twilight Zone endings were often grim, ambiguous or unresolved.

It was so popular it was given 2 series refreshers, one in 1985 and the other in 2002. They continue to run on syndication. The Twilight Zone is best remembered for its approach to science fiction, dark subject matter, dramatic soundtrack, and narrator. Because of these elements it is a powerful source of inspiration for science fiction and psychological thrillers today.

Screenshot from Twilight Zone. A crowd of people at night waiting for a hanging.
“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.” (Closing narration from I Am The Night – Color Me Black, Ep146)

Moreover, Twilight Zone used myth and storytelling to portray contemporary social topics through metaphor, a practice that must be inherent to our very existence and adaptation. However through this new medium of television, Rod Serling was surely an example of how to sneak the message into the medium (to borrow from Marshall McLuhan). Perhaps this kind of mythologizing works because it gives us the option to look into the mirror. We have an invitation to see past the metaphorical curtain and if we refuse, we have only ourselves to blame for missing an opportunity to look deeper.

Rod Serling, you really kept it real. Thanks.

Rod Serling at a diner table introducing Twilight Zone episode

For Further Reading We Recommend:

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/11/13/how-a-war-weary-vet-created-the-twilight-zone.html

http://www.rodserling.com

* Editor’s Note: Speaking of the Hollywood blacklist, check out actor Lionel Stander’s HUAC testimony, which names HUAC as the “Un-American” ones. Anything sound familiar? (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hollywood_blacklist)
“I know of a group of fanatics who are desperately trying to undermine the Constitution of the United States by depriving artists and others of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness without due process of law … I can tell names and cite instances and I am one of the first victims of it … [This is] a group of ex-Fascists and America-Firsters and anti-Semites, people who hate everybody including Negroes, minority groups and most likely themselves … [T]hese people are engaged in a conspiracy outside all the legal processes to undermine the very fundamental American concepts upon which our entire system of democracy exists.”
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