“The Twilight Zone” — A Politically Aware, Subversive, and Thoughtful Take on Postwar American Values

It is impossible to measure the impact that Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone has had on television and on American popular culture in general. Countless later series and films have taken inspiration from the series, which ran on the CBS network from 1959 until 1964 and to this day maintains a devoted following. The enduring nature of the series’ fan base is evidenced by the fact that it has been revived twice, once in 1989 and once in 2002; the fact that reruns still air on a daily basis on the Syfy channel and elsewhere; and the fact that Zone, with only a few other cult shows like Star Trek, completely dominated the market of VHS television collections throughout the 1980s and 1990s.[1] The Twilight Zone was also recognized for its artistic greatness in its own time. After the airing of its first episode in fall 1959, a New York Times critic was immediately convinced that the program would stand out among its peers, “In the desultory field of filmed half-hour drama, …Mr. Serling should not have much trouble in making his mark.”[2] Five years later, when Serling announced his departure from the world of television, the Times called him “perhaps television’s most prolific and famous literary practitioner,” and bemoaned the ending of The Twilight Zone as the “disappearance of serious drama from television.”[3]

Serling’s work is a fascinating subject of study not just as a popular and critically acclaimed cultural product, but also — and especially — as a horror series. This essay will consider what specific fears of contemporary American audiences the series identified and exploited in order to scare viewers. In other words, how did the series achieve horror? The time period during which Zone was initially on the air was marked by many tensions. On the world stage, the United States and the Soviet Union vied for global influence, often with the possibility of thermonuclear war hanging in the balance. Domestically, conformist culture produced a political climate marked by the use of middle-class, white, suburban families as the norm for social values. Recent scholars like Elaine Tyler May have shown how Americans actively pursued a conformist lifestyle at home that celebrated the virtues of domesticity as a way of achieving a sense of security in what they perceived to be a growingly insecure world. Americans of the late 1950’s were intensely aware of their place in what they called an “age of anxiety.”[4] Rod Serling and the rest of the creative team behind The Twilight Zone achieved horror by drawing upon contemporary American fears of nuclear annihilation and of the “other,” explicitly presenting them as threats to the safety of the home and to the paradigm of domesticity in general. Additionally, The Twilight Zone sought to subvert Americans’ faith in the home as a safe haven, by portraying it as an inherently hostile environment.

The primary way in which The Twilight Zone sought to scare its viewers was to make the domestic sphere scary; many of the series’ most memorable episodes rely for their terror and shock value on the image of a domestic scene disrupted by the intrusion of supernatural forces. This formula was specifically developed as a way of unsettling American audiences of the late 1950’s, who conceived of the home as a sacred space. Elaine Tyler May theorizes that, because Americans at this time felt threatened by what they perceived to be growing instability in the world around them, they retreated into the homestead. There, they fostered a sense of security based on traditional gender roles, consumerism, controlled sexuality, and childrearing. May writes, “For in the early years of the cold war, amid a world of uncertainties brought about by World War II and its aftermath, the home seemed to offer a secure, private nest removed from the dangers of the outside world.”[5] Further, political leaders and media outlets at the time espoused the idea that the American Dream had been realized, and was now available to all through capitalist consumption:

In the propaganda battles that permeated the cold war era, American leaders promoted the American way of life as the triumph of capitalism, allegedly available to all who believed in its values. This way of life was characterized by affluence, located in suburbia, and epitomized by white middle-class nuclear families. Increasing numbers of Americans gained access to this domestic ideal — but not everyone who aspired to it could achieve it.[6]

Cultural historian Warren Susman similarly argues that by the midpoint of the twentieth century, the United States had succeeded beyond expectation in shaping itself to the utopian vision originally laid out by politicians and academics in the previous century.[7] By this point, Americans had already been using images of family life to represent their positive cultural values since the 1930’s, so it was only natural that they should use similar iconography to illustrate their perceived success: According to Susman, “In essence, one can represent the new affluent society collectively in the image of the happy suburban home.”[8] During the postwar era, the American family dwelling was seen simultaneously as a “bulwark against the dangers of the cold war”[9] and as the symbol of American capitalism’s triumph.

In unleashing the forces of evil and of the supernatural on the sacred ground of the domestic sphere, The Twilight Zone drew upon contemporary American fears of the “other.” In the late 1950’s, the legacy of McCarthyism was still strong in the United States’ collective psyche, and the fear of Communist infiltrators still presented a genuine threat.[10] Similarly, reports published during this decade revealed that juvenile delinquency was abundant in the allegedly utopian world of the suburbs, and what Americans found most shocking was that something as horrible as habitual crime could be taking place in such a revered setting.[11] Anxieties over Communism and juvenile delinquency at this time combined to give suburbanites a sense of paranoia that evil could be hiding all around them.

The episode that best captures how The Twilight Zone drew upon this fear is season one’s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (1960). The episode opens on a small street in a suburban community, in an unspecified location. With a flash of light and a roar, a large object passes overhead, which the residents of this community immediately assume must be a meteorite (1:11).[12] Following the event, the neighborhood’s power is out and no mechanical devices work, cars included. The residents exit their homes and, in their shared confusion, begin to congregate outside. Two neighbors, Steve Brand and Charlie Farnsworth, decide to walk into town to ask for help, but Tommy, a twelve-year-old boy, warns them not to (4:45). Tommy claims to have read a science fiction story very similar to their current predicament, and he believes that aliens are responsible for the power outage, which they inflicted in order to ensure the residents stay on Maple Street. Furthermore, the aliens of the story had sent scouts to infiltrate the community prior to invasion. “They sent four people,” Tommy went on. “A mother and a father and two kids who looked just like humans, but they weren’t!” (6:57) The group of suburbanites begins to single out residents one by one for scrutiny, on suspicion of being aliens. Their reasons for singling people out begin with the confusion over one man’s car inexplicably turning on (8:05), but before long the residents begin analyzing their neighbors’ idiosyncrasies to determine who is enough of an “oddball” to warrant further investigation (15:48). By the end of the episode, house lights are flashing all around the street, and the neighborhood has devolved into anarchy and mob violence. The camera then zooms out from the riot scene to reveal two aliens sitting on a hilltop, where they have been manipulating the street’s power with a control panel (22:36). The aliens comment upon how predictable the whole ordeal has been. One muses, “They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find, and it’s themselves. All we need do is sit back and watch,” (23:08).

Through a number of key images and lines of dialogue, the episode presents its story as one not just of alien invasion, but also as one of domesticity corrupted by an outside force. The episode begins with a narration from Serling, describing the setting: “Maple Street, U.S.A. Late summer. A tree-lined little world of front porch gliders, barbecues, the laughter of children and the bell of an ice cream vendor,” (1:03). By not giving a city or state, Serling is implying that this neighborhood could easily be in any suburban community across the country. He is not attempting to portray any particular community, but rather the very idea of suburbia. The opening scene is indeed set against a backdrop of sounds that includes children laughing, cheerful music, and the ice cream man’s bell, creating an overall jovial atmosphere. It is the Platonic image of American suburbia, and everyone is happy to be playing his or her part. Serling emphasizes the notion that the episode’s tragedy will lie in the death of its domestic tranquility with the last line of his opening narration: “Maple Street — in the last calm and reflective moment — before the monsters came,” (2:14). Even though the real monsters end up being the suburbanites themselves, it is the interference of the aliens that effectively brings an end to their performance of domesticity. The devastation caused to their suburban scene is accentuated by parallel images of the street. Both the episode’s first shot (0:50) and its last view of the suburban community (22:20) show a wide shot capturing the full neighborhood, with a “Maple Street” sign in the foreground. The former shot is set to a lighthearted melody, and the slow pace of the only visible person, the ice cream vendor, accentuates the peacefulness. The last glimpse of the lamppost is filled with chaos, though, because the frame is filled with many people dashing back and forth without clear direction, and the music playing has a horrifying tone. The image is clearly one of shattered domesticity. In fact, when the aliens’ ship first arrives, the residents of Maple Street are quite literally interrupted in their fulfillment of domestic expectations; people are shown pausing from washing their cars or tending to their gardens (that is to say, tending to matters of the home) in order to look up at the flash of light when the aliens pass overhead (1:11). American audiences in 1960 would have been adequately perturbed by the notion of an outside force trying to disintegrate the bonds that held middle-class American society together. The fact that the agents of suburbia’s destruction were the suburbanites themselves would have been even more horrific to The Twilight Zone’s viewers.

The episode also drew heavily upon the paranoia of its American audiences for its suspense. Because of the lingering anxieties of the Second Red Scare and new reports of juvenile delinquency, Americans were genuinely afraid during this period that there were subversive forces lurking within the domestic sphere. The episode’s title and Serling’s mention of this afternoon being “the last calm and reflective moment” (2:14) before the monsters’ arrival combine to give the impression during the first few minutes of the episode that aliens are bound to arrive on the scene. Even though twist ending is going to reveal that the “monsters” have been present all along, the possibility of an upcoming invasion creates suspense for the viewer. This suspense would have been particularly effective on 1960’s middle-class American audiences, though, because the notion of an attack directly targeting suburbia was not only theoretically frightening, but also a major social concern, given the sanctity of the idea of the home.

One of the most revolutionary ways in which The Twilight Zone drew upon American fears and anxieties in order to scare its audiences was its treatment of the subject of nuclear warfare. The fears of annihilation from either nuclear attack or the resultant nuclear fallout were an important part of the American cultural psyche at the time that Zone first hit the airwaves. In 1959, the year that the first episode aired, “two out of three Americans listed the possibility of nuclear war as the nation’s most urgent problem.”[13] Additionally, even though cultural concern over the atomic threat had somewhat diminished during the first half of the 1950’s, they reemerged in the decade’s later years due to fear of radioactive fallout.[14] This fear manifested itself in popular culture in the form of mutant movies like Them! (1954), Godzilla (1956), and The Blob (1958).[15] It was not until the early 1960’s, though, that anti-nuclear properties in television and film began openly and frankly addressing the questions of atomic warfare, and allegory gave way to direct criticism.[16] With renewed anxieties about nuclear warfare came an increased emphasis on civil defense programs. Civil defense operated under the philosophy that if Americans adequately prepared for a nuclear attack through the construction of bomb shelters and fallout-proof bunkers, then their society could survive the inevitable atomic war.[17] The Berlin Crisis of 1961 and President Kennedy’s televised announcement calling for a massive fallout shelter program sparked an unprecedented interest in civil defense.[18] The intense media attention given to civil defense planning and to the few American families who built their own shelters sparked a nationwide conversation about “shelter ethics.”[19] Religious leaders and journalists asked, and tried to answer, questions about the morality of sacrificing the lives of friends and neighbors for the sake of protecting one’s family in the event of an attack.[20] Two months into the Berlin Crisis, the Twilight Zone episode “The Shelter” aired on September 29, 1961. Several historians, such as Rick Perlstein[21] and Margot Henriksen[22] have cited “The Shelter” as the prime example of the shelter ethics debate.

“The Shelter” opens on a rather lively scene: it is the birthday celebration of Dr. Bill Stockton, and three married couples are joining the doctor and his wife for a dinner party (1:18).[23] The doctor’s friends all jokingly allude to their having had to put up with annoyances related to his recent efforts to build a bomb shelter in his basement, whining about bothers like “the concrete trucks, the nocturnal hammering” (1:45). Dr. Stockton’s son comes in to report that an important message is coming on the radio. It says:

…at 11:04pm Eastern Standard Time, both our distant early warning line and ballistics early warning line reported radar evidence of unidentified flying objects flying due southeast. As of this moment we have been unable to determine the nature of these objects, but for the time being, in the interest of national safety, we are declaring a state of yellow alert. The civil defense authorities request that, if you have a shelter already prepared, go there at once… (3:40)

Everyone runs to their own home at once to prepare for the worst. After the Stockton family finishes bringing food supplies into their shelter, one of the friends from the dinner party re-appears, pleading for Stockton to grant him and his family entrance into the bunker (9:46). Stockton refuses and he seals his family into the shelter. All three families from dinner, along with one or two more friends, gradually return to the Stockton household to beg for admittance. When the doctor does not open the shelter doors, the friends bust it down with an impromptu battering ram. At the exact moment that they completely remove the door, the radio chirps: “The President of the United States has just announced that the previously unidentified flying objects have now been definitely ascertained as being satellites… They are harmless, and we are in no danger,” (20:16). The doctor emerges from the shelter, horrified at the level of savagery to which his supposedly upstanding friends sank in less than thirty minutes of panic. “We were spared a bomb tonight,” he says, “but I wonder. I wonder if we weren’t destroyed, even without it,” (23:19).

Similar to “Maple Street,” Serling constructs this story primarily as one of shattered domesticity. The birthday party that the nuclear crisis breaks up is a remarkably quaint setting, between the laughter, the upbeat music, and the overall warmth exuded by its guests seated around the table (0:40). Later, when the Stockton family is holed up in the shelter and the remaining families are panicking, they gather in the dining room and fight over which family’s children most deserve a spot in the shelter (15:16). Gathered around the same table that had only just been a site of neighborly tranquility, the neighbors engage in one of the most horrifyingly inhumane debates imaginable. The contrast between the sense of civility that preceded the nuclear threat and the chaos that now reigns is made even sharper through lighting. Shortly after the early warning announcement, the power went out (12:13). Whereas the dinner party guests were bathed in light, the desperate neighbors now stand mostly in darkness, with a faint glow from some candles casting long shadows behind each person. This contrast clearly shows that the threat of nuclear annihilation has corrupted the domestic space. This change becomes physical as well as spiritual when the group knocks over that same dining room table with their battering ram on their way to the shelter (19:13).

“The Shelter” was scary for American viewers not only because it redefined the possibility of nuclear war as a domestic threat, but also because it provided a morbid response to the question of shelter ethics. The episode takes care to share the perspectives of both Dr. Stockton and of his neighbors whom he shuts out. It is clear that Stockton is doing what he can to save as many people as possible with his limited resources, and he prioritizes his family because he wants a future for his son (9:05). At the same time, though, Stockton’s friends cannot understand why they deserve to die while the doctor’s family takes refuge in the bunker. In fact, part of the reason why this episode registered with viewers is because most of the characters in this episode are acting in the interest of protecting their domestic situations, before they meet the hopeless conclusion. However, if the question of shelter ethics is how to keep society intact in the case of a nuclear attack, The Twilight Zone’s answer is that it is impossible. Serling sums up this point nicely in his closing narration: “No moral, no message, no prophetic tract, just a simple statement of fact: for civilization to survive, the human race has to remain civilized. Tonight’s very small exercise in logic from the Twilight Zone,” (23:55). Serling presents his view that the stress of an impending attack will make people act so savagely that society will break down before the bomb even lands. And thus, in writing an episode about the threat of nuclear war, Serling once again manages to subvert the American faith in the home. It was in the characters’ own suburban neighborhood — the very image of American values — that the greatest threats actually resided.

The Twilight Zone achieved its mission of scaring American audiences by exploiting their excessive faith in the suburban home as an impregnable safe space from the threats of the outside world. Rod Serling horrified viewers by showing old fears as indelibly linked to domestic tranquility, and by corrupting those very images of domestic tranquility in order to make the home appear to be a hostile environment. A survey of the series as a whole will reveal Serling’s motivations for using horror in the first place. The show’s constant habit of using outsider figures as protagonists instead of the Ward Cleaver archetype indicates that Serling was trying to convince his audience to embrace openness and nonconformity.[24] The Twilight Zone is also full of episodes that demonstrate the monstrous power of nuclear warfare, revealing an anti-nuclear agenda. Serling, though, denied having any political motivations and insisted that his goal in creating The Twilight Zone was to create a show that “probes into the dimension of imagination but with a concern for taste and for an adult audience too long considered to have IQs in the negative figures.”[25]

Notes

[1] Jason Mittell, Television and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 423.
[2] Jack Gould, “Art Carney Series Has Premiere; Diversified Revue Is Seen on Channel 4 Comedian Is Supported by International Cast,” New York Times, October 3, 1959, accessed April 22, 2015, <http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9E04E2DE163FE63BBC4B53DFB6678382649EDE>.
[3] Peter Bart, “Serling Leaving TV for Pictures,” New York Times, November 2, 1964, accessed April 22, 2015, <http://www.nytimes.com/1964/11/02/serling-leaving-tv-for-pictures.html?_r=0>.
[4] Warren Susman, “Did Success Spoil the United States? Dual Representations in Postwar America,” in Recasting America: Culture and Politics in the Age of Cold War, ed. Lary May (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 23.
[5] Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold Era (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 1.
[6] Ibid., 8.
[7] Susman, 19.
[8] Ibid., 22.
[9] May, 9.
[10] Susman, 25.
[11] Ibid., 24–25.
[12] The Twilight Zone, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” Netflix video, 25:02, March 4, 1960, <http://www.netflix.com/WiPlayer?movieid=70110576&trkid=13467993#trackId=200257859&episodeId=70174036>.
[13] May, 26.
[14] Paul Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 352.
[15] Ibid., 354.
[16] Margot A. Henriksen, Dr. Strangelove’s America: Society and Culture in the Atomic Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 185.
[17] Boyer, 353
[18] Ibid.
[19] Henriksen, 189.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Rick Perlstein, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001), 143.
[22] Henriksen, 213.
[23] The Twilight Zone, “The Shelter,” Netflix video, 24:52, September 29, 1961, <http://www.netflix.com/WiPlayer?movieid=70110576&trkid=13467993#trackId=200257859&episodeId=70174070>.
[24] Henriksen, 294–295.
[25] Tise Vahimagi, “Twilight Zone, The,” Encyclopedia of Television, edited by Horace Newcomb (New York: Taylor & Francis, 1997), 2387.