What are you afraid of?
What’s the scariest thing you can think of?
Fear is very subjective. What one person finds frightening, another one will find laughable.
Fear also takes many forms.
There’s blood and guts, and downright gore. Think Texas Chainsaw Massacre. If you’re like me, though, you won’t think about it for too long!
There’s the supernatural, ghosts and demons. From Poltergeist to The Exorcist to every haunted house movie out there, those things would give me a heart attack. If I watched them. And I don’t.
There’s criminal violence like you see on Law and Order on TV. Sadly, people are truly evil.
Fear can also come in a more cerebral package and that’s where you enter the Twilight Zone.
The Twilight Zone TV series is often described as science fiction, but it’s also called an anthology series, offering up many genres of stories, always thought provoking, often teaching a lesson, and sometimes leaving you with the chills and your hair standing on end.
Yes, the Twilight Zone can be scary. Ask five people what their scariest episode is and you’ll get five different answers. That’s the beauty of the Zone. So, submitted for your approval, are my candidates for the four scariest episodes of the Twilight Zone.
From season 1. A woman, played by Inger Stevens, starts out on a cross-country trip and sees the same man hitchhiking. No matter how far she drives, the man is always in front of her on the road. She sees him everywhere she goes. At one point she is so desperate for someone to ride along with her that she picks up a sailor coming back from leave. She explains to him why she is afraid, but soon he is so freaked out by her that he bails out of the car and runs away. Hmm, a sailor alone in a car with a beautiful woman and he runs away. She was definitely nuts by that time. Eventually, she stops to call home and all is revealed. She has died a couple of days ago in a car accident. The strange hitchhiker is death waiting for her to realize what has happened to her.
This is scary for me in a number of ways. First, being alone on a long journey is frightening enough. In those days, there weren’t nearly as many places to stop as there are now. Today everything is open 24/7; not in the early 1960s.
Second, what was this guy going to do when he caught up to her? Assault her? Kill her? I’m gasping as I write this.
Third, finding out you’re dead, well, that will definitely ruin your day as well as your cross-country trip. The hitchhiker’s scary words to her “I believe you’re going…my way?” is really frightening and now I’m throwing the covers over my head.
The theme of being dead and not realizing it has been used a couple of other times in Twilight Zone stories, but they haven’t been scary like “The Hitch-Hiker.” In “Nothing in the Dark (season 3),” Gladys Cooper plays an old woman terrified of Mr. Death who shows up in the form of Robert Redford playing an injured policeman. By the conclusion, he has soothed her fears completely and they walk blissfully off to the hereafter. Not scary and who could be afraid of Robert Redford anyway?
In “The Hunt (season 3),” a favorite episode of mine, an old man and his hunting dog drown and don’t realize they are dead. Both the old man and Rip the dog end up in heaven. Thanks, Rip! Definitely not scary.
A couple of decades later, The Sixth Sense would make masterful use of this idea.
From season 1. This episode tells the story of a young woman played by Vera Miles, just months away from starring in one of the scariest movies of all time, Psycho, who is waiting in a bus station on a dark rainy night. That really sets the scene, doesn’t it? She begins to see things, small things, that are out of place, such as her suitcase moving from one place to another and she knows for sure she hasn’t moved it. Who would think that such a small thing as a suitcase being in the wrong place could be so unnerving, but it is in this setting. The loud, dissonant chord strikes whenever she sees the bag has moved adds to the tension, too. Finally the bus arrives and as she is about to board, she looks up and sees herself already sitting on the bus! That is really too much and it’s time for a commercial break. Another man has arrived by that time and is trying to comfort her. Actually, he thinks she’s crazy and has called the police to cart her off for psychiatric observation. Well, turnabout is fair play, and then he begins seeing strange things, including his double, his Doppelganger, who has mischievously taken over his identity and is running down the street with a sly smile on his face.
The scene is really set for a frightening story in this episode. It’s nighttime, the woman is alone and a little on the nervous side to begin with. Vera Miles’ acting is first rate, too. No wonder Alfred Hitchcock cast her in Psycho. She was under a five-year personal contract with him at the time and had been in a couple of his TV series episodes, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
From season 1. This episode has been voted not only the scariest of all the Twilight Zone episodes, but also one of the scariest moments in TV history when William Shatner pulls back the curtain from the airplane window and sees the gremlin looking back at him. Do you think airline travel took a nosedive after that episode aired? Shatner’s character, Bob Wilson, was already recovering from a nervous breakdown when he and his wife were returning home. Trying bravely to hold it together, Wilson finally loses it, steals a gun from another passenger, smashes the plane window and shoots the gremlin. It’s hard to believe that you could walk right onto a commercial airliner with a loaded pistol, but that was 1963.
The fear and tension in this story mounts almost unbearably. What is the gremlin going to do? Will it destroy the airplane? William Shatner’s acting is magnificent as he becomes more and more unhinged. His range of emotions and how quickly they change should be required study in acting school. In one moment he thinks everyone has united behind him in trying to destroy the gremlin. Then he realizes they are just placating him and he knows he has to act on his own. At the end, he is being carried off in a straight jacket, a calm demeanor replacing the terror he felt just minutes earlier. “Everything is going to be all right,” his wife says. “Yes,” Bob replies, “but I’m the only one who knows it.” Rod Serling assures us that is only temporary as the camera pans back to see the torn aircraft wing.
From season 3. This story takes place in one of the scariest settings of all, a cemetery. Lee Marvin plays Conny Miller, a gun for hire in the Old West. However, the dastardly outlaw he was supposed to kill, Pinto Sykes, was already done away with by the townspeople. They decide it would be fun to see if Miller could visit Sykes’ grave at midnight and stick a knife into it. Well, they didn’t have television back in those days and things got a little boring. Miller takes the dare, visits the cemetery on the dark and windy night, and plants the knife right into the grave. As he starts to stand, he is pulled back down to the ground. Commercial time. The next morning, we see the town folk at the cemetery and learn that Miller had plunged the knife into his cloak that had blown across the grave as he drove it into the ground. No wonder he went into cardiac arrest–he assumed that Pinto Sykes was pulling him down into the ground as he had promised to do. However, there’s one more twist. “What direction was the wind blowing last night” someone asks. Then it’s revealed that the wind would have blown Miller’s cloak in the opposite direction, not over the grave. Wow, that’s really scary!
I love the double twist. The setup is great. The scene is set. You’re left with questions. Did Pinto Sykes really reach out and pull on Conny Miller from the grave? That makes me think of the super scary scene at the end of Carrie when her hand comes reaching out of the earth as Sue, the only kid left alive, lays flowers on her grave. Oh, boy, I was so scared the first time I saw that.
From season 5. Another great Twilight Zone episode to watch on Halloween is “The Masks,” specifically because it deals with masks. It’s a little scary, but that’s not the overwhelming theme of this story. For me, it’s about retribution for these four money-grubbing relatives who have come for a death vigil so they can inherit the old man’s money. The old man requests that they wear masks for a Mardi Gras party, but at midnight when the old man dies and they take the masks off, they find to their horror that their faces have the same ugly appearance as the mask. Their faces now depict what lies within their hearts.
There are definitely other candidates for the fear factor in Twilight Zone. I was really scared by “On Thursday We Leave For Home (season 4)” when Captain Benteen is left deserted on the planet. I was even scared in “People Are Alike All Over (season 1)” when Roddy McDowall was locked into the zoo they created for him. Will he spend the rest of his days there? “Living Doll (season 5)” is scary, too. Now that she has killed off Telly Savalas, what is she going to do to Christie’s mom? Will Talking Tina eventually turn on Christie, too? Honorable mention goes to “Twenty-Two (season 2) for its scary setting–a hospital morgue.
My best advice? Don’t watch Twilight Zone alone. Or at night. Or during a thunderstorm. Or on a plane. Or in a graveyard. Or with a doll.