Religion isn’t something you expect to find in a Twilight Zone story, but there are several episodes where it is central to the plot. Of course, in true Zone style, it’s presented in a very thoughtful manner, raising questions and theories.
The Howling Man
In “The Howling Man,” a man unknowingly releases the devil who causes all the horrors known to man. The devil has been captured and imprisoned by a religious order of Brothers in a remote area of post-World War I Europe. David Ellington, the narrator of the story, had been on a walking trip, got caught in the rain and sought refuge in the Brothers’ castle. Suddenly he hears a wolf-like howling. Brother Jerome explains that this is the devil who has been captured to spare humanity from his evil deeds. The devil, the father of lies, tricks David into believing that he has been wrongly accused. David believes him and releases the devil and World War II ravages the planet. David works feverishly to capture the devil again and finally succeeds. Once home with Satan safely locked up with the Staff of Truth, he explains to his maid that she should never open the door no matter what she hears. Of course, she does and the devil is once again at large.
This story played well at its time because the concept of a devil causing the woes of the world was accepted by most people. God was good and the devil was evil; it was a fundamental teaching of the Christian church. Nowadays, the devil is viewed as laughable. In the late 1960s, comedian Flip Wilson made a career out of Geraldine, a character who blamed all of her misdeeds on the devil. “The devil made me do it!” he would wail.
As more people began to question God and faith, Satan became little more than a cartoon character, a naughty little goblin with horns, a pitchfork and a tail. How can you be afraid of something that laughable?
Television would continue to disrespect Christianity. In 1986, Dana Carvey created the “Church Lady” as a sketch on “Saturday Night Live.” This smug and pious holier-than-thou woman hosted a talk show, and her famous question to the guests she was interrogating was, “Could it be Satan?” The audience would roar with laughter. Good and evil in the Twilight Zone was as black and white as the filming. Not anymore.
The Obsolete Man
Burgess Meredith played librarian Romney Wordsworth in a futuristic totalitarian society where books were deemed obsolete, and now he was, too in “The Obsolete Man.” Belief in God was a crime against the State punishable by death. Wordsworth accepts his death sentence and plans to read his Bible while waiting for it. As the State Chancellor moves to depart the room where Mr. Wordsworth is going to be executed by explosion, he finds the door locked, and becomes more and more frantic as the final seconds tick away. Finally, he calls out “In the name of God, let me go.” The door opens and he escapes just before the room explodes, killing Wordsworth who has been calm and peaceful to the end.
In the next scene, the Chancellor is now called before the State and is sentenced to execution for disgracing the State with his cowardice. The episode warns of the future at the end when Serling says that the Chancellor had become obsolete, “but so is the State, the entity he worshiped. Any state, any entity, any ideology that fails to recognize the worth, the dignity, the rights of Man, that state is obsolete.” Serling was truly prophetic with these words. Today we exalt the government as the savior and look to it to solve all of our problems. Perhap it really will be a crime to worship God soon.
“The Hunt” is one of those country episodes that I actually like. It does have the hillbilly folks that live in some unknown part of the United States–Appalachia, the Ozarks? As this story opens, an old man and his dog are out hunting. The dog dives into the water after a raccoon. The old man, worried that the raccoon will kill his dog, dives in to rescue him. Neither come back up.
In the next scene, the old man and his dog go back home, but his wife doesn’t see him. Neither does anyone else that he encounters. He finally realizes that he might be dead and sets off walking. He soon meets who he thinks is Saint Peter at the Gates of Heaven. The old man is ready to go right in, but the gatekeeper tells him that they don’t allow dogs in there. Well, if they won’t take his dog, he won’t go in either, the old man announces, and he continues walking.
Then he comes upon another man at a gate. This time it really is heaven and his dog is welcomed. “Well, if this is heaven, where was I before?” It was hell, and the dog has saved the old man from it! The gatekeeper explains that a man will walk right into hell, but a dog will know it for what it really is. The old man is also reassured that his wife will be along soon.
Of course, this is just a whimsical story. A hunting dog isn’t going to get anyone into heaven, but it’s an example of how the Twilight Zone dealt with life after death, spending eternity in either heaven or hell, all the while maintaining its solemnity and importance.
This fall, a television program called “The Good Place” is on the NBC television programming lineup, the story of a woman who was supposed to go to “the bad place,” but was mistakenly sent to “the good place.” Could God really make a mistake like that? Of course not, but apparently it will be great comedy.
The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank
“The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank” is also a story that takes place in hillbilly land, this time identified as a small rural town in the “southernmost section of the Midwest.” During his funeral, a young man suddenly sits up in his coffin. All the hillbillies, that is, southern Midwesterners, are rightfully frightened out of their minds. Jeff Myrtlebank had been certified as deceased, but obviously he is now very much alive. At the end of the episode, we are left wondering if there were satanic forces at work in the surprise resurrection of Jeff Myrtlebank.
This is a theme we will see quite a bit of in later years, particularly in “Rosemary’s Baby,” in which a woman apparently gives birth to the devil, and in the “Omen” movies, where a couple unknowingly adopts the anti-Christ.
The common theme running through these four Twilight Zone episodes is the respect for Christianity they had. It is a sign of the times, of course, but also a sad commentary on where we are now.