Why Do We Fear Isolation?

Isolation is actually a punishment meted out to prisoners on top of already being incarcerated, so obviously society views it as a bad thing. Solitary confinement is not a reform tactic, but purely disciplinary.

Medical research relates social loneliness to a variety of physical ailments. It impairs immune function and boosts inflammation, leading to arthritis, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Loneliness can be even more dangerous than smoking and obesity.

In the movie, “Cast Away,” Tom Hanks nearly went crazy after his plane crashed into the ocean and he washed up on a deserted island. He created a friend out of a volleyball, then decided life wasn’t worth living when he lost it. It’s amazing what the human mind can do to protect itself.

Isolation is a perfect theme for Twilight Zone stories. Who cares about blood and guts and explosions and scary monsters, just don’t let me be all by myself! This is a very child-like fear, like being afraid of the dark, and come on now, aren’t we all afraid of the dark?

Where Is Everybody

Where Is Everybody The fear of isolation is featured prominently in three episodes of Twilight Zone, first in the premier episode of the series, “Where is Everybody.” In this story, a man in an Air Force jumpsuit wanders into a town and can’t find anyone anywhere. He runs throughout the town, looking for any sign of life, becoming more and more frantic. At the end of the episode, we learn that he has been part of a simulation to test isolation during space travel. At NASA, they’re busy worrying about rocket systems and trajectories. Don’t they know it’s loneliness that could shut down the space program?

The Lonely

Just a few episodes later, isolation as a means of punishment is chronicled in “The Lonely.” The prisoner, James Corry, is sentenced not just to a cell block away from the other prisoners, but to a distant planet light years across the galaxy. Mercifully, four years into his 50-year sentence, a ship from Earth arrives bringing a robot companion in the form of a woman named Alicia. Later the ship from Earth arrives again with the glad news that Corry’s sentence has been commuted and he can return to Earth. Unfortunately, they don’t have room to take the robot home, too. This is a crushing blow to Corry. The robot had become a real human being to him, just as the volleyball was a friend to Tom Hanks, and had saved his sanity.

On Thursday We Leave For Home

In one of the later episodes, “On Thursday We Leave For Home” from the end of season 4, the solitude comes at the end of the story when the leader of the colony that was marooned on a distant planet refuses to return to Earth with the others he has shepherded for so long. As the ship departs, Captain Benteen looks up at the sky and cries out, “I want to go home.” That’s chilling stuff.

Captain Benteen just couldn’t relinquish his self-assumed position of benevolent dictator, even to return to his beloved Earth. He was crushed that all of the people wanted to be reunited with their families on Earth rather than live in one big commune as Benteen was suggesting. He hid in a cave so that he couldn’t be found when it was time to board the ship headed for Earth.

I struggled with why the people didn’t try harder to get Captain Benteen to come with them, by force if necessary. They had to realize that leaving him there by himself would be a death sentence and was incredibly cruel. Why did they leave him there all alone? This troubles me to this day. What would Benteen do now that he was completely alone? Could he continue to exist? Would he eventually go insane or even commit suicide to escape the ever present solitude? How could those people live with themselves once they returned to Earth? The answers, I suppose, are that people are fatally flawed and they make bad choices.

“On Thursday We Leave For Home” has been ranked as the best episode of season 4, the best of the hour-long episodes, and one of the top 10 of the entire series. It has great acting, particularly by James Whitmore, who received the part in “Shawshank Redemption” based in large part on this performance, and there is great writing to be sure. But it touches a raw nerve that every human being can feel. Even those of us who love to be alone, and most of us do every once in awhile, need companionship.

All three of these episodes were written by Rod Serling, and I think that Serling does his best writing with stories dealing with human frailties. A key to Serling’s success as a writer has to be touching us at a level that we can all relate to, particularly our fears.

Interestingly, “Captain Benteen” was the name of one of Custer’s doomed company commanders at Little Big Horn and Serling wrote the episode, “The 7th is Made Up of Phantoms” which deals with Custer’s battle at the Little Big Horn. This is what I love most about Twilight Zone–cerebralness that collides with basic emotions.

Back to Twilight Zone page