Essays

Rod Serling’s Social Commentary in ‘The Twilight Zone’

I’ve been digging through my archives and found this awesome college paper about The Twilight Zone! The show is a childhood favorite, so I was incredibly happy when I had the opportunity to write about it in a film & TV class focused on the fifties and sixties. This particular paper centers around two episodes in which Rod Serling’s biting social commentary on then present-day anxieties are particularly visible. Enjoy!

On October 2, 1959, audiences got their first taste of The Twilight Zone. The series debuted with the episode Where is Everybody? which dealt with a man who searches through a deserted town for other life. He’s uncertain of who he is or how he got there but is certain that he must be dreaming and will wake up from the nightmare soon. The stunning finale is that this man is really an astronaut who has been in isolation training in order to assess human stamina under simulated orbit conditions during space travel. Eighteen million viewers tuned in to the series premiere, slightly lower numbers than what creator Rod Serling had anticipated. The show would continue copied_tz_thm_16-9_1280x720to produce quality episodes which showcased ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. The show was critically acclaimed and was a welcomed change to the mindless westerns and police shows that plagued televisions in the late ’50s. Although the show was continually on the edge of cancellation because of low ratings, it would go on for four more seasons ending in 1964. Rod Serling had become less and less involved with the show towards the end because of the network censorship. The Twilight Zone was becoming more distorted and less what Rod Serling had intended. Rather than risk his artistic integrity he chose to end it. The legacy left behind would be the result of some of the best and most unique writing for television that would ever be seen again.

Rod Serling chose to make his social commentary by masking it within a safer context like science fiction. The Twilight Zone then becomes more than just tales of aliens, ghosts, time travel, talking dolls, and world annihilation, but tales of the standardization, conformity, communist fear, and anxiety of the atom bomb that were present in the ’50s. Each episode has a deeper meaning than the superficial story. All one has to do is listen to Serling’s monologues in order to see the parallel to society. At the time of its debut, The Twilight Zone was competing with I Love Lucy, Leave It to Beaver, and Father Knows Best. Serling’s show was revolutionary in that it reflected the absurdity of the attitudes towards family, politics, and race. If there is one lesson to be learned from The Twilight Zone it’s that oftentimes we’re our own worst enemy.

*****

On September 23, 1949, Russia exploded an atomic bomb ending the atomic monopoly that the U.S. had since they had first dropped it in 1945 (Halberstam 26). This, in turn, lead to the creation of an even more powerful bomb, the hydrogen bomb, which was the equivalent of 500 atomic bombs (Halberstam 30). This H-bomb carried with it implications that the atomic bomb did not; it had the capability of wiping away the 3ec6d46e33a5c31408fa123c55fd053centire planet. Russia and the United States would continue in a cold war state, both holding incredible weaponry. The public’s knowledge of this caused extreme fear and anxiety. In the government’s efforts to ease public anxiety they ended up intensifying it. Instructional films were made for schools which taught children how to react in case one of these bombs were detonated. “Duck and Cover” became a happy theme song which easily summed up the safety procedure. High school classes had instructors teaching girls how to stock up a bomb shelter with preserves and water. Various commercials reminded everyone that bomb shelters insured security in the event of an explosion. These safety precautions served only as grim reminders of the society they lived in where they could die at any given second.

Rod Serling delivered a powerful message in TTZ episode The Shelter that displayed people’s irrational sentiments as a result of this weaponry. The story begins with the celebration of Dr. Stockton’s birthday in his dining room. They are joined by three couples: Mr. & Mrs. Marty Weiss, Mr. & Mrs. Jerry Harlowe, and Mr. & Mrs. Henderson. The the-twilight-zone-the-shelteropening scene is wrought with sentimental banter from all of the doctor’s neighbors on what a wonderful friend and neighbor he is: “I’d like to conclude this way: Doc, you’re a very beloved fellow and rightly so. And you may not have the biggest practice in medical history but I can assure you there isn’t a single sawbones in the entire fifty states whose patients have such a regard, such affection, such respect for their man with the little black bag as we do for ours!” (Jerry)

As everyone drinks their champagne and eats their cake, Dr. Stockton’s son Paulie bursts in and tells everyone that there’s breaking news and they must tune in to the comrade station on the radio. Everyone hears that they’re in a state of high emergency,. Unidentified flying objects have been detected and are headed towards the United States. In this state of yellow alert, the government advises that everyone hide in their bomb shelter. All the couples scramble frantically to their families in order to ensure their well-being.

As we see the Stockton’s transition into their shelter we see the prevailing relationship between spouses. We see the doctor and the family carrying supplies to the bomb shelter. His wife is visibly frazzled and breaks down at the thought of the aftermath of the explosion, “Then what, Bill? We crawl out of here like gophers to tip-toe through all that rubble up above? The rubble and the ruin and the bodies of our friends?” She trails off at the end, suggesting if it mightn’t be easier to die in the explosion. Bill handles the situation like a husband should, with a firm tone, he responds that it is essential that they twilight-zone-shelterdo everything possible so that their son survives. Like every mother of the ’50s, Grace is expected to shed her opinions, desires, and anxieties in order to be an exemplary mother and wife. Even the camera work in this scene emphasizes the role of husband and wife. During this entire scene, Grace Stockton is being shot from above to give her a submissive look and Bill Stockton is being shot from below giving him a loftier, more authoritative, look. This scene is essential in reflecting the image of the protecting father and husband. Bill takes command quickly and makes sure that he is quick and concise at reminding Grace what her job is and that she must compose herself.

We come to learn that the Stocktons are the only couple with a bomb shelter. Jerry is the first to come down and beg the doctor to let his family into his shelter. Bill protests and emphasizes that his shelter is only built for three and he can’t afford to let anyone else in. They continue to argue back and forth and no matter how much Jerry pleads, Bill refuses to budge. He assures him that everything is in the shelter and he seals it up, vowing that he won’t open it for any reason. Just then, Marty and his family come over announcing that they have the same intentions. He goes down to the shelter door and begins banging on it crazily. Bill gives him the same explanation that he gave Jerry to which Marty responds, “I feel sorry for you, then, Bill, I really do. You probably will survive but you’ll have blood on your hands. You’re a doctor! You’re supposed to help people!” (Marty)

Frank Henderson shortly joins the crowd with his family and serves to illustrate the prejudiced attitude towards minority groups. The minute he enters the scene he aggressively takes action both verbally and physically. He declares that they should break the door down and push their way in, Jerry points out the irrationality of the statement, they mv5bmja4odgxmzcyof5bml5banbnxkftztgwmza0oteymje-_v1_uy268_cr870182268_al_can’t all fit in it. Marty suggests that they draw straws and pick one family to join the Stocktons. Frank responds with, “One family? Meaning yours, Marty, huh? You shut your mouth, Weiss! That’s what it’s like when all the foreigners come over here! Pushy, grabby, semi-American!” This erupts into a brawl between the two until they’re separated. Frank’s character reflects the suspicion towards foreigners in this era. Although he is Jewish, Marty’s appearance could also be mistaken for Italian or even Mexican and so it’s easy to see him as a representation of minority groups, in general. Even Marty’s name implies the willingness to integrate into American culture. His name is Marty instead of his full name, it’s short and more Ameican. Despite all these efforts, the foreigners always come off as hyphenated semi-Americans.

The episode concludes with Frank taking charge and leading the group into Bill’s bomb shelter. While he’s spouting out ideas on how to knock the door down Jerry interrupts him. He pleads with him to stop and think rationally for a second. Marty seconds the idea to which Frank responds, “Nobody cares what you think. You, or your kind! I thought I made it clear upstairs! I think that the first order of business is to get you out of here!” This is followed by another assault on Marty. After Frank is pried off of Marty he and the others use some pipe to bust through the door. Just as they get through, a message comes tz_breakthroughover the radio station alerting them that it was all just a false alarm. The look of relief is evident on everyone’s face, however, lines have been crossed. Frank immediately goes to Marty and apologizes for all the things he said, attributing it to having been “off his rocker” and “scared and confused.” Marty, half turned away, looks hesitant to accept Frank’s apology when Jerry butts in and asserts Frank that he’s sure that Marty won’t hold it against him. He assures Bill that they can pay for the damages. Marty immediately forgets everything that has happened and suggests a block party to raise money, “Hey, great! A block party! Anything to get back to normal!” (Jerry). The crowd rallies around Bill who is exiting from the bomb shelter with a look of dismay on his face. Not having said a word he waits for everyone to stop their banter to comment on the damage that this imaginary bomb wrought on their friendship.

Serling is trying to make the point here that good people can turn into monsters because of this fear of the bomb. These characters were willing to sacrifice each other to survive. Such a weapon as the H-bomb shouldn’t exist because man simply cannot handle that sort of power. People lived in fear of the bomb and the Russian enemy every day. They let this fear spill over to a suspicion of foreigners which lead to their subsequent perils to integrate. Bill concludes the episode with this quote, “We were spared a bomb tonight, but I wonder if we weren’t destroyed without it.”

*****

On February 9, 1950, Joseph McCarthy claimed that he had a list of 205 people that were known members of the Communist party (Halberstam 50). The Associated Press jumped all over it and the phenomenon of the red scare would take the name McCarthyism.  Joseph McCarthy became front page news with his allegations. McCarthy would not provide any proof, however. He started with 205 names, then it went down to 57 and then 4 (Halberstam 51). McCarthy was clever about making his statements. He would release his allegations when he knew the press had the least time to check up on his stories, that way they would simply take his word for it without question. McCarthy was a notorious boozer and an all-around crowd pleaser. He worked the crowds well and he got the public to buy into the fear of Communism. As patriotic Americans, it was one’s duty to turn in any Communists. They could be anywhere, even your neighbor could be a Communist. The way McCarthy preached anyone could be a commie waiting to rob you of your democratic rights. This created a state of high alert. People had to watch the books they read, the people they talked to and the things they said. “McCarthyism crystallized and politicized the anxieties of a nation living in a dangerous new era. He took people who were at worst guilty of political naivete and accused them of treason.” (Halberstam 52)

Rod Serling captured the frantic finger-pointing of the McCarthy era in the episode The Monsters are Due on Maple Street. This episode begins with a variety of families enjoying a late Saturday afternoon on their block when all of a sudden they see an odd object fly overhead. Steve Brand, who is outside washing his car, expresses to his wife that he believes that it was a meteor that flew by. After everyone tries to go back to what they maplewere doing, they discover that the electricity is out. Pete Van Horn decides that he will go down to the next block to see if the power is out there and as he leaves there is a close-up of the hammer on Pete’s overalls. This hammer is representative of the hammer and sickle in the Communist symbol. Everyone else continues to speculate on what could have caused the power failure. Steve decides that he’ll hop in the car and go downtown to straighten everything out. When he tries turning his car on it doesn’t work.

Just when Steve resolves to walk downtown one of the neighborhood boys named Tommy advises him not to. Tommy tells Steve that “they” have shut down all the power so that everyone on the block would stay put. When Steve asks who “they” are Tommy says that “they” are in whatever flew overhead. “They” send their colonizers ahead to prepare for the coming of the rest of the aliens. Tommy emphasizes that these aliens “look just like humans, but they weren’t” anyone could be an alien. This gets the crowd thinking, and although they discount it as a plot from a science fiction comic, they suspiciously glare at each other. Just as Charlie comments on whether Pete has come back, Les’s car turns on by itself. All of a sudden, everyone starts to wonder why Les didn’t come out to look at the object flying overhead and they demand to know why his car turned on by itself. Charlie’s wife also reveals that she’s seen Les staring up at the sky late at night like he’s “waiting for something.” Charlie attributes his star-gazing to his insomnia. The crowd doesn’t believe him and backs away as he walks toward him.

Just when the gang thinks they know who the aliens are, they find a new victim. Charlie reveals that Steve’s wife has been talking about his little habits. She said that he works on some type of radio in the basement that no one else has ever seen. Everyone assumes it’s some sort of device for communicating with the “home planet” but Steve assures everyone that it’s simply a ham radio. He tires of justifying himself to the mob so he twz2erupts, “Stop telling me who’s dangerous and who isn’t and who’s safe and who’s a menace! You are all standing out here all set to crucify somebody! You’re all set to find a scapegoat! You’re all desperate to point some kind of a finger at a neighbor! Well, believe me, friends, the only thing that’s gonna happen is that we’re gonna eat each other up alive!” This is a powerful statement because it’s Rod Serling’s way of speaking through his character to say that he’s not giving in to the Communist witch hunt lead by McCarthy. Everyone is so fixated on finding the wrongdoer that they, in effect, become the wrongdoers. Not only in this episode but in real life. Serling was trying to reflect the randomness of the accusations and again, we see good people turning into monsters because they are giving in to their anxieties and fears.

We see the culmination of this whenever Pete Van Horn returns. The crowd sees him approaching from far away. Since it’s dark they can’t see who it is and Tommy starts yelling, “It’s the monster! It’s the monster!” Someone brings a shotgun outside and remarks on how they should use it. Steve snatches it away and Charlie says, “You’d let whatever’s out there walk right over us, wouldn’t you, well some of us won’t!” Just then, Charlie takes the shotgun, we see one more close up of Pete Van Horn’s hammer, and then he shoots Pete. That last close-up reminds us of the figurative connection between the real hammer and the communist symbol. Again we see how irrationally people act when confronted with something they’re afraid of and don’t understand. Now an innocent person is dead and all this yields is suspicion that Charlie is the alien eager to eliminate the humans. This idea is reinforced when the lights in Charlie’s house go on by themselves.

This trend continues on until all the neighbors have all accused each other of being the aliens. This leads to the entire block going hysterical and rioting. As fires are set throughout town, the madness spreads like an epidemic. The camera pans out to reveal two aliens talking about the procedure they have just enacted to get humans to destroy each other. One of them comments, “They [Humans] pick the most dangerous enemy tumblr_md6v9a1vog1qe90htthey can find…and it’s themselves. All we need do is sit back and watch.” The aliens laugh at the ease of destroying humans and board their craft on their way to further conquest through this method. The spaceship flies away into the starry sky and Rod Serling’s voiceover ends the episode: “The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicions can destroy, and the thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own, for the children, and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the twilight zone.”

 

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