The Twilight Zone is an amazingly diverse program that offers stories of almost every conceivable theme and setting within the overall structure of intelligent modern fantasy. One area in which The Twilight Zone excelled was in the story of terror, exploring the darkest aspects of human existence in myriad ways. To celebrate the Halloween season, we’re counting down the 31 most frightening and unsettling moments from The Twilight Zone, one for each day of October. We’ll be revisiting some of the episodes we’ve already covered and looking ahead to episodes from the final three seasons of the series. -JP
Happy Halloween! Here's our top moment of terror from the series!
#1 - There’s Something on the Wing, from “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” season five, episode 123
Written by Richard Matheson, directed by Richard Donner, starring William Shatner, Christine White, Nick Cravat
The most frightening and unsettling moment of The Twilight Zone occurs in Richard Matheson’s fifth season masterpiece, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” which finds William Shatner playing Bob Wilson, an air passenger recovering from a mental breakdown who has the misfortune of witnessing a gremlin tampering with an engine of the airplane. Of course, no one onboard believes there really is a gremlin on the wing of the airplane and Wilson is forced to take desperate measures to ensure the safety of the passengers. Over and again, the series presented stories in which individuals are isolated due to their experience of a supernatural event and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is perhaps the finest example of this type of episode. The dynamic which propels the story forward is similar that found in “Living Doll.” It is the psychological element which contrasts the manner in which other characters perceive Wilson’s mental state against what is actually happening. Also like “Living Doll,” Matheson includes the character of a wife (missing from Matheson’s original short story) who seems to exist in the story only to look incredulous at each progressive moment. To the credit of actress Christine White, she uses very expressive body language to expertly convey the dilemma in which she finds herself entangled. The words she speaks do not match the language she conveys to the viewer with her expressive face. William Shatner’s performance may well be the finest ever showcased on the series. Because of the extreme nature of the character, it is a performance easily parodied, and the episode itself has served as comedic fuel for countless films and television series. William Tuttle’s makeup design was a rush job and has greatly lost its effectiveness yet remains an iconic image from the series. Though the episode shows some frayed edges (the fifth season was not as well produced as the earlier seasons when Buck Houghton in charge) Richard Donner’s camera work is exceptional here, especially the framing shot capturing the horrified expressions on the faces of Wilson’s wife and others crowded in the aisle after Wilson shoots out his window to get at the gremlin. The episode is crowned with a clever ending that finds Wilson, in a very rare moment for the series, breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience. When this episode was reimagined for the 1983 feature film Twilight Zone: The Movie, so much of the subtlety of character and story was lost as to make it nearly a parody of the original story itself. The original series episode remains the definitive treatment of Matheson’s ingenious story.
-Matheson’s original story appeared in the paperback anthology Alone by Night: Tales of Unlimited Horror (Ballantine, Jan, 1962). Matheson placed a second story in the anthology, “The Likeness of Julie,” under the pseudonym Logan Swanson. “The Likeness of Julie” was later adapted by Matheson’s friend William F. Nolan as the first of three segments in Dan Curtis’s 1975 horror anthology television film Trilogy of Terror. Alone by Night was edited by Michael and Don Congdon, the latter of whom was Matheson’s literary agent at the time.
-“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” was reimagined for the 1983 feature film Twilight Zone: The Movie, written by Richard Matheson (with additional material by George Miller), directed by George Miller, starring John Lithgow.
-“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is perhaps the most parodied of any episode of the series. A long list of instances of parody can be found at the episode’s Wikipedia page.
-If that’s not enough spooky Twilight Zone for you, here are a few more unsettling episodes we really enjoy which just missed out on the countdown.
“Where is Everybody?”
“The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine”
“The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”
“A World of Difference”
“Spur of the Moment”