Monday, October 22, 2018


Ann Jillian as the telepathic girl Ilse and Irene Dailey as the stern Miss Frank

Season Four, Episode 107
Original Air Date: January 31, 1963

Cora Wheeler: Barbara Baxley
Harry Wheeler: Frank Overton
Miss Frank: Irene Dailey
Ilse: Ann Jillian
Frau Werner: Eva Soreny (Éva Szörényi)
Holger Nielsen: Robert Boon
Fran Nielsen: Claudia Bryar
Tom Poulter: Percy Helton
Karl Werner: Oscar Beregi (Jr.)

Writer: Richard Matheson (based on his story)
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Producer: Herbert Hirschman
Director of Photography: Robert Pittack
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Associate Producer: Murray Golden
Assistant to the Producer: John Conwell
Music: Fred Steiner
Art Direction: George W. Davis & Edward Cartagno
Film Editor: Eda Warren, A.C.E.
Set Decoration: Henry Grace & Don Greenwood, Jr.
Assistant Director: Ray de Camp
Sound: Franklin Milton & Joe Edmondson
Rod Serling’s Wardrobe: Eagle Clothes
Filmed at MGM Studios

And Now, Mr. Serling:

“The talented author Richard Matheson pays a return visit to Twilight Zone with a story called ‘Mute.’ It provides an exceptional challenge to the acting talents of Barbara Baxley, Frank Overton, and an unusual twelve-year-old by the name of Ann Jillian.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:

“What you’re witnessing is the curtain-raiser to a most extraordinary play; to wit, the signing of a pact, the commencement of a project. The play itself will be performed almost entirely offstage. The final scenes are to be enacted a decade hence and with a different cast. The main character of these final scenes is Ilse, the daughter of Professor and Mrs. Nielsen, age two. At the moment she lies sleeping in her crib, unaware of the singular drama in which she is to be involved. Ten years from this moment, Ilse Nielsen is to know the desolating terror of living simultaneously in the world – and in the Twilight Zone.”


            The story begins in 1953 in Düsseldorf, Germany where four couples (all parents of small children) form a pact to begin a psychological experiment. Believing human beings to have natural telepathic abilities, which have been dulled through centuries of verbal language usage, the families formulate a plan to isolate their children and train them to develop their inborn telepathic skills. One family, the Nielsons, including a daughter named Ilse, are leaving Germany to return to the United States. This causes some anxiety for the Werners, a closely allied family who are to stay in Germany.
            The story moves forward a decade to a point in which the isolated lives of the Nielsons in German Corners, Pennsylvania are tragically disrupted by a deadly house fire in which both Mr. and Mrs. Nielson perish. Ilse, now twelve years old, is miraculously found unharmed outside the house by Tom Poulter, a local volunteer firefighter. The local sheriff, Harry Wheeler, attempts to communicate with the girl but she refuses to speak. The sheriff takes the young girl home where his wife, Cora, instantly forms an intense protective bond with the child, fueled by the lingering grief over the drowning death of her own daughter some time before.
            The Wheelers cannot understand why Ilse, a powerful telepath, refuses to speak. They begin to darkly speculate on what may have happened to the girl whilst in the care of her eccentric parents, who refused to assimilate into the local community. Harry Wheeler does his duty and attempts to find relatives with which he can place the girl. He uses the return addresses on the Nielsons’s mail to send out letters apprising the recipients of the situation. Unbeknownst to Wheeler, Cora destroys the letters.
            Meanwhile, Ilse is struggling in this new world of spoken language. Her isolated upbringing and telepathic development have made spoken language both a dulling sensation upon the brain and an assault upon the senses. She fights against Cora’s attempts to make her speak. After weeks of not hearing anything in response to his letters, Harry Wheeler makes the fateful decision to enroll Ilse at the local school, the commencement of a “normal” life for the girl. This results in the appearance of Miss Frank, the local schoolteacher. Miss Frank, a stern woman whose father attempted to develop her into a medium as a child, believes in the power of personal will to overcome the overriding influence of a negative environment. With the aid of her class, Miss Frank berates and antagonizes Ilse in an attempt to break her will and force her to speak and behave as a normal child.
            Arriving in German Corners at this time is Mr. and Mrs. Werner, who, having not heard from the Nielsens in an unusually long time, have traveled to the United States to investigate. They connect with Harry Wheeler who takes them to his home to await Ilse’s return from school. The Werners realize that they are too late in arriving and that the Wheelers have unknowingly corrupted Ilse’s telepathic abilities by the girl’s forced assimilation into the local community.
            The suspicions of the Werners are confirmed when Ilse arrives home from school completely broken of her remarkable abilities. An unconvincing happy ending ensues in which it is suggested that Ilse will be happier now that she is free from the influence of her parents and ensconced in the loving home of the Wheelers.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:

“It has been noted in a book of proven wisdom that perfect love casteth out fear. While it’s unlikely that this observation was meant to include that specific fear which follows the loss of extrasensory perception, the principle remains, as always, beautifully intact. Case in point, that of Ilse Nielsen, former resident of the Twilight Zone.” 


“It was the sound.
            Like endless club strokes across his vivid mind, it pulsed and throbbed into him in an endless, garbled din. He sensed it was communication of a sort but it hurt his ears and chained awareness and locked incoming thoughts behind dense, impassable walls.
            Sometimes, in an infrequent moment of silence he would sense a fissure in the walls and, for that fleeting moment, catch hold of fragments – like and animal snatching scraps of food before the trap jaws clash together.”

                        -“Mute” by Richard Matheson 

Barbara Baxley and Irene Dailey
            The immediate and lingering effects of “Mute” are those of its conflicted resolution. Most viewers are unlikely to be attuned to writer Richard Matheson’s proclamation, spoken by Frau Werner (Éva Szörényi) and reiterated by the author in an interview with editor Stanley Wiater, for Richard Matheson’s The Twilight Zone Scripts, Volume Two, that Ilse, the young telepathic girl who has been rudely stripped of her extraordinary abilities through forced assimilation by well-meaning caretakers, is in a better place at the end of her ordeal now that she is a “normal” child in the home of loving, if obtuse, adoptive parents. Prime among the reasons this resolution rings hollow is that the viewer is told, not shown, that Ilse’s birth parents were unloving. As such, the characterization of her parents as single-minded scientists who provide everything for their daughter except affection and warmth is not convincingly argued. There is also the notion of telepathy itself. Whether one views such an ability as a gift or a curse, and it has been convincingly portrayed as both in speculative fiction, the viewer likely sees such an ability as something which should not be destroyed for the cause of a subjective view of normality.
However large this flawed resolution appears to the viewer, “Mute” possesses moments of engaging drama which compel less from the strength of the narrative than from the convictions of the observations, particularly in what the events display about Americanism, assimilation, outsider syndrome, and the nature of grief. 
Original illustration for
"Lover, When You're Near Me"
by Ed Emshwiller
Galaxy Science Fiction, May, 1952

          The extraordinary abilities which author Charles Fort, in his 1932 book on the subject, labeled “wild talents”* has long formed rich grain for the SF mill. Telepathy, and related abilities such as telekinesis (moving objects by mental concentration), pyrokinesis (igniting fire by mental concentration), and precognition (foretelling the future), have fascinated SF writers and readers alike since at least the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Early examples include American writer Edward Bellamy’s 1889 story, “To Whom This May Come,” about an adventurer who discovers an island of telepathic natives who have long discarded spoken language. The English occultist and writer Aleister Crowley used the concept of telepathy to nightmarish effect in his 1913 tale “The Testament of Magdalen Blair,” in which a telepathic woman experiences the moment-by-moment terror and agony of her husband’s slow death and descent into an afterlife far different from the heavenly promises of religious faith. Some critics consider the tale the most disturbing in the English language.
            Richard Matheson first explored the subject of telepathy with “Lover, When You’re Near Me,” a 1952 story in which an alien planet serves as a harrowing trap for the Earth men sent there when they are preyed upon by a native female servant with strong telepathic abilities and even stronger desires. Later works by Matheson in a similar vein include the 1963 story, “Girl of My Dreams,” in which a petty crook exploits his girlfriend’s precognitive abilities, A Stir of Echoes, Matheson’s 1958 novel in which a suburbanite is hypnotized at a house party, thereby unlocking his ability to sense the presence haunting his home, and Hell House, Matheson’s 1971 modern classic in which a small group of psychics and sensitives investigate the Belasco House, the “Mount Everest of haunted houses.”
            By the middle of the 1970s, Matheson embarked on a serious exploration of metaphysical topics, resulting in a pair of novels, Bid Time Return (aka Somewhere in Time) (1975), a World Fantasy Award-winning novel about a terminally ill man who mentally wills his way backwards in time to connect with a beautiful actress from a century earlier, and What Dreams May Come (1978), which explores the afterlife through the perspective of a family tragedy and a love which transcends death. Similar thematic explorations flavor many of Matheson’s subsequent novels and culminate in his manifesto on the metaphysical, The Path: A New Look at Reality (1993).
            Telepathy and related abilities were occasionally explored on The Twilight Zone though seldom in so clinical a way as in “Mute,” which in many ways resembles the frequently used narrative theme of the “wild child,” in which a feral, or aboriginal, child is introduced into “civilized” society. The most notable example of this is Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Typically, themes of extrasensory perception were used on the series for morality plays (“What You Need”), humor (“The Prime Mover”), or ghostly thrills (“Twenty-Two”).
As speculative fiction moved from the external to the internal, with the emergence of writers who desired to explore the varieties of interpersonal relationships and the variegated perspectives of the self, writers found telepathy and related abilities to be useful lenses through which these topics could be explored, resulting in some of the finest SF literature of the 20th century. Examples include John Wyndham’s 1955 novel The Chrysalids, about an intolerant fundamentalist society which arises from post-apocalyptic wreckage to practice a form of eugenics which discriminates against those with telepathic “mutations,” Philip K. Dick’s Ubik (1969), in which psychics are utilized in corporate espionage, Daphne du Maurier’s 1970 novella “Don’t Look Now,” in which a pair of elderly psychics unwittingly set in motion a tragedy which befalls a bereaved couple who have recently lost their young daughter, Robert Silverberg’s influential 1972 novel Dying Inside, about a telepath who slowly loses his inborn ability while also losing a semblance of personal identity, and John Farris’s bestseller The Fury (1976), which combines a startling tale of psychic twins with the exploits of the espionage thriller. These wild talents also prominently feature in the works of Stephen King, who counts both Matheson and Farris as influences. Themes of telepathy and other outré abilities have further permeated speculative fiction to a saturation point, resulting in scores of related novels, stories, comic books, and films too numerous to list.
Cover art by Richard Powers

The original short story “Mute” was published in the 1962 paperback anthology The Fiend in You from Ballantine Books, edited by Matheson’s close friend and fellow Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont. The Fiend in You, an anthology of exceptionally high quality which has unfortunately never been reprinted, served as much as a showcase for the Southern California Group as for its thematic goal as stated in Beaumont’s introduction: to shrug off the Gothic archetypes of horror fiction, which are no longer frightening, and push the genre toward psychological horror, as exemplified by the works of Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber, and the writers of The Twilight Zone. Matheson held the distinction of having two stories in the anthology, one at each end of the book. Other authors to appear in the anthology include George Clayton Johnson, Henry Slesar, Ray Bradbury, Stanley Ellin, Charles E. Fritch, William F. Nolan, and several more. The importance of this little-known anthology has been unremarked upon through the years but it remains a key turning point away from the external horrors of the Gothic toward the inward horrors seen through the perspective of psychological disorder.
            Matheson, typically faithful to himself when adapting his works, changed several elements when adapting his original short story into a teleplay for The Twilight Zone. Some of these changes, such as the gender of the telepathic child, changed from the boy Paal in the story to the girl Ilse in the episode, came at the behest of the production, who perhaps believed that a female child would elicit more sympathy from the audience. This change necessitated another in that the Wheelers lost their son David in the story but their daughter Sally in the episode. Another gender change occurred in the case of Miss Frank’s tale of her troubled upbringing. In the original story, Miss Frank’s father died and her mother became obsessed with communicating with him in the great beyond to the point of forcing mediumship upon her young daughter. In the episode, it is changed so that Miss Frank’s father is the parent who forces mediumship upon her. Other changes came as necessary to the change from print to film. Matheson’s original story is told mostly in flashback while the episode favors a more traditional linear approach. Unfortunately, the saccharine and unconvincing happy ending is not a product of the episode but is lifted nearly whole from the original short story.
            It is worth noting that Matheson was sincere with the ending to “Mute,” while also acknowledging its overall ineffectiveness. This lack of effectiveness is largely due to the unsympathetic characters in the drama. Harry Wheeler comes across as cold and aloof, simply wishing to be unburdened of the child. Cora Wheeler is largely a pathetic figure, imperceptive and unable to provide the sort of care Ilse truly needs. Miss Frank is purely a villain, placed into the story simply to antagonize. The only sympathetic character is the telepathic child. In the original short story, Matheson gives ample space to displaying the child’s perspective during assaults by the well-meaning Wheelers. Speech to the child is described as like “knife strokes across the weave of consciousness,” and Cora’s attempts to verbally communicate are related thus from the child’s perspective: “He knew there was only love in her but the sound would destroy him. It would chain his thoughts – like putting shackles on the wind.” From the reader’s/viewer’s perspective, the end of the drama feels more as though the child has been defeated rather than freed from a mental affliction. It is this tonally depressive quality which mars the smooth transition of the sunny resolution. 
            The adaptation does allow Matheson to expand and better explain some aspects of the short story. The episode gives a clear explanation of how the Nielsens came to settle in German Corners (an inheritance). It also allows Matheson to expand the abilities of the telepathic child, as Ilse is able to perform feats such as sensing when a phone is going to ring moments before it does so, and entering the minds of those several rooms away, which were not known to be abilities of the boy Paal from the original story. Oddly enough, a scene near the final act of the drama seems lifted directly from Ray Bradbury’s third season episode “I Sing the Body Electric,” going so far as to use the same town square set and to replicate the narrative action of an upset young girl running from a house toward the town square only to be pursued by a mother figure who saves the girl from being run down in traffic. 

        Both the original story and the episode approach timely themes of isolation, alienation, and assimilation which remain divisive topics in American society today. Chief among these themes is the effects of outsider syndrome (the feeling of not belonging experienced by those who differ from the common characteristics of a population) and the pressure to assimilate, particularly in relation to those seen as different or foreign in their thoughts, actions, or heredity. The German Professor Werner is mocked by the first townsperson he comes into contact with, and the self-isolating nature of the Nielsens is repeatedly spoken of in condescending terms by the characters in the story. This intolerant attitude is focused in the character of Miss Frank, the spinster schoolteacher whose troubled upbringing has colored all her subsequent thoughts about teaching, discipline, and assimilation. The tragedy of the play is that Miss Frank and the Wheelers truly believe their destructive actions are in the best interest of the child, and remain at the end of the story completely unaware of the beauty they have destroyed for the sake of plainness. 

        Barbara Baxley (1923-1990) is top-billed as Cora Wheeler, the grieving mother who clings to the orphaned child Ilse as a second chance for motherhood. Baxley appeared in Rod Serling’s early teleplay for Kraft Theatre, “The Twilight Rounds” (1953), a progenitor of his celebrated teleplay, “Requiem for a Heavyweight.” Baxley also appeared in such genre television programs as Inner Sanctum, Climax!, One Step Beyond, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (in Ray Bradbury's fourth season episode, "Design for Loving," based on his 1949 story, "Marionettes, Inc."), and ‘Way Out, which briefly ran before The Twilight Zone’s broadcast time during the second season. In the very Twilight Zone-esque ‘Way Out episode “The Overnight Case,” written by Nicholas Pryor, Baxley plays a woman who cannot awaken from a recurrent nightmare, supported in the play by fellow Twilight Zone performers Martin Balsam and Kevin McCarthy. Baxley was a staple of the Broadway stage during the 1960s and 1970s, during which time she began to receive notable roles in such films as Nashville (1975) and Norma Rae (1979). Baxley returned to The Twilight Zone in 1986 when she appeared in the revival series segment, “Profile in Silver.” Her final film role was for the 1990 horror film sequel The Exorcist III. 

        Versatile character actor Frank Overton (1918-1967) plays Sheriff Harry Wheeler, a rather unfeeling character who is far removed from Overton's performance as Martin Sloan's (Gig Young) father in Rod Serling's moving first season episode "Walking Distance." Overton perfected his craft on the New York stages before moving into film and television in the early 1950s. Overton played another memorable sheriff in the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird and appeared on such genre television programs as Boris Karloff's Thriller, One Step Beyond, 'Way Out, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Invaders, and in his final television role, the Star Trek episode "This Side of Paradise," from a story by Twilight Zone writer Jerry Sohl. 

          The “unusual twelve-year-old” of Rod Serling’s preview narration is actress Ann Jillian (b. 1950), whose name is misspelled (as “Ann Jilliann”) in the closing credits. Born Ann Nauseda, Jillian began her career in television on such series as Leave it to Beaver before appearing in Walt Disney’s Babes in Toyland (1961). Numerous television roles followed. Jillian found a spark of career renewal with the 1980s sitcom It’s a Living, playing Cassie Cranston, which resulted in Jillian gaining notoriety as a sex symbol. Jillian briefly had her own sitcom for the 13-episode series Ann Jillian later in the decade. Jillian retired from acting at the turn of the century with her last credit in 2000 for an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger. 

            The cast is rounded out by three talented performers. Irene Dailey (1920-2008) portrays Miss Frank. Dailey manages to imbue a rather one-note villain with a semblance of complexity and subtle shading. Dailey, a native New Yorker and the sister of actor Dan Dailey, is another product of the New York stages, appearing in several Broadway productions throughout her career. Dailey found her niche playing immoral or villainous characters in soap operas such as The Edge of Night and Another World, the latter for which she won an Emmy Award. The Hungarian actor Oscar Beregi, Jr. (1918-1976) (billed simply as Oscar Beregi), portrayed Professor Werner. Beregi is likely a familiar face to regular Twilight Zone viewers, having previously played a criminal mastermind who suffers an ironic fate in the second season episode, “The Rip Van Winkle Caper,” and a Nazi fugitive who receives a dose of supernatural justice in the third season episode, “Deaths-Head Revisited.” Those interested in information about Beregi’s long career are directed to our commentaries on those episodes. Portraying Frau Werner is Hungarian actress Éva Szörényi (1917-2009), born Lersch Elvira and billed as Eva Soreny. An award-winning performer of the Hungarian National Theatre, Szörényi was a prolific performer in Hungarian films in the late 1930s and 1940s. She began appearing on American television in 1957, garnering roles on such programs as Perry Mason, Kraft Suspense Theatre, and The Wild, Wild West, among others. Her last role was for the 2001 film An American Rhapsody. 
            The final notable component of “Mute” is the varied and sensitive score from composer Fred Steiner (1923-2011). Steiner scored several Twilight Zone episodes, including excellent scores for “King Nine Will Not Return” and “The Passersby,” but his contributions to the series are largely overshadowed by the contributions of other composers on the series. Steiner provided music, often uncredited, for dozens of films and television series, including Star Trek, Perry Mason, and such low-budget genre offerings as Teenagers from Outer Space (1959), Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), Night of the Living Dead (1968), and Kingdom of the Spiders (1977). Steiner began his professional career scoring radio programs such as Suspense. Steiner’s father, also a musician, performed in Nathan Van Cleave’s orchestra. Van Cleave, whose music is familiar to Twilight Zone fans from such episodes as “The Midnight Sun,” “I Sing the Body Electric,” “Jess-Belle,” and others, was a prominent influence on the young musician. Steiner provided uncredited music for such memorable films as Return of the Jedi, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Airplane!

            “Mute,” like much of the fourth season’s offerings, is an engaging though flawed episode which sacrifices sympathetic characterizations and narrative consistency to explore timely themes of social alienation as well as broader themes of metaphysics and the ways in which these themes may logically be thought to intrude upon everyday life. It can definitely be recommended for all viewers though said viewers will likely be divided about returning to “Mute” for additional viewings.

Grade: C

*In Matheson’s original short story he gives a small indication of Fort’s influence when Harry Wheeler and Tom Poulter find the mock-Fortean book The Unknown Mind amid the ruins of the Nielson’s burned house.

Grateful Acknowledgement is made for information found in the following:

-Richard Matheson's The Twilight Zone Scripts, Volume Two, edited by Stanley Wiater (Gauntlet Press, 2002)
-The Guide to Supernatural Fiction by E.F. Bleiler (Kent State University Press, 1983)
-The Internet Movie Database (


--“Mute,” the original short story, was initially published in the 1962 anthology The Fiend in You, edited by Charles Beaumont (Ballantine Books). It has been reprinted in Matheson’s collections Shock II (1964), Collected Stories (1989), Button, Button: Uncanny Stories (2008), and The Best of Richard Matheson (2017). Matheson’s teleplay for “Mute” was published in Richard Matheson’s The Twilight Zone Scripts, Volume Two, edited by Stanley Wiater (2002).
--Stuart Rosenberg also directed the first season episode “I Shot an Arrow into the Air.”
--Barbara Baxley also appeared in the first Twilight Zone revival series segment, “Profile in Silver.”
--Frank Overton also appeared in the first season episode “Walking Distance.”
--Robert Boon also appeared in the third season episode, “Deaths-Head Revisited.”
--Claudia Bryar also appeared in the first Twilight Zone revival series segment “Welcome to Winfield.”
--Percy Helton also appeared in the fifth season episode, “Mr. Garrity and the Graves.”
--Oscar Beregi (Jr.) also appeared in the second season episode “The Rip Van Winkle Caper” and the third season episode “Deaths-Head Revisited.”
--The episode also features Bill Erwin in an uncredited role. Erwin appeared in such additional episodes as “Mr. Denton on Doomsday,” “Walking Distance,” and “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” as well as the Twilight Zone Radio Drama production of “Ninety Years Without Slumbering.”
--Fred Seiner also composed and/or conducted music for the episodes “King Nine Will Not Return,” “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim,” “The Passersby,” “Miniature,” “I Dream of Genie,” and “The Bard.”
--“Mute” was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Wade Williams.



  1. Good review, Jordan. Of course, I'm a big fan of Charles Fort and have a couple of old paperbacks of his. I really have to watch these hour-long shows again. I don't think I've seen them since they came back to syndication with much fanfare many years ago.

    1. Thanks, Jack. The hour-long episodes are much-derided but I think there are some interesting aspects to them. I found I had a lot to say about even so average an episode as "Mute." Thanks for reading!