Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Ghost Stories for Christmas: A Guide to The Twilight Zone

Illustration by Arthur Rackham
for A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens,
from a 1915 edition

"The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be . . ." 
-Henry James, The Turn of the Screw (1898)

            The telling of ghost stories at Christmas is often traced to Charles Dickens, who popularized the tradition with the publication of A Christmas Carol in December, 1843. Dickens produced additional Christmas books containing elements of the ghostly and strange (The Chimes (1844), The Haunted Man and The Ghost’s Bargain (1848)) and fostered the tradition as an editor, as the Christmas numbers of his periodicals Household Words and All the Year Round were frequently dedicated to tales of the supernatural. Dickens published stories from such noted authors as Amelia B. Edwards, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Rosa Mulholland, Wilkie Collins, and Elizabeth Gaskell. Perhaps the finest of Dickens’s own ghost stories, “No 1 Branch Line: The Signalman” (adapted in 1976 for the BBC's A Ghost Story for Christmas), appeared in Mugby Junction, the 1866 Christmas number of All the Year Round. Other Victorian periodicals followed Dickens’s model and soon the pages of Belgravia, Temple Bar, Tinsleys, and others were filled with ghost and horror stories at Christmas and otherwise.

Dickens did much to establish the traditions of the Victorian Christmas but the telling of seasonal ghost stories dates farther back in time than A Christmas Carol, or even Christmas itself. The oral tradition dates to the festival of the Winter Solstice and the festival of Yule, when, during the long, cold, and dark nights of winter, a greater intimacy with death was believed to bring the material world closer to the world of spirits and the afterlife. Elements of these winter festivals were assimilated into the festival of Christmas after the spread of Christianity. 

By the middle of the twentieth century, television became the dominant medium through which the Christmas ghost story tradition was kept alive, notably on the BBC, where an annual series of programs, broadly titled A Ghost Story for Christmas, turned artful adaptations of tales by M.R. James and Dickens into a holiday tradition. In America, the premier showcase for supernatural drama was Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, a series which, beginning in 1980, would become, through syndicated marathons on local and, later, national stations, uniquely associated with the celebration of New Year's. 

Though The Twilight Zone is most often considered as a science fiction program, the show’s writers were equally fascinated by the implications of tales of fantasy and horror. There they found useful material for exploring the wonders, terrors, and anxieties of the modern age as well as the ever-encroaching nature of the past. The series dabbled in tales of murderous doubles, devils, premonitions, nightmares, killer dolls and dummies, wax figures come to life, monstrous creatures, witchcraft, existential terror, and, of course, ghosts, including Rod Serling's Christmas ghost story, "The Changing of the Guard." 

In a previous post we compiled a viewer’s guide to the Christmas and winter themed episodes of The Twilight Zone. This Christmas we thought to examine the series through the lens of the ghost story tradition and compile a viewing guide to the best the series has to offer for tales of ghosts and hauntings. As a general guideline we have adopted a primary rule from the twentieth century’s greatest writer of ghost stories, Montague Rhodes James, who writes in the introduction to his More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911): “Another requisite, in my opinion, is that the ghost should be malevolent or odious: amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales and in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story.” We agree with Dr. James and thus this guide will highlight eight episodes wherein the supernatural elicits if not outright terror then a great deal of unease.

The post is rounded out with a list of additional ghostly episodes as well as a list of recommended reading.

We hope you'll revisit some of these haunting Twilight Zone episodes over the winter months and that they bring to your Christmas some of the pleasing terror of the ghost story tradition. Let us know your favorite ghostly episodes in the comments. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year's from the Vortex!

-JP & BD

This guide contains minor spoilers

“Judgment Night” Season 1, Episode 10
Written by: Rod Serling
Directed by: John Brahm
Original Air Date: December 4, 1959

Rod Serling excelled at the tale of supernatural vengeance and “Judgement Night” is one of his finest efforts in this vein. Nehemiah Persoff plays Carl Lanser, a German man who finds himself on a British ship during wartime with no memory of how he arrived there. Instinctively he knows that somewhere amid the fog and the ocean lies his doom. Will he unlock his memory in time to save himself?

Though director John Brahm previously helmed the fan favorite “Time Enough at Last,” “Judgment Night” was the first episode which allowed the German director to fully display his masterful command of atmosphere and pacing. The episode boasts a marvelously uncanny setting, perfectly staged by Brahm and brilliantly performed by Persoff. “Judgment Night” remains a tense, frightening, and underrated gem.

Read our full review of “Judgment Night.”

“The Hitch-Hiker” Season 1, Episode 16
Written by: Rod Serling, from the radio play by Lucille Fletcher
Directed by: Alvin Ganzer
Original Air Date: January 22, 1960

Perhaps no other episode better captures the frightening, disorienting, and ultimately melancholy qualities of the supernatural than does Rod Serling’s adaptation of Lucille Fletcher’s “The Hitch-Hiker.” What begins as a race from supernatural pursuit becomes a poignant study in isolation and fear. Strengthened by Inger Stevens’s performance as the doomed Nan Adams and Leonard Strong’s subtle menace as the titular character, “The Hitch-Hiker” remains one of the most accomplished episodes of the series. Director Alvin Ganzer’s direction is subtly artistic, as the use of mirrors and the gradual eclipse from sunny daylight to lonely nighttime are masterful.

Read our full review of “The Hitch-Hiker”

“Long Distance Call” Season 2, Episode 58
Written by: William Idelson and Charles Beaumont
Directed by: James Sheldon
Original Air Date: March 31, 1961

Perhaps the most intimately disturbing episode of the series, “Long Distance Call” uses a young boy’s toy telephone and a grandmother’s undying love to create an unnerving atmosphere of domestic menace. Lili Darvas is exceptional as the doting grandmother, managing to be both heartbreaking and horrifying. A last minute change to the script by the writers while on set created a more intense and ultimately more satisfying climax to the drama. Often maligned as part of the failed videotape experiment on the series, “Long Distance Call” rises above these technical limitations with the shocking force of its narrative and the power of its performances.

Read our full review of “Long Distance Call.”

“A Game of Pool” Season 3, Episode 70
Written by: George Clayton Johnson
Directed by: Buzz Kulik
Original Air Date: October 13, 1961

“A Game of Pool” is highlighted by two of the finest performances on the series. Jack Klugman plays Jesse Cardiff, an obsessive young pool player who gets a shot to beat the best when the greatest ever player, the long-dead “Fats” Brown (Jonathan Winters), accepts Cardiff’s challenge late one night in an empty pool hall. What transpires is a tense game of pool and of life and death, where the dialogue lands like blows. Despite a questionable ending, changed from Clayton Johnson’s original script, “A Game of Pool” remains a haunting mediation on personal legacy and the afterlife.

Read our full review of “A Game of Pool.”

“Deaths-Head Revisited” Season 3, Episode 74
Written by: Rod Serling
Directed by: Don Medford
Original Air Date: November 10, 1961

Like “Judgement Night,” “Deaths-Head Revisited” is, on the surface, a highly effective tale of supernatural vengeance. Beyond this the episode is a devastating study of the deep scars of the Holocaust. Inspired by news stories of the pursuit and capture of Nazi fugitive Adolf Eichmann, Rod Serling brought the horrors of the Nazi camps into American living rooms, staging his supernatural drama amid the doom-laden grounds of Dachau seventeen years after the liberation of the camp. Oscar Beregi, Jr. portrays the callous Nazi fugitive Gunther Lutze who is forced to face his past sins in the form of the dead who haunt the camp. Joseph Schildkraut is exceptional as Alfred Becker, Lutze’s former victim who presides over the judgment of the Nazi at the hands of the vengeful dead.

Read our full review of “Deaths-Head Revisited.”

“Young Man’s Fancy” Season 3, Episode 99
Written by: Richard Matheson
Directed by: John Brahm
Original Air Date: May 11, 1962

Despite its flaws, Richard Matheson’s “Young Man’s Fancy” remains an unnerving domestic ghost story with the type of telling detail of character which was a hallmark of Matheson’s work. Phyllis Thaxter portrays Virginia Lane Walker, newly married to Alex Walker (Alex Nichol), a man who still clings to his childhood with a fierce affinity. When his regression threatens to destroy the happiness of their marriage, Virginia forces Alex to confront his past, with horrible and unforeseen consequences. The atmosphere is one of suffocating domesticity and the effects are likely to linger in the viewer’s mind.

Read our full review of “Young Man’s Fancy.”

“Death Ship” Season 4, Episode 108
Written by: Richard Matheson, based on his story
Directed by: Don Medford
Original Air Date: February 7, 1963

The only episode on this list which is both a product of the hour-long fourth season and an episode with the trappings of science fiction, Richard Matheson’s “Death Ship” remains a haunting meditation on fate, circumstance, free will, and the horrors of the purgatory we make for ourselves. Jack Klugman plays the commander of a spacecraft who exerts an unwavering control over his crew, played by Ross Matin and Fredrick Beir, even in matters of life and death. When the crew is confronted by evidence of their own deaths, they must make the choice to accept what their senses tell them or deny the evidence to try and find proof that they still live. Their journey into darkness makes for perhaps the finest hour-long drama produced on the series.

Read our full review of “Death Ship.”

“Night Call” Season 5, Episode 139
Written by: Richard Matheson, based on his story
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Original Air Date: February 7, 1964

Director Jacques Tourneur was known for directing film noir and atmospheric, low-budget horror films such as Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and Night of the Demon (based on M.R. James’s “Casting the Runes”) when he stepped behind the camera for his sole episode of The Twilight Zone. The director’s work was admired by writer Richard Matheson, who lobbied for Tourneur’s hire to direct Matheson’s adaptation of his 1953 story “Sorry, Right Number” (aka “Long Distance Call”). Matheson’s original story was a tense shocker with a grim ending. For its adaptation on The Twilight Zone Matheson maintained the story’s essential engine of suspense, an invalid old woman receiving strange, indecipherable phone calls, but changed the ending to something more poignant and filtered the story through additional themes of grief, regret, and the hauntings of the past. Gladys Cooper shines as the invalid Elva Keene but the episode largely owes its considerable power to Matheson’s script and Tourneur’s direction.

Read more of our thoughts on “Night Call.”

Additional Episodes:

“Nightmare as a Child” S1, Ep 29
“The Trouble with Templeton” S2, Ep 45
“Twenty-Two” S2, Ep 53
“The Arrival” S3, Ep 67
“The Passersby” S3, Ep 69
“The Grave” S3, Ep 72
“Dead Man’s Shoes” S3, Ep 83
“The Changing of the Guard” S3, Ep 102
“The Thirty-Fathom Grave” S4, Ep 104
“He’s Alive” S4, Ep 106
“The New Exhibit” S4, Ep 115
“In Praise of Pip” S5, Ep 121
“Spur of the Moment” S5, Ep 141

Recommended Reading:

Christmas Spirits, ed. Peter Haining (William Kimbler, 1983)

The Complete Ghost Stories of Charles Dickens, ed. Peter Haining (Franklin Watts, 1983)

Christmas Ghosts, ed. Kathryn Cramer & David G. Hartwell (Arbor House, 1987)

Ghosts for Christmas, ed. Richard Dalby (Michael O’Mara, 1988)

Chillers for Christmas, ed. Richard Dalby (Michael O’Mara, 1989)

Spirits of Christmas, ed. Kathryn Cramer & David G. Hartwell (Wynwood, 1989)

Horror for Christmas, ed. Richard Dalby (Michael O’Mara, 1992)

Shivers for Christmas, ed. Richard Dalby (Michael O’Mara, 1995)


  1. Those are some great episodes! You've inspired me to pull out the DVDs yet again. Merry Christmas to you both and here's to more enjoyable posts in 2020.

  2. Thanks, Jack! TZ did ghost stories very well and I thought I'd highlight that strain on the series. Thanks for reading. We'll be getting back to more of the fourth season in 2020. Merry Christmas!